A little over a year ago, Zuzana Hejnová cut a slightly forlorn, almost anonymous figure as she trudged off the track in Helsinki.
The Czech athlete had just finished fourth in the 400m Hurdles at the 2012 European Athletics Championships and, with the London 2012 Olympic Games on the horizon, it was a bitter disappointment for the former World youth champion and World junior silver medallist.
“I think the pressure got to me in Helsinki,” she said. “I don’t want the same thing to happen at the Games. In London, I thought I might cause a surprise.”
Hejnova surged past the fast-starting Jamaica’s Kaliese Spencer to take the bronze medal behind Russia’s Natalya Antyukh and the USA’s 2011 World champion Lashinda Demus.
If that result was slightly unexpected, the real surprise has come in 2013 when the 26-year-old has emerged as the world’s s leading one lap hurdler and undoubted favourite to win her first senior international title at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow next month.
This status was boldly underlined by her commanding victory over many of the other likely medal contenders when she returned to the Olympic Stadium for the IAAF Diamond League meeting in London on Friday evening.
In a race containing the season’s five quickest athletes, Hejnova stamped her authority on the event by winning in 53.07, breaking her own Czech record for the second time in three weeks and displacing the USA’s Kori Carter from the top of the this year’s world list.
It was her ninth straight 400m Hurdles victory of this summer and continued a sequence that’s seen her improve in almost every race.
It also maintained her undefeated record in the year’s Diamond League campaign, taking her points total to a maximum 20 from five meetings to reinforce her untouchable position at the top of event’s 2013 Diamond Race.
The manner of Hejnova’s victory in London was certainly impressive, a vivid illustration of her ever-growing confidence, not least because Britain’s Perri Shakes-Drayton opened a substantial lead in the first half of the race.
Hejnová has the winning habit this season though, and is no longer panicked by fast-starting opponents.
She made up ground round the top bend, caught the Briton with two barriers to go, and strode away to win by more than half-a-second.
Shakes-Drayton hung on for second, as she had in Oslo and Paris, this time clocking a personal best of 53.67, while the USA’s Georganne Moline came through to beat Carter for third in 54.32.
Spencer’s 2011 Diamond League and meeting record of 52.79 survived, but the Jamaican was a distant fifth.
News arrived from Russia this week that might boost Hejnova’s gold medal prospects: Antyukh clocked only 55.20 in the heats at her national championships, then scratched from the final.
“I love it here,” said Hejnova afterwards. “It’s very nice here with great memories from the Olympic Games.
“I have 14 days until Moscow so I will work a little bit and then I’ll be ready. My main goal is to be on the podium at the World Championships because I am now highly motivated after my success in London. I would like to get another medal.”
It’s been a story of steady progress for Hejnová since she won the World youth title in Sherbrooke, Canada, in 2003. She first broke the Czech junior record when picking up the silver at the World Junior Championships the following year and lowered it again when winning the 2005 European junior title.
Since then, success as a senior has sometimes been hard to come by, although she reduced the Czech record down every year from 2006 to 2011.
She ran 53.29 in Paris two years ago, the first of two Diamond League wins of her career prior to this season.
She had also finished fourth at the 2010 European Athletics Championships in Barcelona and she made the 2011 World final in Daegu too, placing seventh, but there was little sign then that she’d be winning an Olympic bronze last year.
However, with the London medal in her bag, Hejnová has been unbeatable in 2013, and her streak includes winning Diamond League races in Shanghai, Eugene and Oslo before she sliced 0.06 from her national record on her return to Paris three weeks ago.
At the London Anniversary Games, Hejnová gave the clearest indication yet that she’s now ready to claim the top prize but with a best still a shade outside 53 seconds, she is wise enough to know she may well need to improve again to strike World Championships gold.
“I can’t believe how successful I’ve been this year,” she said. “It’s a great surprise for me.
“But I think I am not running so fast, it’s the other girls are not running so well, not as well they can, I think.
“In Moscow, that’s where it will be most important and there it will be a very big fight.”
On Friday night’s evidence, it’s one she’s now ready for.
Matthew Brown for the IAAF