Twenty-four years – it’s long enough for any country to be waiting, but especially a superpower of sprinting like South Africa.
That’s how long it had been since a South African woman had won a track title at the IAAF World U20 Championships, but on a wet evening in Tampere on Friday, rising star Zeney van der Walt ended the drought with a composed, classy performance to win the 400m hurdles in 55.34.
Jamaica’s Shiann Salmon came home second in 56.11, with Switzerland’s Yasmin Geiger third in 56.98.
Salmon was the first to impress her will upon the race, charging through the first 200 metres at a swift pace, but it was then that Van der Walt began to increase her turnover.
Around the last bend she began to truly kick it into gear, though she had plenty of work to do to reel in Giger who had set out a ferocious tempo on the outside.
Van der Walt led turning for home, and she was by far the strongest over the final two barriers, pulling away as she crossed the line to back up last year’s world U18 title with the world U20 title.
“It was a tough race against the Jamaican but I was able to focus on my own race and the weather didn't bother me because I train in the rain,” said Van der Walt. “It was a really emotional moment when I crossed the finish line. This is a big achievement: my coach and I have been working for this for so long.”
Back in second, Salmon was a tiring force as she crossed the line in 56.11. “That was a very difficult race for me but I'm glad I came through and ended up with silver,” she said. “I'm excited to be one of the best junior runners in the world. I had a big season and now I know I can make my country proud.”
Back in third, Giger was fading most of all, the tape coming just in time as she took bronze in 56.98.
“The race was very tough and it was such an honour to race the world's greatest at the moment,” she said.
Charging home behind her was Sara Gallego of Spain, who ran phenomenally well on the soaking track to set a national U20 record of 57.11. Slovakia’s Emma Zapletalova was close behind her in fifth.
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF