To be the best in the world comes with sacrifices, that being a statement that IAAF World U18 400m hurdles champion Sokwakhana Zazini would attest to.
The 17-year-old put the sleepy roadside town of Burgersdorp, situated about two hours drive from Komani on the sporting map, when he stunned detractors by winning the Best Newcomer Award at the national sports awards last month.
Zazini’s journery to the summit has humble beginnings.
In 2016 he left Burgersdorp High School with an offer to further his budding athletics career at TuksSport High School.
The offer was too good to turn down.
Although he lauds the impact of the move, he admits that it was not all smooth sailing.
“It was huge and great,” he admitted.
“I struggled a bit initially but it got better and better and obviously right now I am more relaxed.”
Although he could have panicked and watched his dream move turn sour, the teenager devised a simple coping mechanism that helped him through early trying times.
“I just told myself to be calm and relax. Let me go with the flow and enjoy the moment.”
While most young followers of athletics might have been attracted to the sport by the showmanship of legendary Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and wanting to try their hand (or feet in this case) in the seemingly blockbuster 100m and 200m events, Zazini claims to not be a part of the above.
In fact, he knew exactly where his heart lay.
“For me the 400m hurdles was the main event from a young age as I grew up with it,” he said.
But when he needed a reminder of what the event meant to him, there was always someone in his corner pushing his discipline.
“There was a teacher Susan van Straaten, who used to teach me at Burgersdorp High School.
“She was the teacher who convinced me to take the 400m hurdles seriously,” he said.
But it would be as a TuksSport scholar that arguably Zazini’s breakthrough moment would arrive.
“Sokkies” as he is affectionately known, broke the boys’ U18 world record time for the 400m hurdles on his home track, setting a new record of 48.84 seconds in the process.
“Yoh that race, I was just relaxed,” he fondly recalls.
“It was kind of weird because each and every race I get nervous but on that day I was relaxed and I wanted to run and I was so ready.”
Then out of nowhere, his feeling about the race quickly changed.
“When I got into the blocks it was a different story.
“I found that I was nervous all of a sudden but I told myself there is no turning back now, I am only looking forward,” he recalls.
After giving it his all to cross the finish line in record time, Zazini admitted feeling the effects of such a gruelling race.
“After that race I was done,” he exclaimed.
“I couldn’t see anything. For a moment I was like: ‘what’s happening’.”
“I was shocked actually but afterwards I realised I ran a fast time. Everyone was jumping up and down and was happy for me,” he said.
Quizzed on whether the record has now put pressure on him, Zazini said no.
“Because I know what I am working towards so I am pretty cool about it.”
Zazini believes that the exposure of running an international is invaluable for the growth of the character as well as the performance of any young athlete and in his case, it will hold him in good stead for future competitions.
“It’s actually a great experience for young kids to compete internationally and against athletes who are world class. It gave me a lot of experience and helped me see how to be world class and behave accordingly.
“So it was a bonus to win in the World Youth Games and I am really happy that I got that experience. I am now prepared for next year’s World Junior Championships.”
Apart from his gold medal, Zazini says he took away one key lesson from the games in Nairobi, Kenya.
“You can win but you should always be humble and be the person you were before everything happened.”
He also recalled the welcome he, as well as the rest of Team South Africa received upon arrival at the airport.
“It was a warm welcome. Everyone was there, it was a great feeling seeing the people of South Africa welcoming us back like that, so it was fun.”
One of the sacrifices Zazini has had to make in order to be the best, has been home time. He admits to only seeing his mother two or three times a year.
He does, however, say that she understands as she has supported him since the start, including coming to watch some of his races.
Zazini then revealed his mother’s reaction to his triumph in Kenya.
“You know mothers. She cried and she was happy,” he said.
When you are the number one athlete in your age group for your discipline, you would think it would be allowed for you to use that status to hype yourself up occasionally but not Zazini, “I don’t actually think of such things. Its obviously an honour for me to be part of the best so I am happy,” he said.
Zazini is the latest in a long line of talented athletes who hail from the Eastern Cape, a line that includes Anaso Jobodwana and Thando Roto.
The latter being the one Zazini is most familiar with.
“Thando and I have the same coach so he plays a big role in my life,” he said.
Although Zazini could not try for qualification for the Commonwealth Games in Australia’s Gold Coast in 2018 due to injury, he maintains there is only been one primary objective for him next year.
“For me the World Junior Championships is my main target. I just want to win there.”
Zazini capped off a brilliant breakthrough year by being awarded Best Newcomer at the SA Sports Awards last month – an experience he took time to come to grips with.
“It was a great feeling, I couldn’t believe it but it has started to sink in now,” he said.
Zazini did not mince his words about his future objectives.
“When It comes to the 2020 Olympics I am there,” he confidently concluded.