Sasha Zhoya celebrates his world U20 110m hurdles record at the World U20 Championships in Nairobi (© Dan Vernon)
If anyone thought Sasha Zhoya’s record-breaking feat on Friday in the 110m hurdles semifinals was a fluke, the European U20 champion cleared all doubts in the final when he totally obliterated the world U20 record he had set barely 24 hours before.
Running a calculated and spectacular race at the World Athletics U20 Championships in Nairobi on Saturday (21), he stopped the clock at an astonishing 12.72, holding everyone at the Kasarani Stadium spellbound as he further underlined his status as the greatest ever in the event at U20 level.
Coming to Nairobi as the world leader and favourite for gold, the 19-year-old was ready to give a good show and this he did as he progressed through the rounds, easily maintaining an unbeaten run all through to win his heat with 13.12 before smashing the world record with the first legal sub-13 of his career, a time of 12.93 in the semifinals.
In the final, Zhoya attacked the hurdles like a man on a mission and as soon as he shot out of the blocks, he had the rest of the field with him. On the extreme right was Jamaica’s Vashaun Vascianna who also got a good start and was still with him by the fifth hurdle.
However, Vascianna brought down a hurdle which slowed him down and even Zhoya clipped the sixth barrier. Nevertheless, there was no catching him by the seventh hurdle as he crossed the line in 12.72, his jaw dropping as he checked the clock while crossing the line.
Reminiscent of any world record-breaking race, there were enough spoils to go around, with Vascianna clocking a personal best of 13.25 to take silver while Polish athlete Jakub Szymanski took the bronze with a lifetime best of 13.43. Fourth-placed Qatari hurdler Saeed Othman Alabsi set a national U20 record of 13.46 while the second French athlete in the race, Erwann Cinna, finished fifth, also with a personal best of 13.50.
Speaking after his historic race, Zhoya said: “I’m very happy with this time and I’m happy I could show everyone that yesterday wasn’t a fluke, because if you do a 12.94, it’s a very good time but I wanted to make sure people didn’t think it was just a one-time thing and I did that again today.
“It’s the quickest time on any hurdle height and that makes me really happy. Now all I need to do is to replicate my junior performance to the senior category as I now focus into transiting into the seniors. Now I am really to tackle all the senior competitions slotted for 2022 including the World Championships in Oregon.”
When asked how much winning the world title meant to him, the world U20 record-holder said: “It’s my first world medal. I took away the European gold medal and the first goal here was to take away the gold medal, an international world medal, and then the second was to do the record and I got to do both in one race so I’m very happy.”
Silver medalist Vascianna was pleased at his podium finish. “It’s really a good feeling given that I came here not the best version of myself. I am proud that I was part of the historic race where a world record was smashed, I feel that I contributed much to it because I was right there with Sasha," he said.
The women’s 100m hurdles final also wasn’t without its own share of drama. The stage was set for a two-horse race between world leader Ackera Nugent and European U20 champion Ditaji Kambundji, and the latter exploded out of the blocks to take the lead. However, she crashed into the fourth hurdle and stumbled, taking Estonia’s Viktoria Forster down with her.
Without Kambundji to push, Nugent stormed to the gold in 12.95 as Estonia’s Anna Maria Millend took the silver with 13.45, with Hungarian Anna Toth snatching bronze in a time of 13.58.
(© Dan Vernon)
“I’m really feeling good because I came out here and did my best and didn’t let my country down," said Nugent after the race.
“I think that she (Ditaji) would have brought me to lower my time because she was a bit ahead of me and I was coming back, so I know I was really focused to get her, and then the fact that I caught her on the fourth hurdle and then she stumbled. I was really looking forward for her to medal because she’s a really good competitor, dedicated, and I look forward to competing with her next year and the remaining years.”
The significance of the Baylor University freshman’s achievement wasn’t lost on her as she becomes the first Jamaican woman since Gillian Russel in 1992 to win the 100m hurdles at the World U20 Championships.
“I really feel phenomenal to see that the hurdlers are taking over and making history because Megan (Tapper) made history of getting the first bronze medal in the Olympics for Jamaica, and now from 30 years I’m getting the gold for the U20. It really means a lot that I’m in the history books too,” she said.
After getting back on her feet following the fall, Kambundji immediately reached out to Forster who was still sprawled on the track.
A tearful Kambundji would later say: “It was hard that I took someone down with me. It wasn’t really what I wanted. I’m really sorry. I fell and she (Forster) fell with me, so reaching out to her was the smallest thing I could do. I had a lot of energy and was prepared for the race. I think that too much energy pushed me too close to the hurdle and that made me fall.”
Meanwhile it was a clean sweep for Africa in the men and women’s 200m finals with Nigeria, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa taking all six medals at stake to bring an exciting end to a historic night.
In the women’s race the top three contenders, Olympic silver medallist Christine Mboma, her teammate Beatrice Masilingi and Nigeria’s Favour Ofili, went all out and though Ofili tried to keep up with the pair, she faltered a bit at the end as Mboma smashed Masilingi’s one-day-old championship record, striking gold with 21.84. That inspired Masilingi to a personal best of 22.18 as Ofili set a national U20 record of 22.23 to take the bronze.
African record-holder Mboma, whose time in Nairobi was just 0.03 off her own world U20 record set in Tokyo, said: “Records come and go; you don't own it. Yesterday I set a championship record and minutes later Masilingi lowered it even further."
Prior to the World U20 Championships in Nairobi, not much was known about Udodi Onwuzurike, but the 18-year-old has been in a class of his own since arriving at the championships where he is representing Nigeria for the first time in his career. He had the fastest time of all the heats (20.47) and stormed to a fast 20.13 in the semifinals which would have been a championship record but for the wind (2.4m/s).
In the final, he was quick out of the blocks and came off the bend before everyone else, coasting home to gold with a Nigerian U20 record of 20.21, making him the country’s first 200m gold medalist at the World U20 Championships since 1996 when Francis Obikwelu won the sprint double.
Pre-championship favourite Botswana’s Letsile Tebogo, who was still recovering from running three rounds in the 100m as well as the 200m, settled for silver with 20.38 as South Africa’s Sinesipho Dambile took the bronze with a season’s best of 20.48.
Still coming to terms with his good fortune, Onwuzurike – whose father was at the stadium to cheer him on – said: “It feels amazing. I had a very rough year and had injuries numerous times. I feel like my numbers weren’t really good and showing what I’m capable of, so coming out to show on the global stage that I’m the best is amazing.”
The finalists of the men’s 400m hurdles event emerged with six out of eight of them setting personal bests enroute to their advancement to Sunday’s final. European U20 gold medallist Berke Akcam laid down the gauntlet with his stunning performance in the first semifinal race, storming to a Turkish U20 record of 49.73 to secure his spot as the fastest qualifier, spurring Jamaica’s Devontie Archer and Nigerian Ezekiel Nathaniel to lifetime bests of 49.93 and 51.39 respectively.
All three qualifiers from heat two also clocked personal bests, and leading the way was authorised neutral athlete Denis Novoseltev, who set a new mark of 50.31, while Slovenia’s Matic Ian Gucek and Peter Kithome clocked lifetime bests of 50.56 and 50.90 to secure their spots in the final. Joining them from heat three will be Sweden’s Oskar Edlund with a season’s best of 50.70, and Croatian Stjepan Jan Cik (51.83).
Yemi Olus for World Athletics