Feature15 Aug 2013

Hejnova’s golden motivation: men


As she sat alongside the two US athletes whom she had left almost ten metres down the track after she claimed her first global gold, the new World 400m hurdles champion Zuzana Hejnova, the London 2012 Olympic Games bronze medallist, explained that she owed her big step forward to one thing: men.

Hejnova, whose winning time of 52.83 was not so far away from the World record of 52.34 which has stood to Russia’s Yuliya Pechonkina for the last 10 years, explained that the main reason for her advance after finishing third in London last year was that she had switched from her all-female training group to one in Prague which contained male athletes, working under a new coach, Dalibor Kupka.

“I think the main reason for my improvement was changing my coach after the Olympics,” she said. “Before I was just training with girls, but now I am in the new group I have a bigger motivation: the men are very much faster and that is a plus for me. So these are the main things.”

As a measure of what she is putting herself through, one of those male athletes against whom Hejnova has regularly tested herself is Czech Republic’s European indoor and outdoor champion, Pavel Maslak.

The Czech athlete, who was the IAAF World Youth Championships gold medallist in 2003 and a World junior silver medallist the following year, has made steady progress in her sport, but her eight-race unbeaten run this season prior to arriving in Moscow meant she was the clear favourite to win.

Hejnova, however, did not see it that way. “My goal here was to get a medal and I’m very surprised that I won gold,” she said. “It is a dream for me, and I am very happy.”

Pechonkina’s record out of sight

For Hejnova now, at the age of 26, the possibilities seem endless, but she wants to take one thing at a time.

“I think the next Olympics are a big motivation for me, but it’s too far to think about right now,” she said. “Next year we have the European Championships so that is the next goal for me. I also want to compete in the Diamond League. We will see about the Olympics a little further on!”

Asked about Pechonkina’s 10-year-old mark, she responded: “That’s a really good record. I don’t think about that, that’s too far for me. I will do my best and we will see next year.”

On the subject of how she plans to stay ahead of the pack in an event where global titles have gone in a number of different directions in recent years, Hejnova responded: “I have to train the same like this year, train hard. I have to be faster because I am not so fast at the beginning, like Lashinda, so I need to do that.”

USA’s 2011 World champion and London 2012 Olympic Games silver medallist Lashinda Demus, who earned a bronze after a year in which her World Championships preparations have been badly affected by injury, commented: “I have struggled this year with injury, like a lot of other people, but as I tell people, I have the heart of a champion. I have been a professional for nine, 10 years and I always find a way to get to the podium. My coach and my training partners have helped me back a little faster.”

Her compatriot, silver medallist Dalilah Muhammad, added: “I am just happy that I came here and executed my race well. That was my main goal, and I have achieved it.”

The question of which athlete she looked up to when she was coming into the sport provoked a short and puzzled silence from Hejnova before she turned to the woman at her left-hand.

“Maybe Lashinda,” she said, at which point Demus gave a big sigh and put her arm around her. “She was a model for me. She is a very good competitor, and I know how hard she trains. I would like to be like her.”

Now that she too is a world champion, Hejnova has become even more like her US friend and rival.

Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF

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