Spikes11 Feb 2016

When Wenda met Sara



Leading women's 400m hurdles duo Sara Slott Petersen and Wenda Nel united for a eight days together in South Africa last month. The world championships finalists tell us how rivals can make for the best of friends.

Coming together

Sara Slott Petersen says being one of the few Danes competing on the Diamond League circuit can be lonely. Then she met Wenda Nel at last year's Paris DL meet. She found the fellow 400m hurdler to be engaging and “friendly”, and the pair quickly struck up a friendship. This relationship carried over to the Beijing World Championships. It was there that they decided they could benefit from training together.

“We discussed our training and we both agreed it is hard to produce your best training in an event by yourself,” says Petersen, who finished fourth in the 400m hurdles in Beijing, 0.18 shy of the medal podium.

“It was then that I told Wenda I had been to South Africa for training in the past, and although I hadn't been there for three years due to pregnancy [Petersen has a two-year-old son, Tobias] I was looking to go there again in January [2016]. That is when she said, ‘why don't you come and join us?’”

The communication continued and last month, Pretoria-based Nel committed to joining Petersen in Stellenbosch for eight days training in South Africa's Western Cape.

Training differences

Early conversations revealed they work to quite different training programmes. Petersen describes the challenge of knitting together the two regimes for the eight-day period as “a puzzle”, but with the help of their coaches – Mikkel Larsen (Petersen) and Irma Reyneke (Nel) – it was possible.

“It was a big challenge,” says Nel, who last year lowered her PB by almost 0.5secs to 54.37 and finished seventh at the world champs. “I do a lot more volume, but the intensity of Sara's sessions are a bit higher.”

While Nel completes anywhere between five to six running sessions per week, ongoing foot issues mean Petersen struggles to run on successive days and is often restricted to between three and four running sessions in a week. Petersen tends to focus on greater quality sessions, while Nel concentrates on greater endurance.

“We needed our coaches to also believe this was a good idea and work something out in the middle,” says Petersen. 

Women's 400m hurdles final Beijing

 Nel (far left) and Petersen (second right) in the 400m hurdles final at the Beijing World Championships

Session heaven

Nel committed to a high-quality, flat-out 2x400m session – typically executed by Petersen in her training programme – in which the pair were pitched in head-to-head combat. Nel described the challenge as “something new” but found the experience a positive one.

“I had no idea what my body was going to do but I was quite surprised, in a good way, because I didn't expect to run the times that I did,” says Nel. “It was an exciting challenge to push each other until the end.”

Petersen similarly got a thrill out of training alongside her frival in a highly competitive session and set a PB. “It was one of the best training sessions we had,” she says. “We ran at a race pace, pushed each other and came out with great results. It was fantastic.”

Petersen also dipped into Nel's 1250m hurdles session separated into various sets, but because of her injury history dropped a little shy of completing the full distance.

Benefit game

Both athletes felt great benefit in the training experiment and hope that they can repeat it in the future.

Nel says: “I received some great advice on running technique and some core exercises that will help broaden my training spectrum.”

For Petersen the main gains were motivational. “To have a training partner on your shoulder pushes you more, particularly another athlete in the same event as me,” she explains. “We are only a year apart in age [Petersen is 28, Nel 27] and a similar height, and what this shows is that there are other girls out there running the same pace as me. It tells me that my shape is good, but not extraordinary.”


Nel agrees that the experience gave her a positive motivational “push”, but the eight days the pair spent together proved to both athletes that neither is alone in pursuit of the same dream.

“I gained a lot not only from the training but also the friendship,” says Nel. “We had some good conversations and some of the things that she struggled with in training and in the sport I did too. We supported each other throughout our time together.”

Petersen takes away a similar thought: “I think what I got the most out of training together is to prove to everyone else that you can both compete against each other and help each other. It is better to share and be open. We can learn from each other, improve and run faster.”

She says their experiment has proven on other thing: “What this has shown is it is possible to be friends and be competitors at the same time.”


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