Sprinter Zoe Hobbs has booked her ticket for July's World Junior Championships in Poland. Steve Landells speaks to the Taranaki native and discovers how a recent switch to Auckland and a coaching change will hopefully reap rewards in Bydgoszcz.
Few athletes boast quite as much experience for an 18-year-old as Zoe Hobbs. Since taking up the sport as a five-year-old girl in the Taranaki - when she used to regularly beat the boys in sprint races - Zoe's speed for the past 13 years has proved a major weapon as she built up a reputation as one of New Zealand's brightest athletics talents.
Thus far enjoying a prodigious age-group career, the Stratford-born sprinter has won an avalanche of national youth and junior titles as well as a swag of National Secondary Schools' titles.
Aged just 15 she reached the semi-finals of the 2013 IAAF World Youth Championships in Ukraine and now she is set for the next part of her sprinting journey after winning selection for the IAAF World Junior Championships to be staged in Bydgoszcz, Poland in July.
Yet where once Zoe stood head and shoulders above her domestic rivals now finds she is one of an exciting crop of junior sprint talents tearing up the tracks of New Zealand. As an illustration of that depth, the Auckland-based teenager has been selected alongside Georgia Hulls, Lucy Sheat, Olivia Eaton, Brooke Somerfield and Symone Tafuna'i 4x100m relay squad for Poland.
So, how does Zoe view the emergence of an armada of teenage female sprinting talent in New Zealand?
"I do think about the girls when I'm training," admits Zoe, who secured 100m gold in the junior women's 100m at New Zealand nationals in March but has to settle for silver behind Sheat in the 200m.
"When I was younger the competition was perhaps not as strong as I face now," she says. "It (the quality of the opposition) is always in the back of mind. They are all really good athletes and I know that they will be working just as hard as I am. It really does act as an extra motivation to work even harder."
"Stoked" to make the World Junior squad after missing out on selection for the 2014 edition in Eugene, Oregon there is little doubt the vastly experienced Hobbs will form a key component of the relay squad.
Yet whether she will take to the start line in the 100m and/or 200m is a little more uncertain. Such are the riches current available to New Zealand in junior women's sprinting three athletes have entered in both the 100m (Zoe, Lucy Sheat and Georgia Hulls) and 200m (Zoe, Georgia Hulls and Olivia Eaton) yet as only two athletes per nation can compete in each individual event, Zoe is fully aware to gain the selectors approval she must impress during the pre-event training camp in Mannheim, Germany in July.
In an effort to improve and maximise her chances has undergone some major recent changes to advance her career.
In February Zoe moved from her native Taranaki to Auckland's North Shore where she is studying a Bachelor of Sport and Recreation at AUT University. Also after landing gold and silver at the New Zealand nationals in early March she formally made the coaching switch from Tierata Taukaban to Auckland-based James Mortimer.
"I was reasonably satisfied with my (2015-16) season, but I know I could have done a little better," reflects Zoe, who posted 100m and 200m PB's of 11.75 and 23.95, respectively during the course of the season. "I won the New Zealand secondary schools and national (junior) 100m, which I was really happy with but I know I can make improvements in the 200m. I believe James can help me qualify (at World Juniors) for the 100m and 200m, which is my main goal."
Frequently training solo on a grass track or a rugby field while based in New Plymouth her athletics life in Auckland is radically different.
Now part of a training squad which includes Bydgoszcz-bound sprinter Jordan Bolland and Paralympic sprinter Liam Malone plus several others has proved a liberating experience.
"When training in Taranaki I had to be very self-motivated but here in Auckland, it is very different and I love having people around to train with. It is fun, we are always there to motivate each other and offer encouragement."
Zoe is also thriving under the top quality training facilities at AUT Millennium saying it is "a huge advantage" to train on a Mondo track complemented further by access to indoor facilities and on-site gym at the complex.
Yet there is an additional factor to consider which Zoe is excited about and that is the coaching ability of James, a former national 200m and 110m and 400m hurdles champion.
"James is really understanding with a calm approach, although at the same time he makes you work hard," she explains. "He has excellent knowledge and having been an athlete himself he knows what it's like to be in our shoes".
With less than eight weeks to go before departing for Europe, Zoe is now focused on improving every aspect of the race whether that is top end speed, drive phase, blocks or fitness to ensure she is in prime condition for her World Junior quest.
"Back home (in Taranaki) I often didn't see my coach, but I get a lot more feedback with James, which I find really helpful because I don't have a lot of self-awareness," she admits. "I often find if I execute a skill I don't know what I have done right or wrong, but it is good to have James on hand to offer feedback."
Zoe is taking nothing for granted. She knows to even make it to the start line in the 100m and 200m will take a huge effort such is the strength in depth of women's junior sprinting in New Zealand. Yet should she make it she hopes to draw upon the experience gained from competing at the 2013 World Youth Championships in Donetsk and she has set herself some high ambitions in Poland.
"I'd like to qualify for the individual events and make the final," adds Zoe, who cites American sprinter Allyson Felix as the sprinter she most admires.
She is also "excited" by the 4x100m relay and says: "we will be up against the likes of Jamaica and the USA but anything can happen and mistakes often happen in relay events. As long as we get the baton around efficiently we could be in with a chance of top three, but the initial goal is to make it to the final".
Longer term she admits it would be "cool" to qualify for the 2018 Commonwealth Games alongside the crop of female sprinters at the moment.
Beyond Gold Coast? "The Olympic Games has always been a dream of mine, but all in small steps," she adds.
Little steps which has often proved quick steps during her already storied career. Bydgoszcz will reveal the next chapter of her sprinting story.