Van Zyl hurdles his way to number one
1 June 2011
South African 400 metres hurdler LJ van Zyl has been setting the track alight in meetings around the world this year. He's the clear world leader in the event at present, with the five fastest times of the year so far.
It has been a remarkable first half of 2011 for the 2006 Commonwealth Games champion. He has been burning up the track, and his form has been reflected in career bests in both the 400 metres hurdles and 400 metres.
Until this year, Van Zyl had struggled to break 46 seconds in the 400 metres flat, with a best of 45.82 in Pretoria back in January 2009.
In March this year, he clocked 44.86 in Germiston, a time that would stand him in good stead against the world's leading group of one-lap runners.
The speed he showed in the 400 metres has translated into his performances in the hurdles.
South African record
On Tuesday, competing in 50th Ostrava Spike in the Czech Republic, Van Zyl destroyed a classy field to win with ease in 47.66. That equalled his personal best and South African record time, which he had set in Pretoria at the end of February. It was also his fifth time under 48 seconds this season.
In the past, Van Zyl has been a strong finisher, but often struggled with the pace of the race in the early going. This season he has been far more aggressive from the gun, and that change paid off once again on Tuesday.
Van Zyl's sensational form has marked him as a potential gold medal winner at the IAAF World Championships, which take place in Daegu, South Korea from 27 August to 4 September.
Chatting to the IAAF, Van Zyl said: "I trained very hard before the start of the season and I hope I can stay in good shape until the World Championships."
In Ostrava, he finished more than half a second ahead of runner up and European champion David Green (48.47), with Johnny Dutch rounding out the top three (48.72).
"It was pretty easy for me today," reckoned Van Zyl afterwards.
Headed for the USA
The 25-year-old, who first came to light a decade ago when he won a bronze medal at the World Youth Championships in Athletics in Debrecen, Hungary, will shortly be joined by his coach in Europe, before he heads across the Atlantic to race in the Adidas Grand Prix in New York on 11 June.
In the past the 400 metres hurdles was a particular strength among male South African athletes. One thinks of athletes like Gert Potgieter, the 1958 British and Empire Games gold medallist, and Llewellyn Herbert, who won bronze at the Sydney Olympics and Silver at the 1997 World Championships. Now a new promising era awaits.
Not only has Van Zyl recorded the five best times in the world this year, but the man in third place on the world leading list, Cornel Fredericks, is also from South Africa. His best of 48.14 is just one-hundredth-of-a-second behind the American Jeshua Anderson.
In Doha, at the beginning of May, both Van Zyl and Fredericks defeated last year's Diamond League race winner Bershawn Jackson to underline the current strength of South Africa in the event.
Keeping such strong form through until the World Championships could be difficult, but for now there is no one to match Van Zyl in the 400 metres hurdles, but keep an eye on Fredericks too.
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