National | Athletics

NZ’s fastest wahine Zoe Hobbs describes her record-breaking formula

Zoe Hobbs (Ngāruahine) is the fastest wahine Aotearoa has ever produced.

Over the past year, she’s broken the national 100-metre sprint record five times, and she’s also smashed the Oceania Area record too. Both records now stand at 11.08 seconds.

What she puts her record-breaking success down to though might come as a surprise.

"It sounds so corny. but my biggest goal leading into the season that I just had was to be happy and healthy," Hobbs told Te Ao with Moana reporter Ximena Smith on the show this week.

“That sounds so broad and silly, but through trying to make that my No. 1 priority and manage what I was doing off the track just as much as what I was doing on the track really helped translate into seeing the best performances I'd had.”

Having fun with sports has always been a top priority for the sprint star, and she was always active growing up in the small Taranaki town of Stratford.

Basketball, netball and gymnastics were among the sports Hobbs played as a child, but athletics was always her strong suit.

Sometimes Hobbs’ brother would even tee-up races between her and some of the older boys at school, who thought they were faster than her. Hobbs, unsurprisingly, would often win these unofficial duels.

A daunting move in pursuit of athletics

It wasn’t until Hobbs’ final year at New Plymouth Girls’ High School that she decided to focus on sprinting and, after she graduated, move up to Tāmaki Makaurau in 2016 to study nutrition and pursue her athletics dreams.

“Making that major decision and committing my life to moving away - to come to Auckland in pursuit of athletics - was daunting and quite scary,” she said.

“You do worry about failure and… [there] was every high chance of possibility that that could have happened.”

The move paid off though, and Hobbs soon found herself training with a strong and supportive group of fellow sprinters, helmed by coach James Mortimer (known as ‘Morty’ to the group).

Hobbs gives Morty a lot of credit for helping create a positive, communicative culture within the team.

“I think Morty is someone who is very open-minded. He's epic in that sense that he listens to us and is open to feedback and makes adjustments based on that,” Hobbs said.

She was one of Morty’s first few athletes, but over time the group has swelled in size.

She now trains together with some of New Zealand’s other top sprinting talent, such as the 400-metre hurdler Portia Bing, who competed alongside Hobbs at this year’s World Championships and Commonwealth Games.

Zoe Hobbs. Source: File

Challenges along the way

Hobbs’ meteoric rise in the sprinting world hasn’t come without challenges.

Financial support for sprinters in Aotearoa is limited, and up until this year, Zoe’s athletics career has mostly been self-funded, with support from whānau.

“[I’m] very lucky that my parents up until now have supported me because, if they didn't, then I don't know if I would've been able to sustain doing athletics, to be completely honest,” she said.

“I think until the point that we get someone who gets an international medal [for sprinting], then maybe we'll start to receive more funding as a group in Athletics New Zealand.”

Another challenge for Hobbs was the disappointment of not being selected to go to last year’s Tokyo Olympics.

She’d met the Olympic standard but still fell short of the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s stringent criteria of being a top-16 prospect.

The disappointment was one thing, but what got to her the most was constantly being reminded about it.

“People would ask, ‘are you going to Tokyo?’, and then you feel like you would have to justify yourself,” she said.

“It's almost like I just couldn't escape it and I think that wasn't helping me mentally, because it was just a constant reminder."

Her mental health took another blow after she posted on Instagram about her disappointment, which sparked a media frenzy.

Hobbs felt that the media coverage, which described her as "angry" and "lashing out" about the non-selection, misrepresented her post, and she found herself unintentionally cast as the face of selection criteria criticism.

The comeback

But she didn’t let the non-selection situation define her, and she bounced back a few months later to break the national 100m record for the first time.

It was the start of her best season ever, which included more record-breaking performances at this year’s Oceania Area Athletics Championships and World Championships, as well as a sixth-place spot at the Commonwealth Games.

Hobbs is hopeful her current momentum will soon take her under 11 seconds and through to the Paris Olympics in 2024.

Closer to home, she’s also hopeful that her achievements will inspire more rangatahi to get involved in sprinting.

“If I could inspire more Māori to take part in [the] sport, then that would be amazing,” she said.

“It's about retaining them in that sport just as much as bringing them to the sport…. [so] if I can help facilitate that, then that would be awesome.”