From beating the boys during school lunchtime to footing it with the best in the world, as sprinter Zoe Hobbs tells Dana Johannsen, her path to becoming New Zealand’s fastest woman has been a long process.
Zoe Hobbs winces as she remembers the scene. The crowd. The cameras. The hype.
There she was, lining up ahead of the semifinal of the women’s 100m sprint at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest.
The race, the second of three semifinals, had been dubbed the “mega-clash” with the world’s top three ranked sprinters of 2023 - US sprint queen Sha’Carri Richardson, Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson, and Marie-Josee Ta Lou of the Ivory Coast - all drawing the same semi.
The camera pans to Hobbs as she is announced onto the track. She gives a tight smile and small wave, looking almost embarrassed to be there.
In the sport’s glamour event full of big names and even bigger personalities, Hobbs stands apart for her introverted nature. Sprinters are considered the alphas of the track and field world. Knowing you’re among the fastest humans on the planet gives one a certain swagger and confidence. That swagger brings with it a performative element as well. Think Richardson’s dramatic wrist flick as she mopped her brow after coasting to victory in the heats of this year’s world championships, or retired Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s iconic archer pose.
“That’s not me,” says Hobbs, shaking her head vigorously. “I know a lot of athletes might thrive off that performative part of it, and bringing their personalities out, but that’s not the environment in which I thrive. It doesn’t bother me that they do that, everyone has a different approach to things. They can do them, and I can do me.”
Hobbs might visibly tense up now, chatting over a coffee in a Ponsonby cafe, as she discusses the “uncomfortable” parts of her sport like having a camera in her face in the call room, and running the gauntlet through the scrum of media in the mixed zone once. But on the biggest stage of her career Hobbs didn’t flinch.
In the fastest semifinal in world championship history, the 26-year-old New Zealander held her own, finishing fourth behind the aforementioned trio of stars, and just missing out on the “lucky loser” spot in the final by 0.01 of a second.
As disappointed as Hobbs was not to advance through to the final, it didn’t take long for her to find perspective.
“I was really proud of how I executed that race, I thought it was the best executed race I’ve had all international season and if it was wind normalised [adjusted to remove the impact of the wind] it was my equal fastest time of the whole season.
“I think the reassuring thing was being able to do it when it mattered as well, at the world champs.”
It has been a long process of getting to the point where Hobbs felt she belonged in that environment. Like she wasn’t an “imposter”. She recalls turning up to the world championships in Doha in 2019 and feeling completely out of her depth. Overawed by the big name sprinters in her field, Hobbs was overly deferential to her competitors, giving them free reign on the warm-up track.
“I remember I was warming up and I stepped out of the lane to let someone else go, because I didn’t feel like I belonged there. Whereas now, I’ve reshifted the mindset and it’s like, you have equal right to have that lane.
“From Doha to now is completely different. My self belief has evolved a lot and I have completely different performance goals.”
Different goals, and different outcomes, as it turns out.
Hobbs’ performances in Budapest capped off a breakthrough year, in which the Taranaki-based athlete established herself as New Zealand’s newest, and most reluctant, sports star.
Barefeet and grass tracks
When it comes to her athletic feats, Hobbs has always preferred to let others do the talking for her.
One of her earliest promoters was older brother Connor, who would force Hobbs to race all the boys in his class. Her school lunch hours were spent blitzing her way up and down the school field at Ngaere Primary in Stratford, as Connor lined up challenger after challenger.
“My brother would make me race all the boys who thought they were faster than me. Like cocky little boys they all thought ‘yeah, I’m faster than a girl’ then my brother would be like ‘nah, she’ll beat you’. So yeah, that was me, bare feet on the field every lunchtime.”
Did she win?
“Yes,” she says, with a shy chuckle.
Connor was right to have been confident. It was clear early on that his younger sister was a prodigious talent. By the age of eight Hobbs was running the 100m in under 15 seconds, breaking Taranaki age group records.
Still, it wasn’t until her final year of secondary school at New Plymouth Girls’ High School, that Hobbs began to focus on athletics, having also been a standout on the netball and basketball court.
After moving to Auckland to study for a Bachelor of Science in nutrition in 2017, Hobbs joined James Mortimer’s stable of sprinters training out of the Millennium Institute in the heart of the North Shore’s commercial sprawl.
Thanks to the likes of Hobbs, hurdler Portia Bing, and 200m specialist Georgia Hulls, “Team Morty” has become New Zealand’s most highly-regarded sprint programme. But back then, Mortimer, fresh from a 15-year career as an elite athlete, was largely coaching a bunch of unknowns.
In a teenaged Hobbs, he saw a young athlete with the discipline and resolve to perfect her craft, juggling full-time study with her significant training demands.
“Zoe’s determination and discipline is phenomenal,” Mortimer told Sunday earlier this year.
“No one really knows the sacrifices she has made to get to where she is. She’s been so dedicated, on a lot of levels.”
That juggling act continued until as recently as last year, with Hobbs working full-time as a nutritionist, before paring it back to part-time ahead of the Commonwealth Games and last year’s world championships. It meant squeezing in a gym session in the morning and track work at night after work, along with plenty of weekend sessions.
This year, a funding boost from High Performance Sport NZ, along with partnership opportunities thanks to her growing profile, have allowed Hobbs to put her nutrition work on the back burner for now - a development she says has been a “game-changer performance-wise”.
“I never thought I would get to be in the position I am now and be able to be a professional athlete.
“My biggest thing with going away to Europe this year was being able to switch off and just be an athlete and focus on qualifying for the Olympics and my build to the world champs. I think being able to completely switch off from everything else made a massive difference.
“Last year I had to frontload the work, and then do what I could while I was away, and then catch up once I did get home. So it was a lot of chaos.”
Having toiled away in the background for so long, Hobbs says it feels strange to suddenly be getting recognition for what she is doing.
Athletics typically doesn’t garner many headlines outside of medalists at big international events, but Hobbs’ trailblazing feats in one of the sport’s glamour events has brought unprecedented interest.
The star’s progress throughout the season has been breathlessly reported, with her appearances at even minor events covered. It has helped that virtually every outing for Hobbs this season has brought with it a new record or milestone.
Hobbs’ manager Kelly Evans of Cultivate Sport, who has only worked with the star sprinter since June, says media demands and brand partnership opportunities have already sky-rocketed this year.
“I think the reason people love Zoe’s story is that she is wahine Māori achieving remarkable things in a big global sport,” says Evans.
“She is also incredibly intelligent and thoughtful, so brands know they are getting someone who is considerate and thinks deeply about what they are doing.”
There was no hint it was coming. Not so soon, anyway.
When Hobbs lined up at the national championships at Wellington’s Newtown Park in March, she had fairly modest goals. The meet was her first event of the New Zealand domestic season, having missed much of the summer recovering from a hamstring injury.
She hoped for a solid first hit-out to give her something to build on as she targeted the European season. So when 10.89 seconds flashed up on the board as she crossed the finish line in the final, Hobbs was uncharacteristically animated.
While the time would not officially count in the record books as the +3.4 m/s tailwind was above the legal limit, it was nevertheless a significant breakthrough.
In women’s sprinting, 11 seconds is considered a magic mark for the 100m event. Breaking through that barrier puts athletes in another echelon - one occupied by world and Olympic finalists.
“It was a complete shock,” says Hobbs, whose personal best at that time was 11.08 seconds.
“It caught me off guard when it first happened, obviously first race back from a hamstring injury you don’t expect to run a time like that. While it didn’t count, it was a huge, huge moment.”
A week later, Hobbs made her status as a sub-11 sprinter official, running 10.97 at the Sydney Track Classic, a New Zealand and Oceania record time, making her the fastest woman on the continent.
The milestones have continued - the New Zealand resident’s record (for fastest time run on New Zealand soil) followed in late March, her top 10 finish at the world championships in August, before her best ever result at a Diamond League event, with a fourth placing in Brussels in September.
But outside of the world championships, this year was really about one thing: qualifying for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
A day after the qualifying period opened on July 1, Hobbs ticked off that goal at the ResiSprint event in Switzerland, running 10.96 in the heats to eclipse the World Athletics automatic qualifying standard of 11.07 and lower her national record once again.
For Hobbs, meeting the notoriously tough world qualifying standards was “a massive weight off my shoulders” having missed out on selection for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
Hobbs had also made the grade for Tokyo, having qualified by virtue of her world ranking. But she did not receive a nomination by Athletics NZ to attend, as she did not satisfy the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s controversial “top 16″ rule.
The selection snub saw Hobbs cast at the centre of the debate over whether it is fair to apply a blanket rule when the competitiveness and size of fields between disciplines can vary wildly - a situation she found deeply uncomfortable.
This time around, while it still isn’t official, Hobbs’ Olympic selection looks more academic.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a black singlet in the sprinting events at an Olympics. Hobbs stands to become the first New Zealand woman in 48 years to compete in the 100m event.
Just don’t use the word trailblazer - it gives Hobbs the ick.
“I think it’s weird to be called … that term,” she says.
Having been encouraged early on in her career to consider switching her focus to hurdles or even the 200m distance, where it was thought she might have a better chance of competing internationally, Hobbs says she hopes that she has proven it is possible to have success outside of the disciplines New Zealand has traditionally been renowned for.
“I hope if anything it instils hope for people who are not necessarily sprinters, but maybe doing events that aren’t considered the norm, and encourages not to give up on something because it hasn’t been done before.”
Learning to run her own race
In sprinting where the competitors are chasing improvements by the hundredths of seconds, breaking new ground is hard fought. Hobbs says everything in her life between now and Paris next year will be geared towards finding those marginal gains that will enable her to continue to chip her time down.
“I’m at that stage now where I’m fighting for every 0.01 second. And that is a massive difference in mindset,” says Hobbs.
“It’s kind of the addictive part of the sport, because everything is so measurable. When you see those changes happen, and then you see how that translates into your performances, it fuels this need for more.”
She is conscious too, however, of the toll that level of commitment takes.
“Everything I do has to be athlete-focused. It will be front and centre, and everything else that goes on will come second,” she says.
“Like yeah, I’ll go away for Labour weekend, but I’ll still have training as a priority on Saturday and then go away at midday, and I’ll still make sure I’m home in time on Monday for training.
“So I think by this time next year I will definitely need to take some time to reconnect with friends and family and just mentally refresh, because it can absorb every part of you.”
It helps that Hobbs’ partner, Stewart Dodson, is a professional sailor and understands the demands of athlete life. Dodson, who sails for the Spanish team on the Sail GP circuit - the brainchild of America’s Cup hero Russell Coutts, spends long stretches of the season on the road.
The benefit of meeting the Olympic qualifying standard early, is that Hobbs can structure her 2024 season around the pinnacle event. It means she and her “tight team” of coaches and advisors can work backwards from Paris, working in one big training block, rather than spending the season chasing times, and then having to rebuild.
“That can become really mentally draining, especially when the clock is ticking,” she says.
“The selections happen in April, so we don’t have two European seasons [to hit the qualifying standards]. I think that was the other stressful element. If I didn’t get it in Europe then I would be relying on getting it here in the domestic season. So it just means that I can be really selective about what events I choose and run my own race in a sense.”
And that is what Zoe Hobbs is best at.