Cape Town - Sprinter Akani Simbine left for his Italian base of Gemona this week in much the same way he did last year – as a marked man.
Thanks to having reeled off a series of early season sub-10-second races in the 100m, Simbine was blinking loudly on the radar by the time he turned up at the Doha Diamond League event, where he beat the man who would eventually dethrone Usain Bolt as world champion last year, Justin Gatlin.
And while there’s nary a sub-10 to underline his form this year, Simbine went to Europe as a Commonwealth Games Champion who beat Jamaican Yohan Blake, among others, to his maiden major championship title.
But having gone backwards from his early showings last year, the question is whether he will go on to lay
a marker in Europe in a season that begins with a
street 100m at his sponsors’ event in Boston today
and kicks off properly with the Diamond League in Rome on May 31.
His coach Werner Prinsloo has no doubt he will: “Pressure will always be pressure, whether it comes from yourself or the outside. He’s going to put pressure on himself to be better, and there’ll be pressure from outside.
“But we know what we want to achieve from each race and, for the first time in a long time, he’s excited to race because he knows he’s on a new level and he’s got the monkey off his back. Now he knows he can put it together when it matters.”
Before winning the race at the Commonwealth Games, Simbine and Prinsloo weren’t entirely sure they could hack it at major championships, having finished fifth in the Olympic and world championship finals in 2016 and last year, respectively.
The world champs in London was particularly key in raising those doubts because they went there thinking they were ready for a medal, only to finish in the same position in a jaded-looking time. Prinsloo said there were mitigating circumstances for the “heartbreak” of London.
“A couple of things happened in Europe that didn’t start us off in a good position for the world champs,” he said. “AK travelled a lot, I wasn’t around and there was no medical support – so he was flying solo.
“And when we went to London, he wasn’t exactly 100% because he strained one of his hip muscles.”
Prinsloo said they had made slight adjustments to their preparations for this season.
“Our only focus was the Commonwealth Games in April, but we also knew it was a long season afterwards that would go on until September. We didn’t race as much and didn’t open with a bang – last year we started with blistering sub-10s and struggled to keep it up.
“We’re more mature now. We realised that running sub-10s early in the season doesn’t help when you’ve still got another seven months left in it. I know people downplay the Commonwealth Games, but it’s still a global title. We were running all these good times, but had nothing to show for it because the trophy cabinet was empty.”
Prinsloo said the Gold Coast breakthrough would have a massive impact on Simbine.
“We saw the Commonwealth Games as the first step to growing to big titles. Winning there sets Akani up for most of the season and, in a way, his career.”
The next step for Simbine is trying to win the African Championships and competing at the World Cup.
“That’s his focus because he didn’t perform well when the African champs were in Durban. He wants to prove he’s the best in Africa,” Prinsloo said.
Prinsloo, who was recently sponsored by Liquid Telecoms to be a full-time coach so he could travel with Simbine, is only still in the country because he had visa problems. He said he was finding life as a full-time coach great.
“It’s a dream come true for me to get the opportunity and, for the two of us, it means we’re a professional team now. You can’t get a full-time athlete and a part-time coach. I now have a lot of free time to really hone my craft as a coach, and if I do that it benefits all of my athletes.”