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At the recent Malacca Open, 19-year-old Muhammad Zaki Bin Sapari became the fifth Singapore athlete to qualify for 2011 SEA Games after running 54.02 seconds in the men’s 400m hurdles (0.914m) finals to grab gold.

Running only in his fourth 400m hurdles event finals, he met the SEA Games bronze qualifying mark of 54.15 seconds.

Not only he erased the national junior record of 54.66 seconds that has stood for 25-years, pending ratification by SAA, but the last SEA Games 400m Hurdles men qualifier was Mohd Ahshik back in 1993.

The Malaysian state Championship proves to be a breakthrough for the promising junior athlete, and he deservedly earned his SEA Games nomination nod for Palembang.

In its 26th edition, the biennial multi-sport games will be held between 11 to 25th November in Indonesia.

The Republic Polytechnic second-year student has humble beginnings in track. His maiden journey in athletics was made harder by the fact that his secondary school doesn’t have a proper track & field team.

Others would have quit knowing the hurdles that one has to face training and competing on their own, but Zaki preserved.

Started out as a distance runner, he moved down the events ladder. From cross-country, to 800m, then moving on to the quarter-mile, before finally switching to the 400m hurdles event some seven months back.

His recent feat of 54.02 seconds has now ranked him number three on the all-time list for the electronically-timed 400m hurdles event. Perched at the top of that list is still Seah Soo Lye’s 1985 mark of 53.31 seconds, the same person who also holds the men’s national record in the same event which stands at 52.3 seconds, hand-timed.

With a new national junior record under his belt, Zaki Sapri looks to hurdle his next biggest goals, which is the upcoming SEA Games, and also to break the national mark.


Name: Muhammad Zaki Bin Sapari

Height: 186cm

Weight: 79kg

Date of Birth: 28 January 1992

Current School: Republic Polytechnic

Previous Schools: Qihua Primary School, Evergreen Secondary School

Coach: Mr Tan Wei Leong

Personal Best: 54.02s, 400m Hurdles (0.914m) Malacca Open. 14 May 2011.

Below is an extract of SAA interview with Zaki:

Did your 54.02 seconds effort came as a surprise, or was it an expected result? Share with the readers of your race.

Zaki Sapari: The results didn’t come as a surprise. Basically I had the foundation of a 400m and 800m runner, thus I had the endurance to last.

It all started during IVP 2010 when I won Gold for the 400m hurdles event. I had only trained two days before the IVP competition. It was by chance that I realized my talent in the hurdles.

My coach and other coaches acknowledged that I could break the National Junior record easily with my height and speed. Another coach even told me that I could possibly hit 52 seconds even.

All I needed to do is to improve in my 400m and also my hurdling technique. This groundwork started about a year back.

The reason why I did slow timings previously in my hurdles races was because I wasn’t comfortable hurdling, being that I was still new to it. Mind you, before this I rarely had hurdle training.

As for my race in Malacca, upon hearing “Ke Garisan” (On your mark in English) I took a deep breath as I got down to the starting blocks.

I then said to myself, “This is it”.

I didn’t care about what timing I shall end with, and I didn’t care about who will be the first to cross the finishing line. It’s just me and time itself.

Before the gun went, I prompted again to myself in thought, “It’s either you do or die”. That was my mindset mentality for my run. I didn’t come all the way from Singapore to do a bad timing. No way! I wouldn’t want to waste my long trip up North for nothing.

To my delight I raced as planned.

As I heard the ear splitting sound of the gun I just ran my best. I was assigned the outer most lane. The runners behind me were really intimidating. They looked fast, and my job for the race is not to let them chase me. That was my plan.

The race was close to perfect, but if not for some hurdles that I hurdled too high and the other half of the race I hurdled too far from the hurdle which cost me few precious seconds. Lucky I didn’t hit into any hurdle. That would surely slowed me down.

Just as I hurdled over the last hurdle. I focused my view at a point ahead from the finishing line, the rationale is to continue on running and not slow down.

During the last stretch of the race, I told myself to pump hard at my arm swing, and execute swift high knee action until the end. The lactic-acid build up didn’t deter me. It was all over in 54.02 seconds.

After the race ended I immediately look towards the coaches at the spectators seat, they seemed jubilant after the race. I knew I had run a good race.

Zaki at 2011 SAA T&F Series 3 (3rd April, 55.62s)

Do you need more competitive overseas competitions to aid you in cause to run 54.02s and faster? Locally, do you think there’s enough stiff competition for you?

Zaki Sapari:Most of the races that I ran, I felt really annoyed at every race as there wasn’t anyone to trigger my mentality that someone was going to chase me, or a person who has the caliber to run faster than me to prompt me chasing after the athlete. Both of which I needed to hasten my timings.

The difference compared to my previous races and the recent Malacca Open was that I thought that the runners behind me were really fast. That‘s probably the reason why I ran a faster timing as the previous races like Track Series 4 (Zaki did 55.30s) when I ran alone.

During the track Series 3 at Nanyang Polytechnic (Zaki did 55.62s) I knew what timings my competitors were doing. It subconsciously prompted me to say in my mind, “Why the need to run faster? They’re not going to chase me anyway” . This was what prevented me from hitting a faster time I believe.

With that in mind, yes I do need more competitive overseas competitions to assist me in hitting a better result. My analogy on this if an angry pack of dogs were to start chasing me from a distance, would I give my best to outrun them? Definitely! As the thought of being bitten would spur me to run as fast as possible.

Zaki is also part of the 4x400m relay squad that helped the team to meet the SEA Games qualifying mark on two occasions. (Photo credit: William Wong)

You’ve qualified for SEA Games, so what’s next? Apart from focusing on your SEA Games, what’s your plans and goals for the future?

Zaki Sapari: I’ve to thank God for allowing me to achieve this tremendous feat. Without him I would not have achieved my goals.

Basically after SEA Games I have another year in school before I enter National Service to serve two years. And within this one-year left to NS, it a period of training for which I can’t do much or perform due to time constraints.

I have no idea about what would happen to me after National Service. As I’ve heard experiences from most of my friends who went to National Service only to struggle with their running careers. And when they’ve finished serving their duties, they also shared it was very hard returning to Track & Field.

Those who continued like Kenneth Khoo, deserves my utmost respect. To me he is an athlete whom I look-up truly. I do hope in my own small part, I too will inspire the younger generations to have confidence in whatever they do, with the best of intentions and effort to achieve their goals.

19-year-old Zaki is POL-ITE defending champion in the 400m & 400m hurdles event.

You’re currently have climbed #3 on the all-time E.T. list for 400m hurdles (0.914m) Do you think you’ll go faster in the future? Is breaking the national record of 52.3s HT achievable?

Zaki Sapari: Definitely I could run faster and it’s never in doubt that breaking the National Record can’t be achieved. With proper planning I believe its attainable. When I ran the Malacca 400m hurdles race, most of the hurdles I hurdled over well I was gliding, which actually took a longer time to hit the ground, compared to running over the hurdles which does not break the running rhythm. So there’s room for improvement in my hurdling technique. With more training I believe I can do a better timing with God’s help.

Zaki (#4892) has a personal best of 50.14 seconds in the 400m event. (Photo credit: William Wong)

Tell us how you get started in running?

Zaki Sapari: It all started when my mother ignored my dad’s decision not to allow me to join track. During my primary school days I was quite mischievous. Playing games was all I did, and studying was the furthest thought on my mind.

Luckily for me I managed to get a place in Evergreen Secondary School despite my discouraging results. I then took up interest in running, but my participation gave an impression to my dad that with my newly found CCA that my studies would be affected.

But I promised my dad that I would excel in both track and academia. I kept true to that promise and scored 14 points for L1R4 to enter Polytechnic to further pursue my studies in Diploma in Sports & Exercise Science, with my fledgling athletics career still intact.

My secondary school had a track team, although it was not a popular CCA; rugby was. I brought over some of my fellow athletes to train with me with Sprint Dynamic; a sports consultancy company; as I saw the potential in them. It was their hard work that captured my attention to bring them over. Honestly speaking I’ve never trained with my secondary school mates since I started training with my coach (Tan Wei Leong). I didn’t bother about what my juniors or seniors thought about me in my school because I myself knew what’s best for me. In the end, all my hard work comes to fruition with my school getting the recognition as I won two National medals for them. A bronze for 800m ‘B’ division in 2008, and a gold for the 400m ‘B ‘division in 2009.

Basically track & field have helped me in many ways. In terms of studies, values, and friendship.

My main motivation in track is to inspire the younger generations that it is possible to achieve their wildest dreams. Never give up, never back down.

Zaki at 2011 SAA T&F Series 4 (8th May, 55.30s)

Can you share some insight the kind of trainings that you do per week. And how do you juggle studies with all those workout session. Any advise to student athletes out there.

Zaki Sapari: In Republic Polytechnic, this year all my classes ends at 4pm, and with that I do my own trainings. It depends on the training/competition period, so the speed, gym, speed endurance, maximum strength workouts are dependent on that.

Basically I can’t study if I don’t workout. That’s just me. As with training, studying I believe is about consistency and determination. Both are of the same concept, and complements each other.

To all the student-athletes out there, the student role comes first before the athlete. So that means studies have to come first. If you can’t juggle between track and studies, then you’ll need to have a proper plan to balance the two so that you can perform well in both academically and in sports.

Try to be independent too. If we tend to rely on other people, we will panic if they’re not around. It’s a crutch mentality, and I believe this is the main reason behind my success. For example if I need to strengthen my core, there isn’t need to go for training outside with others. I just set aside space and time for myself at home so that I can do a thousand crunches instead. Simple as that.

Zaki ran the 4x400m event too in Malacca. National men’s 4x400m sprinters won gold in Malacca. From the left Ng Chin Hui, Kenneth Khoo, Zaki Sapari and Firdaus Juhari. (Photo credit: Amirudin Jamal)

How supportive has your family, coach & friends have been in supporting your athletics endeavors.

Zaki Sapari: My parents have been very supportive since I first started training.

I’m more of an independent athlete so I’m used to support and motivate myself. My coach since day one believed in me and have helped transformed a young skinny boy that started out, to a young strong man that I am now.

Everyone has been very supportive and I do appreciate it a lot. Having to train with my friends actually pushes me harder during training. They’ve been my social lifestyle as hanging out with friends of the same goals & ideals is healthy. They not only support me in terms of training but also support me to develop into a better man.

Related Link: Straits Times feature on Zaki

23rd May 2011
singapore athletic association
singapore athletic association

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