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France woo Australian teen track star Zhoya

  • Keyvan Naraghi and Robin Gremmel

    Agence France-Presse

Paris, France   /   Fri, June 28, 2019   /   09:09 am
France woo Australian teen track star Zhoya French-Australian athlete Sasha Zhoya (R) attends a training session, at the National Institute of Sport, Expertise, and Performance (INSEP), on June 25, 2019, in Paris. A fast-rising teen sensation has been breaking junior athletics records, sparking a tug-of-war between Australia and France to secure his services for the 2024 Paris Olympics, and even the Tokyo Games next year. Sasha Zhoya, 16, burst onto the scene at the Australian Athletics Championships in Sydney, winning the under-20 pole vault, the under-18 110m hurdles and the under-20 200m. (AFP/Thomas Samson)

Be it sprinting, hurdling or pole vaulting, Sasha Zhoya has a natural athletic ability that has seen the Australian teenager wooed by France.

Born in Perth to a Zimbabwean father and French mother, Zhoya shot to prominence when he broke junior records at the Australian Athletics Championships in Sydney in April, aged just 16.

He vaulted an age-record 5.56 metres, just shy of the qualifying standard for the world championships, and also won the under-20 200m in 21.18 seconds.

Those two performances have understandably placed the now 17-year-old in the middle of a tug-of-war between Australia and France for his allegiance.

"I'm laying out all that France can do for him, and I think we can do a lot compared to other countries," France athletics' chief Patrice Gerges said as Zhoya was hosted at a training session at France's elite sports training institute (INSEP) just outside Paris.

- 'Such good feet' -

Zhoya was put through some hurdling drills under the watchful eye of France's 2005 world 110m hurdles gold medallist Ladji Doucoure. 

"He masters his subject, he has such good feet he can do what he wants," an impressed Doucoure said of the teenager who has already clocked 13.05sec over the 110m hurdles, albeit with slightly smaller junior obstacles.

With a raft of internationally renowned coaches, Gerges dangled an all-expenses-paid place at INSEP as an incentive to opt for France, ahead of potentially becoming a star on "home soil" at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Australia, meanwhile, have also shown their interest, according to Zhoya's mother, but that would be a privately-funded project.

Either way, the stopwatch is ticking: Zhoya has until the end of December to decide who to line up for at the 2020 world junior championships -- and potentially the Tokyo Olympics next year.

"Being at INSEP gives me an idea," said Zhoya. "I'm thinking a lot. I say that it's 50-50 but in my head it's different.

"I find myself with athletes who've achieved incredible things or who are doing incredible things."

Zhoya appreciated the training session he had with Doucoure, current top French hurdler Wilhem Belocian and 1986 European champion Stephane Caristan.

"That shows me what I want to do with my life," he said. "In one session I learned things that I hadn't learned before."

- Higher level -

Back in Perth, Zhoya makes the most of top-level pole vaulting expertise, but says he comes up short in the hurdles.

"Over the hurdles, I need a level that is a little higher. France can offer me that higher level, there are great hurdling coaches in France.

"In Australia, there aren't athletes who push me in training. When I come here, the level of athletics is better so it pushes me," said Zhoya in fluent, albeit accented, French.

While Zhoya shines in three disciplines, he is adamant that he will not follow the path into decathlon, despite racking up a very creditable 7,271 points over winter.

And do not dare mention Usain Bolt, the now-retired Jamaican sprint star to whom the Australian press has been quick to draw comparison.

"I don't want to be in Usain Bolt's shadow," Zhoya said, adding in English: "I want to be myself.

"I have a poster of Bolt in my bedroom, but he's not really my hero, that's (boxer) Floyd Mayweather because he had 50 wins and zero defeats."

One important step Zhoya has taken, in collaboration with his mother and older sister Munashe, is to sign up with leading French track and field agents Benjamin Soreau and Rene Auguin.

It could well be the first step towards what would be a tremendous gain for France -- and a terrible loss for Australia.