‘Expect Samba to do something special’
Coach Hennie Kotze, known as an alchemist for his ability to turn raw talent to gold, has big hopes on Samba.
They call Hennie Kotze the alchemist for his uncanny ability to find athletes’ hidden talents and turn them into pure gold.
Examples are many, with the most famous being the late Nicholas Bett, who unexpectedly became the first Kenyan 400M hurdler to win the world title in Beijing 2015. Bett passed away in a tragic accident last year.
The South African coach, who trained Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba to the third place at the IAAF Worlds in Doha, believes it is only a matter of time before the bronze turns to gold.
The 24-year-old Samba’s progress in Doha was cautious but steady, considering he was returning from an injury. Samba, who has a personal best of 46.98sec, topped the qualification rounds with a 49.08sec run before finishing second in the third semifinal (48.72). He took bronze in 48.03sec.
Kotze spoke to Inside Qatar about the young runner, his immense potential and his intense rivalry with Norwegian Karsten Warholm and American Rai Benjamin, the gold and silver medallists respectively in Doha.
How do you evaluate Samba’s performance in Doha?
I’m delighted, especially since he’d only just returned from a challenging, injury-filled year. We decided to let him compete in Doha only a few days before the event. I’m happy he took up the challenge and performed well.
He was cautious in the build-up to the final, never over-exerting himself and doing just enough to progress to the next round. He showed great character in the final, pushing hard in the final straight. If fully fit, he could’ve won gold. But it’s a World Championships, and a medal is a medal.
How do you see the rivalry between Warholm, Benjamin and Samba evolving?
Each runner has immense respect for the other two. Isn’t it amazing to see three youngsters running sub-47sec races in the same season? With the growing rivalry, 400M hurdles has begun to take away some attention from sprints. I feel lucky to be a part of the Samba story.
As Samba’s coach, I feel their rivalry is a beautiful thing to experience. I’d say our discipline is going through some excellent times. The faster Samba’s opponents are, the faster he’ll run. The faster Samba runs, the harder his opponents will try to beat him. I can’t wait to see what the next year will bring us.
How many strides do you advise Samba to take between hurdles?
I always prefer him to run using 13 strides between hurdles for as long as he can. However, he can easily switch to 14 paces mid-race. Ideally, I want him to run using 13 strides until the seventh or eighth hurdle, based on how fast the race is. From then on, he’ll use 14 strides until he reaches home. The pattern of hurdling leg use is left-right-left, or right at the eighth, and left or right at the last hurdle. Although his right leg is dominant, he can hurdle using both, and that’s very exciting.
How much has Samba changed since you took charge?
I started training him three years ago when he was still a 400M flat runner. I test all my athletes using hurdles, and most of my warm-up sessions are based on drills using them. Once I see an athlete who has that particular skill and co-ordination, I place the hurdles a little farther apart and test them again. This way, I can measure their natural affinity for hurdling.
I’d no idea how good Samba was. He laughed off my hurdles experiments initially but soon grew serious after realising how good he was. During an early ’17 camp in Pretoria, I liked what he was doing with the hurdles. So I decided, ‘let’s go, let’s compete this Saturday.’ He was surprised and nervous, but I told him about his stride patterns and which legs to use. He absorbed it like a sponge does water.
He finished his first-ever competitive race in 50.5sec. The second was the ’17 Doha Diamond League, which he won in 48.44sec after beating reigning Olympic champion Kerron Clement. He also qualified for the ’17 IAAF Worlds in London. In his third outing in Sasolburg, South Africa, he ran the season’s eighth fastest time (48.31). That year, he got injured and could finish only seventh at the London Worlds. But he’s still young and continually learning.
What are Samba’s biggest qualities?
Samba has a winner’s temperament, and he’s every elite coach’s dream. He has excellent abilities for 400M hurdles — he’s fast, can use both legs to jump, has a natural feeling for the hurdle and is incredibly hungry for success. He’s able to maintain his natural speed almost throughout the race.
What does his typical training day look like?
Once he restarts training later this year, we’ll have specific days for cross-country sessions and hill training. But in the evenings, it’ll always be jumping sessions. On other mornings, we’ll do three hours of track training related to speed, endurance and muscle building.
Our team doctor prepares specific diet plans for him to include supplements and vitamins. He can only have food provided by us. These days, one needs to be very careful about what they put in their body. It’s essential to be aware of even the smallest medicine that you ingest.
Is Samba fun-loving, or is he very serious during training?
He trains with a group of Qatari athletes which includes Bassem Hemeida, who won 400M hurdles silver at the ’18 IAAF World U-20 Championships in Finland. The athletes in my group have an easy camaraderie among themselves and that leads to a lot of humour. Samba is very serious when he needs to be, but can also be funny at times. He plays many practical jokes.
How fast do you see him going in the future?
I’ve got high hopes on him, primarily because of his rivalry with Warholm and Benjamin. They can push each other to run consistent 46sec races. If you’re young, run that fast, and your body remains healthy, you’ve got a fantastic future ahead. We’re looking to great things from Samba in the next 10 years.
Next season, I’m looking at Samba running a new personal best and maybe also do something special. If we get the world record, that would be a huge bonus.
What will be your main target next season?
The 2020 Olympics will be our main target. We’ll begin our training in Doha by the first week of December and then go to South Africa for high-altitude training. We’ll return to Qatar in time for the IAAF Diamond League in May and then move to Spain for training. We’ll finally go to our holding camp in Japan just before the Tokyo Games. We’re hoping for an Olympic medal from him.
Bett’s passing away last year should have been a terrible shock for you…
Since I always build deep personal and emotional bonds with my athletes, it was very tough for me to accept reality. It had been my first association with Kenyan athletics, and he was my most promising student. I enjoyed making him a world champion. His death was a sad day for the sport, and I took it hard. Time may dull the pain, but I’ll always remember him.