Imagine, for a moment, lining up to contest the Olympic 100 m final.
There’s the obligatory neck roll. A glance left and right at the opposition, all of whom have sprinted the distance in less than 10 seconds. Then, settling into the blocks, fast-twitch muscle fibres pulse beneath taut thighs and calves. The energy is throbbing as the shine of sweat on shredded bodies gives a uniform look to the eight fastest men on Earth.
Simbine’s nerves give way to calm, which envelops him. He’s in the zone.
Then they’re off as the starter’s pistol pierces the night sky. A bang, an explosion of muscle. There’s no time to think. It’s raw instinct, perfection the aim. Go faster? Hold the line? Size up who’s left, who’s right. Race, race. Breathe. Breathe.
This is the life of Akani Simbine, the defining few seconds that crystallise his being as the 2019 world championship in Qatar looms. For now, as he occupies the rarefied atmosphere of elite-level sprinting, all his energy and focus and dedication is devoted to a snatch in time so brief it barely registers as more than a blip among the 86 390 other seconds in a day. Yet those nine-plus seconds – when each foot spends less than a tenth of a second on the ground every time it lands, three times faster than the blink of an eye – define him to his core and give him meaning.
Among the new wave
‘I’m just blessed. All I’m doing is bettering my purpose,’ he says of his rise from Joburg’s eastern suburbs to international reckoning as one of the world’s lightning-fast men.
The fastest Simbine has ever run the 100 m is 9.89 seconds, which he achieved in Hungary in 2016. Only one African man has ever run faster. What’s scary is that Simbine believes that he can go quicker still, perhaps even nudging 9.80 seconds.
‘Everyone is fast. I’m just a little bit faster than most,’ says the 25-year-old modestly.
Having won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and at the African championship, Simbine is gradually entering the public consciousness in South Africa, where athletics used to enjoy far greater prominence. Happily, he is among a fresh wave of thrilling talent, Caster Semenya and Wayde van Niekerk among them, forcing local athletics back into the light.
He’s a quiet homebody, preferring downtime at his home in Kempton Park to allow for recovery, but he does his bit in putting himself out there. There are the obligatory magazine covers and photo shoots, and he comfortably pulls off a slick look when he’s wearing the latest suits and styles. There are also the shout-outs to his friends and rivals on social media, putting him in the groove as a thoroughly modern millennial.
He likes to have fun, but Simbine understands where to draw the line, knowing that life in the fast lane constitutes a brief window in his lifespan and is worth the sacrifices. It’s why he doesn’t party and why he’s sworn off fast food and alcohol. The next time he will pick up a beer will be in October, when the hard work is done. That’s when he can cash in his chips. Until the next time.
Finding his way
Simbine was born in 1993, when South Africa was on the cusp of democracy, to doting parents Elsie and John. He never had posters of sportsmen or musicians on his wall. He explains that his parents were his heroes. They still are, and Simbine says that he is driven by the need to prove to them that they brought up a good child. ‘I see them as hard-working, good people and I want to emulate them,’ he says proudly.
Simbine’s mother was a sprinter when she was younger – ‘all her friends tell me that, so I’m very much like her.’ The sprinter might have become a top soccer or rugby player, but for his mother’s urging. His parents did the carrying and carting for training during his final two years at Edenglen High School in Edenvale. Even though Simbine was a soccer standout and scored many outstanding tries for the First XV rugby side, his mother reasoned that he couldn’t be in control in team sport, whereas he could chart his own destiny in athletics.
Athletics it was. She wasn’t wrong. While an Information Science student at the University of Pretoria in 2015, Simbine equalled the SA record. A year later, he made it all his own with the blistering 9.89-second finish in Hungary. It opened doors to international events and Diamond League meets, where the 100 m is inevitably the showstopper.
It brought him into former sprint king Usain Bolt’s orbit, and while Bolt became a rival, the two struck up a friendship that led to Simbine travelling to Jamaica to work out with the world record holder and his coach. The pair recently bumped into one another in Monaco: ‘He told me to keep my head up and believe in what I’m doing because I’m on the right track,’ said the South African.
Hip-hop and hard work
Hard work has never been an issue for Simbine, who typically pumps himself up with hip-hop music, his tastes ranging from the sounds of Cassper Nyovest and Frank Casino to Drake, Lil Wayne, and Tupac Shakur.
Out of season, he will train Monday to Friday, alternating between gym and track work. He’ll throw in physiotherapy and add in a spot of Pilates on the Saturday.
In season, he will train Monday to Saturday for up to five hours daily, spreading that load evenly between track work and gym.
It’s little wonder home is his refuge, with Simbine figuring that going out requires energy, and energy is something he’d prefer to conserve for training and racing.
As he prepares for races, he initially listens to gospel music on his headphones when travelling to a stadium. But when he needs to be switched on, he cranks up his hip-hop playlist, which hasn’t changed since 2015. These are among his rituals every time he races. Once at the stadium, he spends time on his own to clear his head before warming up and getting his mind concentrated on the 100 m strip of tartan track that awaits. He draws strength from the intricate ambigram tattoo he has on his left arm, which blends angels and praying hands with roses and doves.
‘It’s a depiction of heaven, a statement of hope and faith, and I believe it,’ he says with quiet resolve.
Aiming for gold
Having seamlessly shifted from prospect to championship contender in the past two years, Simbine is a lot more controlled in his approach to big races. He recalls how, at the age of 21, he would overthink things, which led to him slowing down. But now, with experience and greater maturity, he’s able to make key adjustments even as he surges for the line. Pressure? He eats it for breakfast. His focus is geared towards the world championship in Qatar in September where he will be among the medal favourites, and star names such as Yohan Blake, Christian Coleman, and Noah Lyles will loom like big cats, all sleek and menacing.
Blessed with a quiet confidence, Simbine will rock up expecting no less than gold.
Even if winning might require him to go faster than he’s ever gone, he’ll revel in the challenge of proving he is the fastest man on Earth. Nine-odd seconds to greatness, a pinch of time that might distinguish him forever.