Practice is the best – and only – time that Izlyn Zaini can formulate her race plan.

How to explode from the blocks; how to attack the hurdles; how to clear the ten obstacles in front of her as cleanly as possible. About 14 seconds later, the race is over.

When Izlyn sprinted to her first senior medal at the 2017 SEA Games, a bronze, she was overwhelmed by surprise.

“I was expected to do well, but not that timing (14.14 seconds, then a joint national record), what more a medal,” said Izlyn, 21.

That surprise medal serves as a confidence booster ahead of this year’s Games, where she firmly wants to be in medal contention. Her national record of 13.88s, Singapore’s first sub-14s result, ranks her third in the region.

When she sees obstacles, she doesn’t back down from the challenge

Picture a metal obstacle in front of you. It’s above hip level. You’re going to have to build some speed if you don’t want to graze your leg while going over it. Even if you do clip the hurdle, you still have to maintain your balance, brush off the incident, keep the momentum going.

But how do you deal with the reality that if you don’t make it over cleanly, the next thing you could feel is the rough surface of the track caressing your face?

“I’m not scared of the hurdle,” said Izlyn. “Yes, it is a challenge, but I’m not scared of it. I see it as a friend.”

Why imagine the worst possible scenario when you can focus on the adrenaline coursing through your veins as you make the lean, lead leg straight ahead of you, as your back leg snaps over the hurdle and back below your hip?

“As hurdlers, we’re not supposed to be scared of the hurdles because they shouldn’t be controlling us. We should control the race,” said Izlyn, who first picked up the sport at age 11. She hasn’t ventured from the event since doing the sport competitively at the Singapore Sports School.

While Izlyn does hit the occasional hurdle, she still returns for the next session. And the next. Instead, she just feels more motivated to clean up her technique to clear the hurdle properly the next time.

While on summer break in Singapore, Izlyn takes direction from Joy Kuan, who facilitates her workouts prescribed by Izlyn’s coach at Georgia Southern University. (Alvin Ho)

Seeking improvement far from home

After equaling the previous national record, Izlyn enrolled at Georgia Southern University to further her studies – she’s working on a degree in criminal justice – and to train with a group to help her run faster.

Endurance is Izlyn’s self-identified weakness; even during her national record race last May, she struggled to make it across the line without slowing down dramatically.

“Dying towards the end is becoming more of a concern now that I’m performing at this level,” she said. “The pain just seems so much more than it was the last few seasons.”

The remedy for that? 200m repeats, six times, “at a very fast pace”.

Since she uprooted her training base to halfway across the world, she has been able to train with more people in her ability range, which constantly keeps her on her toes.

Said Izlyn, “In the US, I have competitors right beside me or in front of me the entire race, which helps with the mental part that I should focus on my hurdles rather than my competitors.”

Izlyn Zaini holds the national record of 13.88s in the 100m hurdles and is a SEA Games bronze medalist. (Alvin Ho)

The big stage beckons

The 2014 Youth Olympic Games, Izlyn’s first major competition, remains a major influence in her athletics career. Besides getting to meet one of her idols, Olympic 110m-hurdles champion Liu Xiang, she also got her first taste of competing in high-pressure situations.

“Since then, competing at that level has been more fun than pressurising,” said Izlyn.

Now, with vast international experience under her belt, her mind is focused on other things besides the roaring crowds as she settles into the blocks. A sub-12 100m is on her to-do list; perhaps a nice relay leg on the 4x100m team headed to the SEA Games.

And definitely improving on that 13.88s hurdles race.