Sprinters Umar and Shereen revive Malaysia’s regional prowess in 400m

PETALING JAYA: Malaysia’s 400m sprinters are back as a regional force, and the sparkle is back in Malaysian athletics.

An unknown 19-year-old boy from Johor Bahru, Umar Osman, has triumphantly emerged, and US-based Shereen Samson Vallabouy, 24, is bubbling to the fore.

Yesterday, Umar, making his debut in the SEA Games, sprung a shock by taking the men’s 400m gold medal, and smashing the 22-year-old national record.

That happened minutes after Ipoh-born Shereen, as expected, became the women’s 400m champion, following in the footsteps of her mother, Josephine Mary Singarayar.

Their imperious performances resurrected Malaysia as a regional force in the 400m, and buried the horror of the nation not having a male or female athlete in the event at the Hanoi Sea Games last year.

Now, the bug has been well and truly scratched, and stamped on.

The young athletes have reached new heights and their hard work and persistence should be rewarded with government and corporate financial backing.

We unpack the five things you should know about Umar and Shereen racing to glory in the brutal 400m, known as the “long sprint” in track circles.

Cracking runs

Umar clocked 46.34s to dismantle the 2001 national mark of 46.41s by Zaiful Zainal Abidin. The look on his face told you the wait, and the pain, was all worthwhile.

Malaysia last took top honours in the event through Zafril Zuslaini at the 2001 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur.

Shereen, who holds the national record of 51.83s, stole the show with another run of sublime quality, to stop the clock at 52.53s, almost a second ahead of her rivals.

With that, she ended Malaysia’s 24-year wait for SEA Games gold in the event, last won by N Manimagalay at the Brunei games.

Coach Simon Lau pushed Umar Osman to the limit during training. (Facebook pic)

Umar, exciting young talent

The teenager’s blistering pace over the final 50m erased years of lingering heartache for a nation that once produced outstanding 400m runners.

His controlled performance was a sign of an underdog determined to blow away any doubts about his ability in the event.

He said his coach, Simon Lau, had pushed him to the limit during training, and that he was ready to face the experienced runners.

The Politeknik Ibrahim Sultan student’s win was all the more spectacular because he was representing Malaysia in a competition for the first time.

Umar’s first love was football, but he transitioned to the gruelling 400m sprint about five years ago, and won gold in his Malaysia Games debut last year by clocking a personal best of 47.66s.

He wants to be the next Nordin Jadi, the legendary one-lap specialist, who represented Malaysia in two Olympics and won the 400m gold at the 1985 and 1987 SEA Games.

While the country is ecstatic about their poster girl of athletics, Shereen, Umar is right up there for the pin-up boy.

Shereen’s speed, power and strength

Her coach in the US, Mason Rebarchek, said Shereen, 24, showed “grit, growth and maturity, not just in the race, but in the time leading up to it”.

He said: “To travel around the world takes an incredible adjustment for anyone, but for an athlete, it takes a lot of work to keep the body ready to compete at elite level.

“The weather was a big challenge as the heat and humidity was incredible, compared to the cool temperatures she came from in Minnesota.

“She showed amazing growth and maturity to navigate that the way she did, and to run a great race for the gold medal.”

Rebarchek said Shereen, a final-year student at Winona State University in Minnesota, looked strong and in control all the way around the track, from gun to tape. “She accomplished a big goal,” he added.

Phnom Penh-Florida-Paris?

Florida-based speed coach Derrick White, who will train Shereen from June until December, said: “The first 100m was challenging for her with the tight curve. She picked it up on the backstretch and went to her arms with 200m left.

“She destroyed the field, and she can run a lot faster,” said White, who has trained sprinters from several countries to excel in major world meets.

Shereen said the sports culture and training in the US, where she has been in fine form in collegiate competitions this season, had helped improve her performance, especially in terms of technique.

However, the holder of also the national indoor 400m record, faces a daunting challenge of funding her training and stay in Florida.

Shereen’s parents are seeking financial help for her to train in Florida and qualify for the Paris Olympics next year.

Chance for a double

Both Shereen and Umar will on Friday feature in the 4×400 relay, which might just make them double SEA Games gold medallists.