Lalu Muhammad Zohri: Southeast Asia’s Fastest Man

Indonesian sprinter Lalu Muhammad Zohri is only 19 years old, but his achievements are remarkable. His incredible running speed makes him the fastest man ever in Southeast Asia!

Interview by Yani Lauwoie

Zohri’s running talent was discovered by his teacher Rosidah when he was a junior high school student at SMPN 1 Pemenang in North Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara. It took some time for Rosidah to persuade the budding athlete to focus on running, as his main passion at the time was football.

However, Zohri’s decision to switch sports couldn’t have been more perfect. Just four years on from winning the 2015 West Nusa Tenggara regional school athletics championship, he was making international headlines and claiming his place in the record books.

He was crowned Southeast Asia’s fastest man in April, when he won silver in the 100m at the 2019 Asian Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar. Finishing in 10.13 seconds, he broke the regional record of 10.17 seconds set by fellow Indonesian sprinter Suryo Agung Wibowo almost 10 years previously.

In May, Zohri broke his own record by finishing in 10.03 seconds in the 100m at the 2019 Seiko Golden Grand Prix in Osaka, Japan – just 0.03 seconds away from beating Olympic gold medallist Justin Gatlin. His performance was fast enough to secure a place in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a shave off the qualification time of 10.05 seconds.

Two days after Zohri returned from Japan, we met him at Jakarta’s Gelora Bung Karno Madya Stadium, where he was training for his next big competition, the Asian Grand Prix 2019 in Chongqing, China, in June. Despite the fact that he had just finished training while fasting for Ramadan, Zohri was bubbling over with enthusiasm following his achievement in Japan.

“I thank the Indonesian people who have supported me and the Indonesian Athletics Federation that sent me there. I am so grateful I can give my best for Indonesia,” he said.

Zohri also told of his experience competing against the American sprinter Justin Gatlin, who won gold in the 100m at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

“I was very pleased I could be on the same track with Justin Gatlin, whom I admire greatly. I actually asked him for a photo together,” says Zohri (the American won gold ahead of the Indonesian’s bronze in Osaka).

Zohri says he doesn’t feel intimidated on the track, despite lining up against the world’s top runners. “I never feel afraid with my competitors. When I am on the track, I just want to give my best possible effort,” he says
“I always challenge myself to be better. I aim to be faster than my last race.”

The recent graduate of Jakarta’s Ragunan Public High School is determined to become the first sprinter in Southeast Asia to break the record of under 10 seconds for the 100m. To achieve it, he realises there are things that he needs to improve upon. “One of them is my starting block technique,” he admits. “But I am working on it.”

Diligent at training, Zohri pays close attention to the instructions of his coaches, including Eni Nuraini – recently recognised as Asia’s Best Athletics Coach by the Asian Athletics Association – who has been coaching the teenage sprinter for the past 18 months. “Zohri has natural talent; he is also easy to work with because he is disciplined and intelligent,” says Eni.

Aside from his recent achievements in Doha and Osaka, Zohri has won gold medals for the 100m at the 2018 World U20 Championships, the 2018 Asian Junior Athletics Championships and the 2019 Malaysia Open Grand Prix, along with silver for the 4 × 100m relay at the 2018 Asian Games.

Despite being extremely grateful for his international achievements, Zohri reveals that competing overseas is quite challenging from a cultural perspective. “It is difficult for me to adapt to foreign food. I love rice and sambal – Indonesian chilli paste,” he says with a smile.

In addition to his international travel, the star sprinter flies regularly with Garuda Indonesia from his base in Jakarta to his home town in North Lombok, where his older brother and sister live. “I love the in-flight meals,” adds Zohri, as we finish our meeting.