Sport

Sprinter Hana Basic launched into the athletics spotlight in 2013 only to retreat again to live her ‘best life’. When Covid-19 put an end to travel and parties, Basic got back to work and has become Australia’s fastest woman. By Linda Pearce.

Sprint champion Hana Basic

Hana Basic after winning the 100 metres at the Australian nationals in Sydney in April.
Credit: Matt King / Getty Images

The fastest woman in Australia is running late. She’s very apologetic, having come from a teaching placement in Melbourne’s east just before the state’s most recent lockdown. When we eventually chat in an inner-city bar, the local cafes having closed and it has already been established that the old Hana Basic would have loved a drink, but the new Hana is on a strict diet. As we sip water, and a couple of lads carry beers to a table nearby, Basic elaborates on her tipple of choice. “I would be absolutely murdering the gin and tonics,” she says, a twinkle in her eye, diamond stud in her nose and a smile on her lips.

Basic (it’s pronounced “Bashitch”) is open, engaging, fun. Or, in the words of her coach, John Nicolosi, she is the type of gregarious personality who “increases the mood of a room”. She is also a recent athletic revelation, having rebooted a career that started so promisingly when the year 12 schoolgirl was parachuted out of VCE studies into the 2013 Asian Grand Prix as part of a relay squad that included Olympic gold medallist Sally Pearson and national record-holder Melissa Breen. Basic then ran 11.64 seconds for her favourite distance of 100 metres in the months leading up to the 2014 IAAF world junior championships in the United States.

While injuries and lifestyle choices subsequently meant it would take Basic six years to improve on that time, the track and field world now knows all about what she did last summer. She starred.

Busting out of the Covid-19 restrictions that she admits changed everything, Basic’s extraordinary domestic season was highlighted in March by an 11.18-second run in a Queensland Track Classic heat, the fourth-fastest 100 metres by an Australian woman. In Sydney, in April, she would go on to win the national title and all but qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. The 25-year-old leaves for Switzerland this weekend to prepare for an international meet in Lucerne, having spent the past month training and racing in Queensland. While an illegal tailwind in Townsville denied her the official qualifying time of 11.15 seconds, a current world ranking of No. 46 gives Basic a 10-spot buffer in the race to be among the IAAF’s top 56 by June 29, so should be enough to ensure her Olympics debut.

Without the intervention of the coronavirus pandemic, she admits, none of this would have happened. “I just took the bull by the horns, and at first it wasn’t intentional. I just thought, ‘This is a really good time to get my health and wellbeing in order. I’ve literally got nothing else to do, may as well just focus on uni during the day, what I’m putting into my body and all that sort of stuff.’ I started prioritising diet, and bit by bit everything just started to come together. I think I got obsessed during lockdown; just with training and feeling healthy and eating the right things and recovery, and it just snowballed from there, really.”

Travel, Basic’s other great passion, was also off the table – along with bread, milk in her coffee, fast food, et cetera. The youngest daughter of Bosnian immigrants would usually spend a month or two each winter in Europe visiting family and travelling with girlfriends – eating, drinking, partying – doing what young people do. But it was one trip in 2018 that particularly frustrated Nicolosi, who Basic says has also become her “physiotherapist, psychologist, everything” since the pair united in 2016. Having recognised a great but unfulfilled talent, Nicolosi got Basic healthy, then professional, and ultimately convinced her to believe.

“Initially I was like, ‘Okay, she’s got all the ability in the world,’ ” says the coach. “But she’d say her lifestyle probably wasn’t one that was conducive to being an elite athlete. She was enjoying being 20 years of age … and I think it was a little bit of a shock for her when she realised the number of days training, the training volume that was required, the amount of effort that goes into it, and the small things – like diet, sleep – that are non-negotiable at that level.”

So it was in 2018 when, after her best preseason since her breakout year in 2014, Basic told Nicolosi she was going to Bali for a holiday that December. “My first response was a few swearwords and then I was, ‘Well, that’s not just gonna work’,” Nicolosi says. “And she was like, ‘Well, I’m kinda going.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m aware that it’s not gonna change, but you’re gonna pay for this … it’s going to affect your season.’ And she’s so happy-go-lucky she was like, ‘Oh, it’ll be fine.’ ” Until it wasn’t. Bali belly struck. Then a foot injury once she resumed training.

Nicolosi: “I was a bit of a dick about it, I’m not gonna lie. I was like, ‘Well, you did this to yourself. You made this decision. Be aware that that’s on you.’ That was pretty confronting at the time and I think she was pretty pissed off with me, which I understand.”

As to whether an important point firmly made was also a light-bulb moment, it seems to have been more like a dim glow of wisdom that a slowly maturing Basic would grasp, eventually. She can laugh that there have been a few international holidays Nicolosi has been unhappy about, and admits that, if not for Covid-19, she would have returned to Europe in the winter of 2020. Which would, inevitably, have meant no Tokyo. She sees that now. But her own regrets on the learning curve of life? Nil.

“I was always very much a FOMO kind of person,” she says, grinning. “So 2018… I’d just set myself up so well in preseason, and then the girls said they were going to Bali and I thought, ‘Well, I can’t miss out’, and I just thought that I was invincible. I just thought that I could just get back home and everything would be normal. Because, as a junior, that worked for me. I could get away with doing minimal training. I used to go to state championships and get McDonald’s between a heat and final. I just wasn’t at the next level of commitment and I thought that that would get me through at seniors. Anyway, it didn’t.

“But I know so many athletes that haven’t lived. And I’ve had literally the best life. I’ve done Europe so many times. I’ve done the America trip. Bali with my girlfriends. So I’ve got that all out of my system. And some might argue that that was at the wrong time and those places are always there, but you’re in your late teens and your early 20s once.”

The seed that had been planted took until Covid-19 arrived to truly flourish. “It was the best thing that ever happened to Hana,” says Nicolosi. “She didn’t have much else to do … and she was just, ‘Okay, well I’m just gonna train. This is the thing that I can do.’ ”

Thus, the summer of 2020-21 that was a surprise to many was one Basic and Nicolosi saw coming. Having also dropped more than seven kilograms, there was some relief, initially, that training standards were translating into race conditions, then satisfaction that the improvement continued, meet after meet, as they acknowledged what had worked and built on what had not. Basic: “Then I’d race again and everybody would lose their minds, and we’d just be like, ‘Yep, okay’, because we knew that was gonna happen.”

Internationally, Basic’s points of difference in the elite sprinting world include being relatively short, at 167 centimetres, and, well, white. But strengths include her power-to-weight ratio and acceleration through the first half of the race – “which is why we’re now working on the second part,” she says – while the fact she is such a fast and natural learner has much to do with her decade as a gymnast from ages five to 15, and skills learnt from what Basic describes as “the foundation sport”.

Resilience, too, is woven into the Basic family history. After her parents fled war-torn Yugoslavia, young Australian-born Hana started primary school without knowing a word of English, and failed to speak at all for three months during that difficult first year. Which is hard to imagine now for such an extrovert, with the quieter Nicolosi admitting he wishes his star pupil would just stop talking sometimes. No chance of that, and the noise around her is growing, too, with even Nicolosi happy to describe Basic’s seemingly imminent ownership of Breen’s Australian record as “just a starting point”.

After that? “I don’t want to limit her by saying what that [record time] might be,” Nicolosi says. “What I would say is, I think she can be a competitive international-level sprint athlete, which we haven’t had probably since Melinda Gainsford-Taylor – and even then she was much more competitive in the 200 than the 100.” Rewind, then, to “at least the ’90s and probably even the ’70s and ’80s”.

Basic’s wish list includes breaking the 11-second barrier, even as she is yet to adjust to the “fastest woman in Australia” moniker that is already hers, and that was once owned by the likes of Raelene Boyle and Denise Boyd.

“Yeah, it’s insane,” says Basic, who is determined to go to Tokyo as a would-be finalist rather than a lane-filler. “I just go, ‘Holy crap.’ It’s a pinch-me moment. Every time. Pretty cool. I get shy when people talk about it ’cause it’s insane to have that title. My name next to these names … I look back two, three years ago, I was literally going to training because I wanted to keep fit, and it was a hobby and I couldn’t imagine my life without gymnastics or athletics. So to be in this position now, it’s crazy.”

A final question. For those who will never experience it, and will have to settle for the couch-potato view of the 100 metres in Tokyo, perhaps with a ceremonial gin and tonic in hand, we ask Basic to explain how it feels to run fast. Really fast.

“I feel like a machine – but a very weightless machine,” she says, after some thought. “Obviously we put so much training into it to make it look as effortless as possible, but still you’re producing so much power. So to run at that speed, it’s an amazing feeling. When you come out of the blocks and you nail that start, and you’re building and you’re driving, it’s just the best feeling, and then you’re up and running. Oh, it’s great. Seriously.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 19, 2021 as "Back to Basic".

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Linda Pearce is an award-winning freelance sportswriter, based in Melbourne.