martes, 27 de septiembre de 2011

After Daegu Upset Chernova is now the one to Beat

Jessica Ennis and Tatyana Chernova cross the line in the very last event of their dramatic clash at Daegu Worlds
Photo: Stu Forster/ Getty Images Asia Pac
             Four years have passed since Carolina Kluft retired from the heptathlon discipline.  At that moment the Swede champion was just 24 but argued she had lost the motivation for the practice of the sport. There was no more fun in her life but just strenuous workouts and a full schedule of competitive engagements. Despite of her young age she had already won everything and this was a further reason for this retirement: 3 Junior golds, 4 World titles indoor and out, 4 European championships and the Olympic crown in Athens 2004.  She left the combined events unbeaten as a senior athlete. (1) 

When someone who has dominated an event in the way Kluft did retires, a big crisis of results is expected in it. Time is needed for the appearance of a new leading woman in the discipline.  However it did not happen in the heptathlon event.  Ukrainian Nataliya Dobrynska was the shocking victor at Beijing Olympic Games, improving her PB by almost 400 points for a total tally of 6733.  She set new personal records in all disciplines except the high jump and the 800 metres, with an especially noteworthy 17.29 in the shot put.  Dobrynska for the first time in several years had not been annoyed by injuries of any kind and this explains her huge improvement.  (2)
The newly crowned Olympic champion has maintained a respectable level of consistency in the following years but has not got to keep her number one status, superseded by the irresistible rising of Briton Jessica Ennis. (3) In the post Olympic year Dobrynska won the classic meetings of Gotzis, Kladno, Talence and subsequently the World Combined Events Challenge, but fell a little sort of her standards in the decisive Berlin outing, finishing just out of the medals. Ennis scored 6731 points, smashing the PB she had set previously in the season in Desenzano del Garda, to win gold ahead German Jennifer Oeser and Polish Kamila Chudzik. Thus she was back in great fashion after the big disappointment of her absence in Beijing, sidelined by a severe right foot fracture. (4)

Nataliya Dobrynska, the day she became an Olympic Champion
         Dobrynska was not to give up easily and showed herself at her best possible level of performance in the big occasions the following year, achieving a new Ukrainian record at Doha World Indoor championships and a new personal best (6778) at Barcelona European outdoors.  Jessica Ennis responded improving also the British best in Doha and scoring a massive 6823 points in Barcelona, a new championship record, to win both contests and prove she was the undisputed number one of the combined events. Dobrynska was especially challenging in the latter outing.  Both athletes arrived to the last event, the 800 metres separated by a mere 18 points, that is to say about one second of margin, in favour of Ennis. The Briton was on paper superior to her rival at the distance but, after several alternatives, Dobrynska only relinquished in the homestretch.  Jessica finished just 8 points short of 2000 Olympic champion Denise Lewis national record.  Jennifer Oeser achieved her second in a row major medal, tallying 6683 points, the best scoring ever in the championships for a bronze, which just shows the current depth of the heptathlon event. (5)  

After her two outstanding 2009 and 2010 seasons, Jessica Ennis had become the new golden girl of British athletics. With London Olympics so close she is currently the main hope of the host country for a gold medal in track and field and thus she will be the poster girl of the Games and the one everybody is going to expect to wave the flag’s country after a resounding victory. (6) There is so much pressure to be hold and Ennis has started to pay it already in this year’s World championships.  Great Britain aimed for five gold medals in Daegu: Phillips Idowu at the triple jump, Dai Greene at the intermediate hurdles, Mo Farah at the 5000 and 10.000 metres and Jessica Ennis at the heptathlon. Eventually it became two gold and three silver with only Greene and Farah in the 5000 metres climbing to the top of the podium.  If we add Andy Turner and Hannah England respective bronze and silver, it is the best tally since 1993 in Edmonton but British must be ambitious, being the host country of the Olympic Games.
Jessica Ennis’ deliverance in Daegu was quite good but for the first time since being the heptathlon queen she did not reach a new PB in a major competition and was also short of her previous best seasonal score, which she achieved as she won in Gotzis.  Eventually it was not enough because of the stunning performance of Tatyana Chernova, who produced one of the biggest upsets of a full of surprises contest.  It was one of the nine gold medals won by Russia, seven of them by their women, which equalled their best tally ever in 1991 in Tokyo, when they still defended the colours of the Soviet Union.      

Hyleas Fountain with no luck in this 2011 season
         Tatyana Chernova is one of eight names of a privileged bunch who has achieved World titles in all possible age categories: youth, junior and senior. Four members of this exclusive club, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Usain Bolt, Yelena Isinbayeva and Valerie Adams went on to win an Olympic gold medal, which obviously is now the immediate target of Chernova. (7) Nothwithstanding, the newly minted heptathlon world champion needed time to live up to the expectations she had created as a youngster.  Tatyana, besides her age titles, had improved the youth best, writing off the books no less than Carolina Kluft.  She also achieved a windy 6768 score, when winning at the now disappeared meeting of Arles in 2007, which is superior to the legal junior record of 6542, also set by Kluft. (8) This feat placed her among the favourites for Osaka worlds but there she started a string of disappointing performances, which characteristically would begin with a below par 100 meter hurdles and a weak deliverance at the shot put and would end up with a second day in which she would try in her best events to make up for the disastrous first one. Still Chernova struck a bronze medal at Beijing Olympics, after Blonska was disqualified, with a respectable tally of 6591 points but she followed this up with an 8th place in Berlin, 300 points below. (9)
There was some kind of improvement in 2010 with a bronze medal at the World indoor championship and a fourth place in Barcelona, besides a triumph in Talence and a runner-up position in Gotzis, which earned her the victory at the World Combined Events Challenge.  However the big breakthrough would arrive the following year.  We knew she had talent but now she proved she had acquired maturity too and was mentally ready.  Another second placement in Gotzis behind Ennis and especially a 6773 new PB in Kladno were a huge boost of confidence for Tatyana Chernova. In the latter meeting she had been consistent in every single event and in Daegu, for the first time in a major contest, she was able to replicate it. Her 13.32 at the hurdles and 23.50 at the 200 metres, matching her respective PBs were really another thing, and her 14.17 at the shot put was a huge improvement to everything she had done before. Besides, Jessica Ennis was not as astounding as she usually is in her best events, the 100 meter hurdles, where she was even beaten by American Hyleas Fountain, and the high jump.  Despite two PBs at the shot put (14.67) and 200 meters (23.27 in a strong headwind) she finished overnight just 151 points ahead of Chernova, who is known for having all her favourite events in the second day. 

Jennifer Oeser, the most solid German heptathlete of the moment
Photo: Michael Steele/ Getty Images Europe
          It was easy to anticipate what was going to happen. A visibly worried Jessica Ennis still had the determination to jump beyond her best (6.51), only 10 centimetres behind Chernova, who is a 6.80+ jumper.  Yet, the javelin made the difference: Jessica remembered this time her compatriot Kelly Sotherthon, who never won a global gold medal because of her inability to manage that specialty. Ennis threw under 40 meters and lost 251 points against her archrival, who inexorably went close to 53 metres. The battle was lost and the last agonistic effort in the 800 metres and the fourth PB in two days were in vain.  Chernova, finished the event just at her shoulders to win the gold medal 6880 to 6751.  Anyway, had Ennis matched her javelin PB she would had lost the same.  Jennifer Oeser won again the fight for the bronze, ahead of Polish Karolina Tyminska and Dobrynska, all three of them beyond 6500 points.  Hyleas Fountain, who was also in contention for the medals had to withdraw in the very last event.
          It is worth to be noted the score Chernova achieved in Daegu is more than 50 points more of what Ennis has ever done and she is likely to improve it further at London Olympics, because she is still 23 years old and has found a consistency, confidence in her possibilities and a mental strenght she never had before.  Because of Chernova's superiority in some events, if Jessica Ennis is a 12.79 hurdler and a 1.95 high jumper, she will really need to run 12.79 and jump 1.95 if she wants to have any option of becoming Olympic champion at home.  She will also have to overcome this defeat and the fact she is not anymore the unbreakable number one.  Maybe the main battle will be in the mental side and the toughest will have the better of her archrival in London.  Chernova, after her recent victory, is a couple of steps ahead and right now is the one to beat.   
     No athlete should be discounted but if Ennis and Chernova have a normal day I do not think there is a chance for anybody else for the Olympic title in the heptathlon, including the defending champion Nataliya Dobrynska.  However, for the minor medals many names come to mind as the same Dobrynska, Jennifer Oeser, Lilli Schwarzkopf, Karolina Tyminska, Kamila Chudzik, Anna Bogdanova, Antoinette Nana Djimou, Jessica Zelinka, Aiga Grabuste, Austra Skujyte, Hyleas Fountain or Margaret Simpson. 

Karolina Tyminska getting better and better with the years
Photo: Adrian Dennis/ AFP/ Getty Images
        As an athlete who has claimed a medal in every one of the three last major championships, Jennifer Oeser must be pointed out as the strongest candidate among this list of outsiders to climb to the podium again.  A European U-23 champion in 2003, Oeser was in the shadow of Lilli Schwarzkopf for years, until her breakthrough season of 2009, when she first beat her at the unofficial German championship in Ratingen and then went on to win the silver medal in Berlin, while Schwarzkopf did not finish.  Oeser was again the victor in Ratingen in the following two editions of the meeting and continued with more medals in the major contests.  On the other hand her compatriot, who had been bronze at the European Champs in 2006 and fifth in Osaka in 2007, is having some difficult years, with injuries and disappointments. Eventually, she could achieve a sixth place in Daegu and maybe she will be back soon to her former level.  Interestingly, both athletes have similar characteristics as heptathletes, being excellent specialists with the javelin and outstanding half-milers.
No other German athlete is ready to follow in the footsteps of Oeser and Schwarzkopf.  Julia Machtig, Maren Schwerdtner or Claudia Rath are miles behind of the duo and have not reached places of finalist when selected for the national team.  However, the future seems really promising with juniors like Sara Gambetta, Tilia Udelhoven or Carolin Schafer.   
  A similar crisis in depth of field has been experienced by the other European powerhouse, Russia.  With Anna Bogdanova and Olga Kurban not competing for nearly two seasons, no replacement has proved good enough to compete along Tatyana Chernova at the big occasions, neither Desenzano del Garda winner Marina Goncharova nor Yana Panteleyeva nor Alexandra Butvina.  Fortunately, 2009 indoor European champion Bogdanova is back in full fitness and so is Kurban, who won the Universiade this summer.  

Jessica Zelinka, a experienced Canadian back in competition, after maternity leave
Photo: Mark Dadswell/ Getty Images Europe
Antoinette Nana-Djimou, the European indoor champion in Paris
Photo: Michael Steele/ Getty Images Europe
           The most successful team had been lately the Ukrainian, who obtained the fourth, fifth and sixth positions at Berlin Worlds with Dobrynska, Lyudmila Yosypenko and Hanna Melnychenko respectively; a doubtful honour with no less than three athletes missing narrowly the bronze medal by less than 60 points.  All three Ukraine girls swept the podium that year in Gotzis, led by Nataliya Dobrynska and were really close of repeating the feat in Talence, where Chernova’s third place split the trio.  This quality jump by Yosypenko and Melnychenko in 2009 was supposed to be the beginning of a great era for the Ukrainian heptathletes but the two following seasons have not been as successful for them.  Yosypenko has gone down to 6th in Barcelona and 10th in Daegu, while the three times European Cup winner has been sidelined by injuries.  
No matter how the powerhouses in combined events have lost in depth in the last years, still the United States can envy them.  As strange as it might be no US woman has achieved the London Olympic A standard in the heptathlon in one year, so were the Games celebrated tomorrow they would only have one representative.  Athletes as Sharon Day, Diana Pickler or Jackie Johnson are really far from their performances a couple of years ago and Beijing silver medallist Hyleas Fountain has been unable to complete the two competitions she took part in this season: the National Trials and the World Championships. As talented as she is, Fountain has often problems to reach her best when it matter most but we hope the Olympic year will be a lucky one for this woman, who has an heptathlon PB of no less than 6735 points from 2010, and performances in single events as 12.78 at the 100 meter hurdles and 6.89 at the long jump.  The revelation of the year has been Ryan Krais from Kansas University, who won the NCAA title in her junior year. Hopefully she will help improve the current poor level in the event in the country in years to come.
Jessica Samuelsson, the current number one Swedish
Photo: Chris McGrath/ Getty Images Europe

         Their Canadian neighbours can be much happier with two women this year over 6200 points, Jessica Zelinka and Ruky Abdulai, and a third one, Brianne Theisen, likely to make the Olympic team as well, provided she can overcome her injuries.  Abdulai, a Ghana-born athlete, was a former long jumper specialist but has moved to the combined events in the last two seasons with amazing success. She achieved a 13th place at last Worlds in Daegu.  Theisen, a senior student in Oregon, has won the NCAA title no less than four times and already finished 15th in Berlin Worlds in her first year competing at international level.  Jessica Zelinka is the most known of the trio, with a long career behind her. She obtained a remarkable fifth place at Beijing Olympics, where she scored her lifetime PB of 6490.  Now she is back after maternity leave.  Last year she grabbed the silver medal at the Commonwealth Games, after Louise Hazel, another Briton to watch for, and claimed the ninth place in Daegu.  
             Also making a come back to the combined events is another illustrious of the event, Lithuanian Austra Skujyte, who had been busy in 2009 and 2010 giving a go to her best specialty, the shot put, where she achieved a 12th place at Barcelona European Championships and a stunning PB of 17.86. This veteran, who won the silver medal at Athens Olympics and a 4th place the following year at Helsinki World Championships, is an unusual heptathlete who excels in throws but struggle in track events, unlikely great champions as record holder Jackie Joyner, Carolina Kluft or Jessica Ennis, consummate specialists in races and jumps but not as powerful in the shot put or the javelin.  Skujyte returned to the combined events last winter with another medal, a silver, behind French Antoinette Nana Djimou and finished in a creditable 8th position in Daegu in the summer.
Austra Skujyte, back to the heptathlon with a silver medal in Paris
Photo: Ian Walton/ Getty Images Europe
         Nana-Djimou, born in Cameroon, has grown steadily as one of the most solid heptathletes of the moment. She won deservedly at the European indoors at home and represented France at the last 2 editions of the outdoor World Championships, achieving in both a praiseworthy 7th place.  She may be one of the heptathletes of the future and has been compared to legend Eunice Barber.  Yet her biotype is more Skujyte-like: she threw the javelin to 55+ in Daegu but faded badly in the 800 metres, losing valuable points.
Grit Sadeiko from Estonia, the European U-23 champion
Photo: Mark Dadswell/ Getty Images Europe
         Margaret Simpson is another heptathlete of African origin, also an outstanding specialist in the javelin.  Her 56.36 throw at 2005 Helsinki Worlds propelled her to the first ever medal won by her country, Ghana, in the history of the championships: a bronze.  She has been struggling for years against injuries in order to regain her past fitness.  This season she has competed in no less than five combined events outings, with victories in Desenzano del Garda, where she achieved her best mark in four years, and the African Games.  In Daegu she finished 14th in a loaded contest.  
         In a discipline as hard as the heptathlon is rare the athlete who gets to stay injury free for a lifetime.  Kamila Chudzik of Poland, the bronze medallist in Berlin-2009, saw how her promising career was cut by a hurting elbow, which sidelined her for the entire 2010 season.  After an unsuccessful return last winter she is expected to come back soon to resume competing.  Meanwhile, Karolina Tyminska keeps the limelight as number one heptathlete in the country.  Tyminska has competed succesfully in the international circuit for years, but usually she had not been at the same level when it matter most.  However, in the last seasons she is getting excellent results also at major championships and not only in her specialty, the 800 meters, where she has run in 2:05.21.  She achieved a 5th place in Barcelona and an awesome 4th in Daegu in a new PB (6544 points), challenging Jennifer Oeser for the bronze medal.  She might be a fearsome contender for London if she gets to improve further on her weakest events as the high jump.
        In the absence of Chudzik, the up-and-coming heptathlete with the biggest progression in the last years is Latvian Aiga Grabuste.  Ida Marcussen has somewhat failed to deliver what was expected from her, after her excellent 6226 score at Osaka Worlds, when she was still a junior.  Notwithstanding, among the new generations, Northern European countries are well represented: Jessica Samuelsson from Sweden, Aiga Grabuste from Latvia, Grit and Grete Sadeiko from Estonia, Laura Ikauniece from Lithuania and Helga Margret Thorsteindottir from Iceland.  Some of them are likely to join the always consistent Austra Skujyte in the top places of the major championships in the years to come.
           Jessica Samuelsson is the oldest of the group. She was famously denied to participate at Beijing Olympics, despite having achieved thrice the A standard.  Carolina Kluft had just renounced to defend her title and it seems the National Federation did not accept any replacement for her.  From then on, Samuelsson has been in every major contest with modest results: 17th in Berlin, 10th in Barcelona and 16th in Daegu, but she is still progressing.  Her sole international victory came at the 2009 Universiade.  Her PR stands at 6182 points, from last Talence meeting.

Aiga Grabuste and Louise Hazel, two of the most promising upcoming heptathletes
Photo: Chris McGrath/ Getty Images Europe

         Much more ambitious is Aiga Grabuste, who owns the Area junior and U-23 titles, achieved in 2007 and 2009 respectively.  In the latter of the outings she went on to a massive score of 6396 points.  After almost a year off the track she has been back this summer, improving further to 6414 in Ratingen, where she was only beaten by Oeser.  Her tally in Daegu (6229), which earned her the 12th place, fell a little short of the expectations but she still needs time to learn how to hold the pressure.  Her successor as U-23 champion was Grit Sadeiko.               
 The combined events in both sex categories were among the best finals of Ostrava U-23 and Tallin Junior European championships.  In the former competition Sadeiko, Czech Katerina Cachova and Belarus Yana Maksimava, all of them with major junior medals already in their curriculum, battled for the gold after the very last event.  The final results can not be compared to what Grabuste did in the precedent edition but winner Sadeiko (6134) smashed her previous PB by more than 300 points and runner-up Cachova (6123) by more than 200. Quartermilers Denisa Rosolova and Zuzana Hejnova, who have tried successfully the combined events, are now focused in their favoured distances, where they are among the best specialist in the world; but the Czech Republic still keep an excellent young heptathlon team with 2010 Kladno winner Eliska Klucinova and the newly arrived Katerina Cachova. 
      Grit Sadeiko has a younger sister, Grete, who is also a heptathlete. It seems sport amateur parents are following the trend of aping fairy tales to give their daughters almost identical names and enrol them in the same athletic discipline, maybe to confound statisticians; so we have now long jumpers Jana and Dana Veldakova from the Czech Republic, hammer throwers Marina and Zalina Marghieva from Moldova and heptathletes Grit and Grete Sadeiko from Estonia.        
            Grete could not win a bronze medal at last year’s World Junior championship like her sister Grit did in Bydgoszcz but she is still eligible for the next edition, which will be held in Barcelona. In a still more emotive final than the U-23 in Ostrava, Grete Sadeiko, Thorsteindottir, Ikauniece and German Tilia Udelhoven were all separated by less than 22 points before the last event, the 800 metres, for the bronze medal.  In an agonistic final the Icelandic runner won the race, just ahead Sadeiko, grabbing the medal by 1 point over the Estonian. Dutch Dafne Schippers confortably won the contest, achieving five PBs in the process, ahead of Sara Gambetta.  The same duo repeated place and medal at Tallin’s European Junior.  Schippers collected 6153 points, a better tally than the one Grit Sadeiko needed to claim the elders title, but still inferior to the national junior record she had achieved in Gotzis (6172).  On the other hand, Gambetta, over 6100, set the fourth German mark in the yearly lists, ahead the likes of Rath and Schwerdtner, while Ikauniece and Udelhoven also broke the 6000 points barrier in an extremely good contest.

            Jolanda Keizer and Yvonne Wisse-Van Langen are still struggling to be back into the elite but the Dutch team has already been reinvigorated by the young blood of Paris indoor medallist Remona Fransen and especially Dafne Schippers.  This one, who takes inspiration from national record holder and 2006 European silver medallist Karin Ruckstuhl, is the ultimate heptathlon star and she will be soon challenging the best provided she can improve on her only weak event, the high jump.  For the moment she preferred in Daegu focus in the 200 metres, where she almost reached the final, after running a groundbreaking 22.69 in her heat.
Dafne Schippers from the Netherlands, the World Junior Champion in Moncton
Photo: Chris Trotman/ Getty Images North America