It’s a bit ironic that today is “Selection Sunday” for the NCAA basketball tournament, because this weekend of track and field had the kind of wall to wall action associated with the NCAA Tournament. Between the NCAA & World Indoor Championships; Internet feeds; major time zone differences; and early outdoor track meets; I’ve been watching almost non-stop track and field from Friday afternoon until just a bit ago here on Sunday morning!
Friday afternoon NCAA feed; late night/very early morning Worlds feed; out Saturday to a local high school meet; back in early evening in time to catch the NCAA feed; then very early morning to finish up with the Worlds feed. Now THAT is what track and field should be about – especially since the World Championships finished things up in exciting style! Track and field Nirvana, and it’s only early March! Leaving a ton to talk about. So today I’m going to focus on the World Championships, which had so many highlights and stories that I know I will have to come back once or twice more this week to cover all the details – there was that much going on in Istanbul.
I’m usually not the biggest fan of indoor championship meets. The distances are often odd; the smaller tracks change the structure of some events; and typically lots of stars are missing deferring to preparation for the outdoor season. All that said, the athletes in Istanbul put on a STELLAR show! And it doesn’t get any more stellar than WR’s and this meet had two – one on each of the first two days as the multi event athletes did their thing.
Heading into Turkey it was expected that Jessica Ennis (GBR) and Tatyana Chernova (RUS) were going to give us a winter preview of the Olympic Games. Ennis did just that scoring 4965 points – a NR and the number two performance ever. Unfortunately for Ennis it was only good for silver, and the woman ahead of her was NOT Chernova! In a meet that saw the resurrection of a few former Olympic champions, Beijing Heptathlon gold medalist Natallia Dobrynska (UKR) crushed the field and the former pentathlon WR with 5013 points as she broke the 5000 point barrier while serving notice that she’s ready to defend in London! She was solid across the board and suddenly that Ennis/Chernova battle in London has become a threesome – and if Dobrynska bring it like this in London that two woman battle will be a battle for silver, because Dobrynska was well ahead of the 4742 points she scored in Valencia when she took 4th indoors at Worlds in ‘08 on her way to gold in Beijing.
There was no surprise to either the the winner or the fact that Ashton Eaton (USA) set a WR on his way to the gold medal in the Heptathlon this weekend. Eaton is as good a talent that we’ve seen in the multis since former WR holder Dan O’Brien was ruling things back in the 90’s. As much talent as he has however, there is always the spectre of let downs in some events and the lack of a serious closing distance run. This time around Eaton, like Doborynska, was consistent across the board. What really brought me to my feet however, was the fact that he attacked the final event, the 1000 meters, setting a sizzling pace and never faltering! If Eaton brings it like this outdoors he just might stop us from talking about his “potential” and go out and do something phenomenal in the Decathlon – like take down the 9026 WR of Roman Sebrle.
They were just the leading engine of the highlight train in Turkey. Also beginning to realize his potential was shot put winner Ryan Whiting (USA), as he tossed the shot a huge 22.00m (72’ 2.25”). The former NCAA champion’s WL mark took down David Storl (GER), Tomasz Majewski (POL) and Reese Hoffa – some of the biggest current names in the event. Making the team in this event in the US is tough as it’s one of our deeper field events, but this puts Whiting in a very good position heading outdoors.
Then there was Renaud Lavillenie (FRA) who lived up to his potential in winning the pole vault with an outstanding 5.95m (19’ 6.25’) leap. Lavillenie was almost forced to hit the mark as Brad Walker (USA) passed at 5.85m, after making 5.80m, then missing twice at 5.90m after Lavillenie cleared (follow that). Bottom line is Walker still had a shot at gold before the Frenchman cleared the wining height on his FIRST attempt. Proving that Lavillenie can not only vault high, but he can do it in the clutch – a necessary skill in Olympic competition. He finally looks ready for the Big One.
Speaking of being ready for the Big One, that exactly what Genzebe Dibaba looked like in winning the 1500 meters. We knew she had good genes as the younger sister of Tirunesh – one of the greatest distance runners in history – because she’s run 4:00.13. What she showed in Istanbul is that she also knows how to dismantle a field – as she did expertly this weekend. With the field bunched tightly at the end of the first 200 meter lap, Genzebe merely turned up the heat – lap after lap after lap – stringing the field out slowly until it looked like a funeral procession at the end as she effectively buried the field and set herself up a the current favorite for gold in London. Heading into the indoor season my favorite for London gold was Morgan Uceny, in my opinion the best tactician in the game. She’s still my favorite, a co-favorite with Dibaba, and I’m dying to see them run in London – given both survive tough selection races.
The men’s 400 was supposed to provide a great time and a highlight, and it did – just not the highlight that was expected. Outdoor World champion Kirani James (GRN) was supposed to threaten 44 seconds while demolishing this field. However, a second place in his semi left him with a tough lane draw in lane one – a tough spot to win from. James ran gallantly around the track to try and get the edge heading into the second half of the race, but Nery Brenes (CRC), the man who beat James in their semi, scorched the first 200 in 21.2 from the outside lane to take the pole and control the race. Brenes was never headed, while James had difficulty working his way around the rest of the field. The result, Brenes winning in 45.11 (making him #8 all-time) while James fell back to 6th in 46.21. Now this is no death knell for James, he’s been solid all year in spite of really not being built to run indoors. I do, however, think it signal the arrival of Brenes, because watching him run this was no fluke and I give him a solid shot at making the final in London.
After this weekend I also expect to see Justin Gatlin in London – there I said it. Gatlin demolished both his semi and the final. First running 6.50 in his semi with what was a classic race from start to finish – strong start, good drive, smooth acceleration. He repeated that theme in the final against a fine field that included Trell Kimmons (USA), Nesta Carter (JAM) and Dwain Chambers (GBR). Carter bolted from the blocks in his typical blitz style, but Gatlin was close and coming out of drive phase blew by to a win with clear daylight between he and the rest of the field with Carter second in 6.54 – huge in a world class 60. Gatlin appears to be back to the form that won him gold in Athens (“04) and Helsinki (“05). Next we’ll find out if he can step it up against the likes of Bolt and Gay – who seriously upped the ante during his departure. I do think he will get his shot, because on current form I would only Gay among Americans as strong enough to keep him off the team. I know it’s early and a lot can happen between now and June, but I’ve seen that look from Gatlin before – he’s going to be tough to beat.
Gatlin is going to make it tough to beat him this year, but Yelena Isinbayeva just might be unbeatable. I said the other day that she has her swag back – boy does she. In Istanbul she waited until the field had narrowed itself down to medal contenders before entering the fray at 4.70m (15’ 5”) – clearing on first attempt. She then passed at 4.75m, letting everyone else bow out (including Holly Bleasdale) before clearing 4.80m (15’ 9”) on first attempt – taking only two vaults to win the gold medal! She ten took three shots at a WR 5.02m (16’ 5.75”). She was short but the WR height was the only ting that could beat her on this day – and may be her only real foe right now.
Next is one of the most impressive performances of the meet – and one that was completely unexpected by me. When it comes to the women’s long jump, I’m always on the fence when it comes to predicting Brittney Reese to win. Not because she isn’t talented, but because she is so raw – she just sort of runs down the runway and jumps. there is nothing classic about the way she does it, she does does it. Today she did it again – in historical fashion, flying out 7.23m (23’ 8.75”)! That’s a PR for her – indoors or out. It makes her the #3 long jumper ever indoors. And it puts her oh so close to 24 feet – a distance achieved by only eight women in history! She ran down the runway and did it! I keep wondering what she would do if she “cleaned up” her technique, but maybe I’m looking at the wrong thing with Brittney. Maybe she’s just fine the way she is, and maybe we’ll see her eclipse 24 feet outdoors this year. One thing is for sure, she’s at the top of my long jump list heading into London.
Dobrynska and Gatlin aren’t the only former Olympic gold medalists that made statements in Istanbul, so did Kenya’s ‘08 800 meter sensation Pamela Jelimo (KEN). Jelimo won in Beijing at the tender age of 19, becoming the 3rd fastest 800 runner in history over the course of the season. It looked like the event was in for an overhaul and the WR looked in eminent threat. Then, nothing. No more fast tmes, no more titles, nothing. Well she’s looked good this indoor season and she capped it off with a 1:58.83 WL performance in a race that she dominated. She was always in control, never faltered, was never threatened. She looked like the young lady that won the Games four years ago. There are a handful of serous 800 runners out there, Caster Semenya and Mariya Savinova to name a couple. But judging from this winter’s performances and specifically this meet, they, and anyone else, will have to bring their A+ Game to beat this women, because I think she has her mojo back.
Finally I’m going to close with a race that was close, but won by a woman that has shown she knows how to win – Veronica Campbell Brown (JAM).Tianna Madison (USA) was hands down the top female sprinter this winter heading into Turkey. She had won everything in sight and run fast doing it. She was fast once again in Istanbul, speeding to a 7.09 clocking. This time however, it was only good for 3rd as “VCB” came from behind in the last few meters to win the race in a WL 7.01 – with Muriel Ahoure (CIV) slitting the women in the silver position. VCB did what she does every time the lights come on – run down her lane and drive for the line. She’s tough to beat whenever they put a box of medals near the finish line, and one of the races I’m most looking forward to in London is the potential showdown between VCB and Carmelita Jeter – because it’s going to go down!
These were the biggest of the highlights in a meet that has more to discuss. I’ll be talking about this meet more this week, because so much went down in London.