Melbourne, Australia As the Olympic year IAAF World Challenge Series opens in Melbourne this weekend a Alex Parnov-trained vaulter is going ever-higher. It is not Steve Hooker. A horizontal jumper is going ever further. It is not Mitchell Watt; nor is it Fabrice Lapierre.
Alana Boyd and Henry Frayne are the athletes in question. Along with female international athlete of the year Sally Pearson and Kenyan middle-distance maestros David Rudisha and Asbel Kiprop, they will vie for the spotlight at the Melbourne Track Classic on Saturday (3) night.
The 27-year-old Boyd has rebounded from the disappointment of missing the final of the women’s Pole Vault at last year’s World Championships with a series of outstanding performances in the Australian season.
At an Interclub meeting in Perth last Friday night Boyd cleared an Australian record 4.76m, taking her to 11th on the outdoor world all-time list (and 13th on the combined outdoor-indoor list). This year she has moved past former World record holder Emma George and Kym Howe to the top of the Australian all-time list.
With Watt taking a cautious approach to injury rehab and missing the Australian domestic season, and Lapierre not in great form, Frayne has been the star jumper of the Australian season.
The 21-year-old moved to Brisbane a couple of years ago to train with Watt’s coach, Gary Bourne. The switch paid off with a 17.04m Triple Jump personal best last year, followed by ninth place in the World Championships final in Daegu.
Despite improving further to 17.09m this season, Frayne still does not have the 17.20m Olympic A-standard. Two weekends ago in Sydney, however, he produced an 8.27m effort in his ‘other’ jump, surpassing the Olympic standard in the Long Jump.
Suddenly, even in the absence of Hooker, Watt, Jana Pittman and several other stars, Australia has two more world-class performers to get excited about. No longer is Pearson carrying the season almost single-handed.
Mind you, Pearson could do so, if required. Although her Olympic goal is the hurdles, she will do three events at the two-day Olympic trials, the hurdles and the 200m on the IWC night of 3 March, and the 100m on the opening night of 2 March.
Add in Rudisha and Kiprop at the head of a list of internationals, and you have an exciting mix. For added relish, the meeting has been incorporated into the trials to determine Australia’s team for the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Rudisha, the World record holder and World champion, and America’s World Championships finalist Nick Symmonds stand out at the top of the 800m field. Rudisha has opened his season with a 1:43 in Melbourne each of the past two years and will no doubt be looking to make a similar statement at the start of the Olympic year. A sub-46 seconds 400m in Sydney on 18 February suggests he is in good shape.
Jeff Riseley, the only Australian to have bettered the Olympic A-standard, and last year’s Universiade champion Lachlan Renshaw will be keen to leverage the presence of the two internationals to secure a fast time.
Olympic trials considerations mean the 1500m has been brought forward to the Friday night. Amazingly, Kiprop’s win in the Sydney 800m was his first victory in several recent visits to Australia.
He will be keen for another win here, though the form of America’s David Torrence (3:35.66 in Sydney) suggests he will have to be on his mettle. New Zealand’s Nick Willis, the Beijing Olympic silver medallist, has come across the Tasman to compete, while Ryan Gregson, Riseley, Jordan Williams and World indoor selection Ryan Foster head the Australian challenge.
The men’s 5000m closes the meeting with its traditionally strong field. Collis Birmingham has already run 13:15 this season and a win would confirm his place in the London team. Craig Mottram, Ben St Lawrence and David McNeill will be among the Australians trying to thwart him, as will Kenyan steepler Jairus Kipchoge, British pair Andy Vernon and Nick McCormack and Americans Brandon Bethke, Lee Emmanuel, Will Leer and Ben True.
The women’s 1500m pits Australia’s A-qualified pair of Kaila McKnight and Zoe Buckman against Susan Kuijken of the Netherlands, Hannah Newbould of New Zealand and Sara Vaughn of the USA. In the 800m, it will be former World indoor champion Tamsyn Manou up against Kelly Hetherington and Japan’s 2:01.90 performer Ruriko Kubo.
Youcef Abdi should win the men’s 3000m Steeplechase, the interest as much in how close the improving James Nipperess can get to him.
Sprints and hurdles
Having seen off last year’s world top-10 ranked Nia Ali in Perth and Sydney, Sally Pearson will have another American to contend with in the 100m Hurdles.
Yvette Lewis blew her chance of making the team for Istanbul 2012 when she false started in the final at the US championships. She is a late addition to the Melbourne hurdles field.
Lewis’s best is 12.76 and she is coming off good indoor form. Pearson has already run 12.66 outdoors and is heading for the World indoors after Melbourne.
Pearson said in Melbourne on Thursday that hitting the last hurdle in Sydney cost her a tenth of a second. She believes she is in 12.5 shape. Lewis will need to go hard to keep up.
Then there is the matter of the 200m in which Pearson hopes for a favourable wind and a long-awaited sub-23 clocking.
The men’s 400m will test how far resurgent John Steffensen has come. Wins in Perth and Sydney suggest it is a fair way as he displays his best domestic form for quite a few years. Not everyone’s cup of tea, Steffensen remains a stimulating beverage nonetheless.
Alana Boyd’s 4.76m was her fifth competition at 4.60m or higher in the Australian season. Can she notch a sixth one? And can 17-year-old Liz Parnov again clear 4.50m which would put her in the London team alongside Boyd?
Frayne should have the Triple Jump at his mercy, but he may need most, if not all, his recent 8.27m to prevail over Fabrice Lapierre and Robbie Crowther in the Long Jump. Doha 2010 World indoor champion Lapierre and Crowther are both yet to qualify and, with Mitchell Watt pre-selected, there are only two spots available.
In the men's javelin, Australia's world championships finalist Jarrod Bannister will have his first throw of the season against New Zealand's consistent Stuart Farquhar (80.95 this year).
In the shot put Istanbul-bound Dale Stevenson still needs an Olympic qualifier. He is rounding into form as shown by a 19.83 in Sydney.
The men’s discus sees Daegu fifth placegetter Benn Harradine against Julian Wruck and Sweden’s Robert Melin while 2009 World champion Dani Samuels will be looking for an A-standard 62 metres in the women’s.
Len Johnson for the IAAF