How long will it be before the Netherlands’ super-talented Dafne Schippers challenges the more established stars of the heptathlon for the medals at a major senior international championship?
Will it be at the 2013 IAAF World Championships or the 2014 European Championships. Or are those dates with destiny too premature?
One thing seems certain: the 20-year-old is on an upward trajectory. It seems only a matter of time before she can battle on level terms with the likes of Olympic champion Jessica Ennis, Natalia Dobrynska, Tatyana Chernova or the rest of the world’s top combined events exponents.
Makes her mark in Moncton
Schippers collected the 2010 world junior heptathlon gold medal in Moncton, Canada two years ago. Last year, she added the European junior title in Tallinn and this summer she finished 12th at her first ever Olympic Games.
Originally from Utrecht but now living in Arnhem, she first emerged as a rising star in the heptathlon at the 2009 European Junior Championships in Novi Sad, Serbia, where she finished fourth with 5507.
One year later, she made her real breakthrough in Moncton where she won the world junior crown with a personal best of 5967, beating Germany’s Sara Gambetta in a competition where she improved in four individual events.
Schippers also won three individual events outright in Moncton: the 200m – with an impressive if slightly wind-assisted run of 23.41 – the 100m hurdles and the long jump.
“I was very glad with my gold in Moncton," she said. "I started as one of the favourites but it was just my second appearance at a major championships, so I tried to focus on just doing every event as good as possible and I didn’t focus on winning."
She progressed further in 2011 and won a junior continental title in the Estonian capital with a superb score of 6153, having put together a world-leading tally of 6172 in Gotzis a few months earlier.
She opened with a Dutch junior 100m hurdles record of 13.27, faster than the time recorded to win the individual title in this championship.
In the 200m, she clocked 22.91 and missed her best by just 0.01, running faster than the winning time of the British sprinter Jodie Williams when winning the 200m title in 22.94, and in the long jump she set a national junior record of 6.47m, again farther than the winning distance in the individual event.
However, Schippers had an erratic competition in the other disciplines in Tallinn with marks of 1.63m in the high jump, 39.76m in the javelin and 2:22.40 in the 800m.
She had a lead of just 14 points over Gambetta before the 800m and had to stay ahead of the German to secure the win, but in the end finished two places in front of her German rival to secure victory.
“In Tallinn I just wanted to win," she said. "I was world junior champion. I wanted to be the best again, so it wasn’t so easy. My whole competition was filled with ups and downs. I set two national junior records but I didn’t perform as I hoped in the high jump and javelin. I won the gold medal but it was a tough competition and I learned from this experience.”
The following month, at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, she opted to run the 200m and clocked a highly impressive Dutch 200m record of 22.69 in her heat before running 22.92 in the semi-finals.
Shippers showed that her Korean outing was no fluke when she came close to another 200m national record at the 2012 European Championships and clocked 22.70 in the semi-finals.
The performance made her a medal favourite but in the final she could not repeat her outstanding semi-final time and had to settle for fifth place. However, she eventually went home with a medal from Helsinki after she was part of the Dutch 4x100m relay team that took the silver medals behind Germany.
Schippers can also boast of some other impressive sprint times, such as 7.19 in the 60m, 11.19 over 100m and 8.18 for the 60m hurdles.
“I ran the 200m in Daegu to gain experience. It was great to break the national record there. In Helsinki, I just wanted to reach the final. Winning the relay medal was not easy. We knew it wouldn’t be easy but we have a good young team that made a big step forward this year.”
In the heptathlon, she made further strides forward, improving her best across the seven events from 6172 to 6360 when finishing seventh on her return to Gotzis before scoring 6324 in London.
“It was a really big event," said Schippers of her first Olympic experience. "There were a lot of enthusiastic people in a big stadium.
“Gotzis 2011 was my first big competition against the best heptathletes in the world. It was great to come back this year and improve my PB. Running the 200m in under 23 seconds with 22.90 was very special. I knew I was very fast but I had to run against Jessica Ennis, who was very fast too. I was very happy to improve my time in 2012."
In the London 2012 heptathlon, Schippers took a narrow win in the 200m over local heroine Ennis, winning in 22.83 although both women were given the same time. She also set two PBs, in the high jump with 1.80m and in the 800m with 2:15.82.
“For now, I choose the heptathlon as my main event so my training is focused on this. I will go on sprinting but I only train for sprinting once a week. I am planning to compete in the heptathlon at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow.”
Schippers started with athletics before she entered her teens.
“I was nine years old and just started to do all the events," she said. "This is how many athletes start in the Netherlands. I also practiced some gymnastics and tennis. At the beginning, I just started with my athletics club and never thought about doing it seriously.
“When I was 16 years old, I was invited to train with the national team. Only then did I realise that I could do well. What I like about the heptathlon is the diversity and the training.
“I need to work on my throws, especially the javelin, and the high jump. I need to be more consistent in all seven events. I train nine times a week during the heavy period of training and six-to-seven times in a light week.”
Outside of the sporting arena, Schippers enjoys staying with her family in her spare time. “I have one older brother and one older sister. My father is a physiotherapist and my mother is a teacher at an elementary school.
“When I am not training, I like staying with my family or walking with my dog," she added. "I started my studies to become an elementary school teacher but I have put that on hold to focus on my training. I would like to attend a course to get better in English.”
Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF