23 FEB 2001 General News

Ambitious Graf throws down the gauntlet

Ambitious Graf throws down the gauntlet
By Samuel Richards for IAAF

23 February 2001 - The night before the 800 metres final at last year's Olympic Games in Sydney, Stephanie Graf could hardly sleep because of the nervous tension of the greatest moment of her career. If she has any restless nights five months after winning a silver medal behind Maria Mutola in Australia, it is because she knows she could have taken gold.

As the indoor season edges towards its spectacular climax at next month's World Indoor Championships in Lisbon, the finest Austrian runner for more than a century is ready for sweet dreams again.

"Winning in Lisbon would not make up for Sydney," she said. "But it would go some of the way. My aim is to win both the indoor and outdoor titles this year. It is the way I am, very ambitious."

Graf has burst onto the middle-distance scene in brilliant fashion during the past four years and when her name is announced to the crowd, they no longer think German's tennis star Steffi Graf has decided to change sports.

But had Stephanie Graf not been so determined to succeed, she may never have found her way onto the track or into the summer Olympics.

"When I was younger I was a ski-racer," said Graf, 27. "I was so ambitious that if I finished second in an event, I always cried.

"At the age of 11, my parents did not allow me to ski anymore because of the way I was. I wanted to do sport of some kind, it is the reason I have come to athletics."

Her success in Sydney--many athletes would stay up all night if it meant a silver medal--parallels the story of Mutola of Mozambique whose gold was the first in her country's history.

"It is always a big fight between the ski stars and us because of the country's success at skiing," she added. "People were really happy for me. I am told that on the day of the final, the streets were empty because everyone was watching me.

"There is great pressure on me because athletics is not all that popular in Austria because of the domination of winter sports so it was a big step when I achieved what I did."

Graf is determined to carry on her great run of success in Lisbon having dominated the 800m indoor last season, winning the European title in Ghent and being the world leader on the boards with 1:57.80mins.

Triumph in Belgium was her first major title, eclipsing her previous best of taking bronze in the outdoor European Championships in Budapest in 1998.

But this weekend is major part of her Lisbon plans.

Tonight she is back at the Flanders Indoor Arena in Ghent for the third stop-off point in the Energizer Series, which ends in Lievin in Northern France on Sunday. She will meet Mutola again--having beaten her in their first clash in this competition in Stockholm eight days ago before being disqualified in Birmingham last Sunday for pushing the Mozambique Olympic champion who finished second in a race won by Hasna Benhassi of Morocco in 1:5.86.

With every run and every medal, Graf increases her reputation having been attracted to the 800m because her mother Rita (nee Merva) was the Austrian champion at the distance in 1974.

And with every success, she becomes a star in her own right...to show the world of sport can have two S. Grafs.

She recalled: "At my first World Championships in Athens in 1997, when the hotel heard that Stephanie Graf was coming they made extra security checks and then they realised it was not the tennis player. It was funny, they were disappointed!

"The people who are interested in sport know there are two 'Steffi Grafs' and things like that do not happen now."

But they have come face-to-face.

"She was in my town playing in the Federation Cup," said Graf, who lives in Valckermarkp in Southern Austria. "We had a picture together but she was very stressed and couldn’t talk for long."