Nothing much has changed over the years at the Europa Shopping Centre High Jump competition. The winners were from Croatia and Sweden, just like always.
And as she has done in three of her four appearances here, Blanka Vlasic took the women’s crown with a 2.00 leap. The new feature, after the retirement of Stefan Holm, was his replacement on the men’s podium in the person of Swedish countryman Linus Thörnblad, who left a sick bed late last week, made the difficult trip to central Slovakia, and then equalled the indoor season’s best performance with 2.36. Perhaps this is a start of his own dominance of this annual fixture, now in its 16th year.
40th time over 2m for Vlasic
It’s been a heavy indoor season for high jump competitions, both in specialty meetings and in full-programme fixtures. As a result, the demand for the jumpers has been continually high, and the stock of international-level jumpers has often been stretched thin. Further complicating the picture this week are the Russian Championships, which serve to reduce the number of available competitors even more.
Still, an elite group of international calibre jumpers cleared out their schedules and trekked through snowing conditions to the somewhat isolated city of Banská Bystrica to test the legendary jumping floor there.
The women’s competition was resumed three years ago after a four year hiatus at the start of this decade. Since then, Blanka Vlasic has dominated the results, winning three of those four matches including last night’s 2.00 victory. It was the 40th consecutive competition at 2.00 or higher for the Beijing silver medallist.
But in a repetition of last Saturday’s contest in Stuttgart, when she needed a third attempt at a rather workaday 1.98, the Croatian had to fight from behind again, as Ruth Beitia’s first-jump clearance at that same 1.98 (equaling the Spaniard’s season best) kept her slate perfect as she held the lead over Vlasic, who nicked the bar on her first attempt. Vlasic’s second-attempt success brought both jumpers to the benchmark 2.00, which the Croatian cleared by a large margin on her first attempt as if to make a statement, while Beitia exited the competition at this point, although not before making a superb try on her third attempt.
Vlasic then called for a would-be world-leading 2.05 - also the current meeting record here - but the height was not to be part of her resumé tonight.
“I expected 2.05 tonight,” she told the crowd. “But I felt tired. I don’t feel so good today.” Continuing her assessment, Vlasic was of the opinion that her technique was good, “but I didn’t have any strength at the end. I couldn’t react properly. I feel really warm inside. I hope to jump on Sunday in Karlsruhe, but it will depend on if I’m still healthy at the end of the week.”
Finishing behind the top pair was French jumper Melanie Skotnik whose 1.95 was a season best. Her final attempt at a would-be French record 1.98 was tantalizingly close and would have erased 1.97 marks established in the colours of both her native Germany and her adopted France.
Iva Straková’s fourth-place 1.89 was considerably off her usual level, as was the 1.85 from fifth-place Barbora Laláková, though still a season best for the Czech record holder at 1.99. Italy’s Elena Meuti came sixth, also at 1.85 and also a year best.
A sudden snow storm which descended on central Slovakia the afternoon before the meeting was a reminder of this city’s location at the foot of the Tatra mountains, one of Europe’s renowned winter sports regions. Unseasonably warm temperatures of just over the freezing point the next morning quickly reduced the 20 centimetres of wet snow to an annoying slush, but it still left the streets and roads easily passable for the capacity crowd in the Stiavnicky Sport Hall.
Thörnblad and Williams clear 2.36
The few seats still empty in the late afternoon for the women’s competition were completely filled as the men took the stage in the early evening.
Their competition started hot and stayed that way, as 13 of the 15 starters cleared 2.20, with only four exiting at 2.24.
A big separation expectedly came at 2.28, as Italy’s Nicola Ciotti, Linus Thörnblad of Sweden and American Jesse Williams opened with successful jumps, with Ukrainian Viktor Shapoval clearing on his second.
The Swede, who a week ago was too ill to jump in a big competition of his hometown of Malmö, rebounded well from forced inactivity to issue a challenge to the others with a first-jump clearance at 2.30, equalling his season best.
Ciotti and Williams found success on their third tries, as three competitors advanced to 2.32.
Jumping ahead of Williams in the order, Thörnblad kept applying the pressure by opening with a clearance, but the American countered successfully on the next jump, as Ciotti dropped out at this height in third place, though with an extremely close effort on his opening try.
At 2.34, Thörnblad continued his torrid pace as he opened with a clearance, forcing the American to pass. The strategy failed for Williams, as the Swede unbelievably flew over an equal-world-leading 2.36 on his first try.
Not fazed by the pressure, Williams did exactly the same for his third equal-or-better PB in the last three competitions, and the bar went to a world-leading 2.38.
That is where things finally came to an end, although winner Thörnblad’s final 2.38 jump was an excellent try.
New technique pays off
“When I started tonight, I had no idea of what to expect. Perhaps 2.25, perhaps 2.35,” said Thörnblad afterwards. “After my flu went away, I had a hard training on Sunday, and I ended up with a small pain in my leg. Monday’s session was really up and down, so it left me a bit unsure of how things would go here.”
The Swede revealed a radical change in his technique this season, which seems to already be paying dividends. “I decided to change my approach during this indoor season. But I’ve been sick several times in the last two months, and I really haven’t been able to practice it like I would have liked. Tonight was a revelation for me. The new approach could be a big step for me. It’s only the second competition in which I’ve used it.”
Though enjoying his third PB in the last three competitions, Williams was visibly annoyed at not winning. His strategy of passing at 2.34, which if cleared would still have left him in second, was a logical one. But when Thörnblad immediately soared over 2.36, there was nothing else for the American to do but try and match it.
“You always have to try PBs,” he said axiomatically. “I knew it would be a PB and a share of the world lead if I made it. But realistically, a week ago, I never thought I’d be on a tear like I’m on now.”
The American admitted to being totally fatigued at the end of the evening. “I really didn’t think I had ‘36’ in me,” he admitted. “It was pure adrenalin. If I didn’t have the crowd with me, plus Linus pushing me to the max, I probably wouldn’t have made it.”
For Ciotti, the competition was a vindication of a decision he made last year to have Achilles surgery. “I felt pain in the area during 2007, but since I had already achieved the Osaka limit, I felt I had to continue,” the ebullient Italian recalled. “Maybe it was a mistake to take such a risk. But last year, when I missed the Olympics, I was at the crossroads of my career - I had to decide between retiring or having surgery. It had been three years since any 2.30 jumps for me. But I’m happy I chose to put my faith in the doctors last October, because the surgery has given a new start to my career at age 32.”
For the fifteen men who came to Banská Bystrica, more than half – eight - left the arena by at least equaling their season best. Tonight, it paid to fight the snow and visit the magic floor of the Stiavnicky Sport Hall.
Ed Gordon for the IAAF
1. Thörnblad (SWE) 2.36 =WL [2.20 – 2.24 – 2.28 – 2.30 – 2.32 – 2.34 – 2.36 – 2.38/xxx]; 2. Williams (USA) 2.36 =WL [2.20 – 2.24 – 2.28 – 2.30/3 – 2.32 – 2.34/p – 2.36 – 2.38/xxx]; 3. N Ciotti (ITA) 2.30 [2.14 – 2.20 – 2.24/3 – 2.28 – 2.30/3 – 2.32/xxx]; 4. Shapoval (UKR) 2.28; 5. Oni (GBR) and Horák (SVK) 2.24; 7. G Ciotti (ITA) 2.24; 8. Bermejo (ESP) 2.24; 9. Kalafus (SVK) and Pérez (CUB) 2.20; 11. Protsenko (UKR) 2.20; 12. Ton (CZE) 2.20; 13. Kabelka (SVK) 2.20; 14. Grant (GBR) 2.08. No height: Durkac (SVK) at 2.08.
1. Vlasic (CRO) 2.00 [1.85 – 1.89 – 1.98/2 – 2.00 – 2.05/xxx]; 2. Beitia (ESP) 1.98 [1.85 – 1.92 – 1.95 – 1.98 – 2.00/xxx]; 3. Skotnik (FRA) 1.95; 4. Straková (CZE) 1.89; 5. Laláková (CZE) 1.85; 6. Meuti (ITA) 1.85; 7. Kovalenko (UKR) 1.80. No height: Dobrynska (UKR) at 1.75.