02 MAY 2004 General News Naumburg

World champion Yelena Nikolayeva adds Naumburg victory to her collection of titles

Yelena Nikolayeva (RUS) in action in Naumburg (Getty Images)Yelena Nikolayeva (RUS) in action in Naumburg (Getty Images) © Copyright

The heat of May day in was replaced the morning after by cool and damp conditions, conducive for fast times and attacking tactics.

Veteran Russian World champion Yelena Nikolayeva doesn't race often, but she has little need to refine her standard tactics in world competition - gritting her teeth and walking clear away.

There was plenty of thigh slapping as the field of one hundred and four women huddled for warmth before the start. They flocked tightly together for a while after the start until a group of four gently eased ahead, shepherded by World champion Yelena Nikolayeva, with her fellow Russian Tatiana Gudkova, Italy's Elisa Riguado and this year's fastest performer Hongjuan Song (CHN) close by.

This leading group was closely tracked by Gillian O'Sullivan of Ireland and Potsdam-based Melanie Seeger (GER).

Sydney Olympic Games champion Liping Wang was keeping in touch with the two other Chinese Na Shi and Jing Jiang also close together.

At 5 km with Yuliya Voyevodina and Tatyana Kozlova in the second group behind, Russia held the team lead ahead of China, followed by Italy.

One kilometre later, just as Gudkoa received a second warning, Yelena Nikolyeva threw down the gauntlet.

Only Hongyuan Song of China attempted to live with her pace - and a gap began to stretch behind to the other main contenders.

By 10km, after putting in a 40 second faster second 5km split to reach half way in 43:30, Nikoleyva was 15 seconds ahead of Song while the chasing group containing all the other main contenders held back.

At the one hour point, IAAF Race Walk Grand Prix leader Elisa Riguado, rose to the challenge, quickly catching and passing Song but, by Nikolayeva was searing away relentlessly. A 21:43 5km split for a 35 second lead at 10km, on the twisting course, found her almost out of sight in front.

Gudkova of Russia received her last warning to move China into the leading team position.

No champion in this quality of field can take victory for granted of course but there was little reason for concern at 15km. Riguado and Song cutting just three seconds into the lead but Nikolayeva herself increased her own third 5km split by the same margin.

World Championships silver medallist Gillian O'Sullivan was just a further 9 seconds behind looking determined to repeat her Paris position followed by Jane Saville of Australia, Maria Vasco (ESP) and Jing Jiang (CHN). The chase seemed to be for just second place after they worked together to rein in Hongjuan Song.

Before the bell lap the trend suddenly swung in favour the chasers. For the first time, Nikolayeva showed a sign of weakness - she looked round to check her lead.

She didn't register concern but at the bell (17.5km) the gap was down to 25 seconds.

By then as the chasers themselves started to live dangerously, O'Sullivan received a second warning and Saville was in the same precarious position. Battling elbow to elbow, they still chased all they could while up ahead Nikolayeva's stride length shortened and her expression became pained.

It was Jiang Jiang, emerged from behind Saville and O'Sullivan, who surged to drastically reduce the gap, taking Maria Vasco tracking her. With a kilometre to go the gap was a mere 9 seconds.

Wearily, Nikolayeva, made the same wide turn, and made the same look sideways as a lap before - this time she showed an expression closer to panic. Her reaction however, was one of a true champion.

"I was a little curious so I looked behind" said Nikolayeva, "I saw the Chinese coming so I decided to give every last bit of power I had in the last in the last few metres".

Indeed she pulled together every bit of her vast experience in one moment to get back to a winning margin of ten seconds at the finish line.

"Race Walking is an obsession for me" was the motivation for the continued success of the champion from Cheboksary. In her sixth contested World Cup, she regained the World Cup title she won in 1999.

"My first World Cup was back in New York in 1987, and I have also contested 4 Olympic Games."

The champion remained humble however in the press conference afterwards next to the other medallists Jing Jiang of China and Maria Vasco of Spain.

"The main thing I was thinking of was the team and my Olympic selection. My rivals are getting younger and younger, and stronger and stronger."

With the President of the Russian Chuvash Republic Nikolaj Fjoderov calling her mobile phone immediately she was presented with her winning medal and with her husband and coach Anatoly at her side - it seems there's plenty of motivation and support for Yelena to continue to Athens and also regain her Olympic title.