It’s been a decade since Maria Mutola made her first appearance at these World Championships, and yet again, she has proved why she has dominated the 800m for almost as long.
Instead of wasting energy running from the front, where she would have provided a target for her Austrian rival Stephanie Graf, Mutola let Laetitia Vriesde set a fast pace and then Graf kick for home before she made her own move. By delaying her final sprint so late – Mutola went past Graf with only metres of the race remaining – she not only provided the capacity crowd with a thrilling finish, but proved her confidence was sky high.
“That comes from winning two major titles (Olympic and World Indoors) in less than a year. I have been around a long time now and I have the experience when it matters. But I did leave it late!” she joked, and with only 0.18 sec between first and third, the finish resembled a sprint, rather than a two-lap race. “Laetitia and Stephie gave me a really, really tough race today. It was very tactical – but also exciting for the spectators,” said Mutola.
After her victory, Mutola graciously acknowledged her rivals and admitted that she had been expecting a tough race long before arriving in Edmonton, especially because she had lost to Graf in Paris and Oslo, and been pushed hard by Fabiane dos Santos in Monaco.
With dos Santos disqualified for a doping offence, Mutola then had to face a new threat in Vriesde, who started her season poorly, but peaking to perfection at these Championships, running a seasonal best of 1:57.35. She admitted after the race that, at 36, she was running out of opportunities to win a medal to add to the silver she won back in 1995. “It took a lot out of me emotionally, but I knew that the only way I could win a medal was by running from the front. Coming into the home straight, I was praying: ‘Stephanie and Maria, please don’t pass me, don’t pass me!’ When I crossed the line I knew I was third, but I still needed to ask someone ‘was it me?’”
Vriesde had been impressive throughout the rounds, clocking 1:59.58 in the semi-final, despite leading for virtually the entire race. After training for two years with Luiz de Oliveira, the Brazilian coach who master minded the careers of two legendary front runners 1984 Olympic 800m champion Joaquim Cruz, and Jose Luiz Barbosa, who was twice a World silver medallist, her tactics are less of a surprise. “Luiz trains us to go out in front like a champion and not be afraid of anyone else. If someone wants to beat you they have to come and get you, and that’s what happened today.”
For the popular Austrian, a self-effacing star who jokes about being called “Silver Steffi” back home, there was no disgrace in her latest second place finish: “I am not frustrated today. During the medal ceremony I was really excited and proud. This was a really perfect race. I had to make a decision – whether to stay behind Maria and maybe end up third – or follow Letitia and go for the gold. I couldn’t have waited because Letitia may have stayed in front. I wouldn’t say I made a mistake. It was very close and I just needed more luck. Today Maria was the lucky one.”