You could be almost be forgiven for not knowing who Selina Buchel was this time last year when she failed to make the final of her home European Championships in Zurich, but this year is a different story.
After her stunning Swiss 800m record of 1:57.95 at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Paris which hoisted her to fourth on this year’s world list, Buchel is suddenly a serious candidate for a medal at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing next month.
Starting conservatively in the Stade de France, the she finished fastest of the top three that evening to slice almost one second off one of the most durable Swiss records on the books. The time also shattered her personal best by more than two seconds.
Unbeaten this year in low-key races until that evening, Buchel was looking to break through the two-minute barrier for the first time in her career, but not even she was prepared for the time that came up against her name.
“When I saw the time I thought that can’t be right,” the elated 23-year-old told her local press.
“The first 100m was relatively fast and I noticed that the leaders were already a long way ahead. We went through 400 in 57.4. I had never been that fast but I felt good.”
Defeated but not disappointed
Although she approached the final 200 metres conservatively, she let herself off the leash with 100m to go and was closing fast on Kenya’s world champion Eunice Sum and second-placed Rose Marie Almanza of Cuba before she ran out of track.
It may have been her first defeat of the season, but the time more than made up for that. Buchel had definitively arrived on the world stage.
She had already come to note at the 2015 European Indoor Championships in Prague in March, when she slightly surprisingly snatched gold from more fancied rivals, despite her fourth place 12 months before at the IAAF World Indoor Championships.
Since her storming run in Paris she has also collected wins on home soil in Lausanne and Lucerne, the latter also ending with her running faster than two minutes.
An outing in Bellinzona added another sub-2:00 time to her account but at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in London on Saturday she appeared to suffer the effects of five races in three weeks and could only finish eighth.
“There was nothing there,” she explained after that performance. “I had been noticing it for days. I ran out of steam. I was tactically weak and I did not manage to focus.”
It is precisely this focus that she identifies as one of the big changes she has made for 2015.
“This season I set myself the goal, and not only in the big championships, to crank up the nervous tension. Somehow, I have been too relaxed before. The fact that I can now create this tension in each race is a big step for me.”
The small town of Butschwil, with a population of 3300, 70 kilometres east of Zurich, is where Buchel does most of her training throughout the year.
There is no 400m track in the town so if she wants to run on a full-sized track, she has to travel to nearby Wil or simply makes do with the local roads.
Some might raise an eyebrow at such basic facilities at her immediate disposal but Buchel commented that this is what has brought her success so “why change it?”
She did in fact make an exception last winter by attending a training camp in Potchefstroom, South Africa, but discovered to her surprise that, despite the ideal conditions, the group she was with did not do anything they could have done at home.
It’s not a trip she’s likely to make again in the near future. “It makes no sense to go such a long way to do something you can do at home,” she joked.
Buchel is coached by a husband-and-wife team of Urs and Marlis Goldi who have nothing but praise for their charge. “We can always be sure that she carries out what is on the training plan,” said Urs.
For work, Buchel holds down a 30 per cent contract as an urban planner but, once the summer season starts, work takes a back seat.
A crucial crossroads in Buchel’s development was reached with last summer’s disappointment in Zurich.
“I realised I just wasn’t good enough,” she confessed. As a result of that revelation, she set about a radical restructuring of training with more speed work and more strength training. “My running style is now more controlled and more economic,” she explained. “I’m also faster over 400m.”
A carefully constructed competitive plan has helped her make significant strides.
Not stuck for speed
Having boosted her confidence with a series of low-key races this summer, Paris was the leap in quality that was needed to move to the next level.
Whereas in Paris she held back, in Lucerne last Tuesday she was ready to follow the fast pace – 56.70 at the bell – and kick off that with 200 metres to go and hold off all the attacks that came down the straight.
“I have never run that fast in my life,” she said of that first 400m. “But I managed to get stuck in and keep my advantage to the line.”
All of which will make it interesting to see how she fares in her biggest challenge to date in Beijing.
Switzerland has not had an athlete on the IAAF World Championships podium since Viktor Rothlin won a bronze in the marathon in 2007. At the last edition in Moscow, no Swiss athlete finished in the top eight in their event.
But with the fourth-fastest time in the world this season, she needs fear no one. “Yes, that is definitely the case,” she affirmed. “Now I know I can go with any pace. I am looking forward to it.”
Michael Butcher for the IAAF