Daniele Meucci taking European 10,000m bronze in Barcelona (/Bongarts) © Copyright
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After Barcelona surprise, Meucci now looking for next breakthrough

Italy enjoyed a resurgence of its glorious distance running past this summer thanks to Daniele Meucci who won a surprise European Championships bronze medal in the 10,000 metres in Barcelona. He became the first Italian distance runner to win a European medal since 1990, the year of the legendary 5000/10,000m European Championships double gold scored by Salvatore “Totò” Antibo at the Poljud Stadium in Split.

In a breathtaking finish, Meucci lost the silver medal by the narrowest of margins to Briton Chris Thompson with both runners clocked at 28:27.33 in the wake of distance double winner Mo Farah. But his bronze medal meant a lot to Italian athletics, a country still looking for the heir to legendary runners Venanzio Ortis, Salvatore Antibo, Alberto Cova, Francesco Panetta and Stefano Mei.

“I did not expect to win a medal before the race,” Meucci said after his surprise in Barcelona. “I thought that a seventh or eighth place was a more realistic goal. When I saw that I was in good shape I tried. During the race I realized in the last km that I could get a medal, one that came after eight years of sacrifices,” he added, thanking his Luigi Principato, the Italian Army the others who have supported his career.

“I am enjoying this medal now three months after Barcelona,” Meucci said, looking back at his fantastic performance.

Following Solinsky’s lead

This year non-African long distance runners on the track witnessed a resurgence mainly thanks to American rising star Chris Solinsky who dipped under 27 minutes in the 10,000 metres and clocked three sub-13 minute performances in the 5000m. Italy is trying to return to its past glory after some difficult years, thanks especially to a new generation of runners led by Meucci, former European junior and Under 23 Cross Country champion Andrea Lalli – he was seventh in the Barcelona 10,000m - and Stefano La Rosa, this year a 5000m European championships finalist.
“Solinsky is not the only top runner who can run fast in the long distance races on the track because there are many fast runners emerging,’ Meucci said. “Americans showed that non-africans can emerge at world level.”

From football to the track

Meucci, a 25-year-old runner from Navacchio near Pisa in Tuscany, began his sport career as a promising left winger for the the local football club but his distance running talent was spotted by Luigi Principato, a passionate local coach who convinced him to focus on athletics.

“I played football for 11 years until I was 16 years old. I was spotted at school when I was 17. I began with cross-country races. I started training seriously after continuing improvements in my performances but at the beginning university and studies had the priority over athletics.”

DMeucci has been coached by former middle-distance runner Principato since 2003. The Italian middle-distance hope competed for the local club Polisportiva Corso Italia until the end of 2004 when he was recruited by the Esercito, the Italian Army Sports Group.

He made his debut on the international stage in 2004 at the World Junior Championships in Grosseto, just a few kilometres from his town but his inexperience at International level cost him and resulted in a DNF in the 10,000m.

Illustrating versatility up to the Marathon

In the following years he continued his progress by improving his PBs on the track. He confirmed to have reached a new level in 2006 when he finished tenth in the 10,000 metres at the European Championships in Gothenburg and won the European Under 23 Cross Country bronze medal on home-soil in San Giorgio su Legnano. One year later Meucci won his first medal on the track when he finished third in the 10000m at the European Under 23 Championships in Debrecen.

He showed to be a gifted runner on the road when he clocked 1:02:43 at the Stramilano Half Marathon in 2009 and made his debut last spring at the Rome Marathon where he finished 11th in 2:13:49. He also finished 18th at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in Birmingham in 2009 where he was the first finisher among Europeans.

“My first goal was to finish the race,” he said of his Marathon debut in Rome. “I suffered from a crisis but I expected it because I didn’t run all kilometres which I needed to be competive in a Marathon. This experience taught me how to resist fatigue.”

The workload paid off in 2010 not only with his 10,000m bronze in Barcelona, but also a respectable sixth place showing in the 5000m. He also improved his PBs on the track to 13:24.38 in the 5000m at the Palio della Quercia in Rovereto and a more impressive 7:43.85 in the 3000m at the Notturna di Milano, the sixth fastest time ever in Italy.

Balancing training and studies

Barcelona marked a big turnaround for Meucci, an engineering student at the University of Information Science and Technology in Pisa. Meucci studies automation engineering and programs robots.

“I have always like mathematics,” Meucci said, adding, “robots do not think but they are fascinating because they can do great things and work alone.”

“It will take me three exams to get the degree. It’s very demanding but I manage to combine athletics and the University thanks to the support of my coach who follows me closely and plans my daily programmes. On the track and at the University it’s a matter of training. I have to train my body and the brain. Every minute of my day is well organised. For this reason I have not enough time to devote to hobbies or free-time activities.”

Asked about the difference between winning a medal and studying for an exam, Meucci said: “These are totally different things but at the same time winning a race can be compared to getting through an exam. An exam is the result of a hard period of studies. A race is similar because it comes at the end of a hard period of training.”

Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF