Jana Pittman had no sooner completed an astonishing golden double of 400 metres and 400 metres hurdles at the World Junior Championships here on Saturday, than she was setting her sights at accomplishing a similar double at Olympic level to match the gold medal-winning feat at the Sydney Games of Australian heroine Cathy Freeman.
Pittman had survived a gruelling race programme of five races in as many days here, winning the 400 metres final on Friday and then withstanding a late surge over the hurdles from Dutch woman Marjolein de Jong to achieve an unprecedented double with victory in 56.27sec to de Jong’s 56.50. Jamaica’s Melaine Walker took the bronze in 56.96.
Even the tough and powerful Pittman was forced to accept that the race programme had almost caught her out. "I have to admit, that last 100 metres was very difficult for me," said the young woman who came to prominence last year when she won the World Youth 400m hurdles title in Poland.
"No one’s ever done this 400-400 hurdles double before, and I wanted to be the first, to make a bit of history."
Three weeks short of her 18th birthday, Pittman is a high school student from Sydney who trains with Melinda Gainsford-Taylor and sometimes also with Freeman, the Australian icon who lit the Olympic flame last month and won the 400m gold.
Pittman said that she was inspired by taking part at the Sydney Games and that she now wants to emulate Freeman’s achievement, and the 1988 400m hurdles gold won by another Australian, Debbie Flintoff-King.
"I wanted to make history here," she said. "The Sydney Olympics were amazing, better than you could ever imagine. It taught me to deal with pressure.
"Now, I want to win gold at the next two Olympics – to match Debbie Flintoff-King’s hurdles gold in 2004, and in 2008, I want to try to match the 400m gold that Cathy Freeman won.
"And if I don’t do it, I’m determined to go down trying.
"Here, I wanted to prove to myself, and to my coach, that the double could be done."
Yet such had been de Jong’s breakthrough here in Santiago, what was supposed to be a comfortable gold run for Pittman on Saturday was turned into a gruelling battle to the line.
"We spoke on the podium. We want to take the rivalry on, into the seniors, to take the event on. Neither of us are good hurdlers – we could both improve by around 2sec just by better hurdling," Pittman said.
Pittman said that she had been especially impressed at the Olympics by the victory in the hurdles of Irina Privalova, the former 100 and 200-metre sprinter who took Sydney gold in only her eight 400 metres hurdles race.
"It shows that a sprint-strength based athlete will always win at hurdles. That’s what Privalova is, and that’s what I am. You can always improve your hurdles technique, but you can never develop speed or strength if you are not naturally talented with it."