In international terms, the women’s High Jump was among the most eagerly-anticipated events of these 29th European Indoor Championships. For the capacity crowd at Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena, it was the women’s 400. And both Belgian ace Tia Hellebaut and Briton Nicola Sanders certainly didn’t disappoint.
2.05 for Hellebaut
Providing a thrilling follow-up to her win in Gothenburg last summer, the 29-year-old Hellebaut capped a sensational display of jumping this afternoon with a first-attempt clearance of 2.05, the highest in the world this season, another national record for the Belgian and a championships record.
“This was just amazing,” said Hellebaut, the shock winner of last summer’s outdoor continental championships. In Gothenburg last August, Hellebaut, who is also a standout heptathlete, raised her personal best to 2.03 over a fabulously strong field. Here in Birmingham, she easily outdid herself with a phenomenal series in which she sailed over 2.01, 2.03 and 2.05 all on her first attempt. “It just felt so easy. I can’t explain it.” It was the first time she ever jumped at 2.05, and even followed-up with a try at a would-be World record of 2.09.
While a clearance that would tie her with Croatia’s Blanka Vlasic as the fourth best jumper of all time could hardly be accurately described as “easy”, the contest for the title was in the end just that.
Five of the eight finalists had leaped two metres or better this season, but at the biggest competition of the indoor season, none but the Belgian were able to approach that barrier today. Italy’s Antonietta Di Martino, Bulgaria’s pre-meet world leader Venelina Veneva and Spanish champion Ruth Beitia came closest, though topping out at a more modest 1.96. The Italian, who supplanted former World record holder Sara Simeoni as the national record holder, ended her indoor coming out season with the silver medal, beating Veneva on count-back. Vlasic, the World indoor silver medallist, was listless, and finished fifth with a 1.92 best, while defending champion Anna Chicherova tied for sixth at the same height.
With her 50.02, Sanders enters international elite
But Hellebaut’s stellar performance was arguably nearly matched by Sanders, the 24-year-old who easily handled the heavy burden as overwhelming favourite with an even more overwhelming victory in the 400 metres. Not even her strongest supporters expected a winning time of 50.02, one that elevated her all the way to No. 5 all-time indoors. Not only did she shatter Katherine Merry’s Commonwealth record of 50.53, more importantly her performance landed Sanders as a promising force on the international stage as the focus begins to shift to August’s World Championships in Osaka.
“I knew that if I didn't win that everybody would be on to me,” said Sanders, who covered the first lap in a very quick 23.31. “I tried to ignore the pressure but it does get to you eventually, and I'm absolutely thrilled to have won despite all that.”
Powering to the lead from the gun, Sanders covered the first lap in 23.31 and never relented until she reached the line nearly a full second ahead of Belarussian Ilona Usovich, who stopped the clock in 51.00, easily a personal best. Further back, Russian Olesya Zykina took third in 51.69.
“The time was really good and it's close to my target for outdoors,” said Sanders, whose outdoor best of 50.68 appears to be relegated to history when she commences her outdoor campaign.
In pursuit of unprecedented double, one down for Chojecka
Although she didn’t decide to take the lead until the final 300 metres, Lidia Chojecka was firmly in control of the 1500 metres from the outset, and cruised to a convincing 4:05.13 victory to take the first half of her weekend double win attempt.
“That race was perfect for me,” said the 30-year-old Pole who arrived in Birmingham as the world leader after her 4:03.73 victory in Stockholm. “The pace was just what I wanted. Even though the time was not the fastest it was a gold medal and that's what we all came here for today.”
Nobody has taken a 1500/3000 double at the European Indoor Championships, and in Sunday’s final over the longer race, Chojecka can expect a fierce battle from host nation favourite Jo Pavey.
Russians Natalya Pantelyeva and Olesya Chumakova performed admirably for the always-powerful Russian squad, briefly giving chase to the Pole before settling for the silver and bronze in 4:06.04 and 4:06.48 respectively, a personal best for the former and a season’s best for the latter.
Briton Helen Clitheroe and Slovenia’s Sonja Roman, who each produced the finest seasons of their careers this winter, controlled the race for the initial 1200 metres before running out of steam. Clitheroe held on to finish a distant fourth (4:08.60) while Roman faded badly over the final lap to finish seventh.
Gomes defends in the Long Jump
Defending champion Naide Gomes of Portugal took firm command of the proceedings in the Long Jump with her opening round leap of 6.73, and after following up with a 6.72, she quickly relegated the competition into one for second. But the 27-year old was hardly finished. In the fifth round, she extended her own national record to 6.89, yet another world-leading performance.
My first jump really put me at ease and I felt that the girls' were always chasing me after that,” said Gomes, who also leapt to the bronze at last year’s World Indoor Championships in Moscow and took the gold in the Pentathlon at the World Indoor Championships in 2004. “In Moscow, I had a good fifth jump so I knew I had plenty of strength in my legs at the end.”
Concepcion Montaner of Spain was equally consistent to finish second after her season’s best leap of 6.69, while Denisa Scerbova equalled the Czech national record of 6.64 to edge Germany’s Bianca Kappler by a mere centimetre to take the bronze.
7.10 World leader for Gevaert in 60m semis
After Kim Gevaert sped to victory in the second semi-final of the 60 metres, it briefly harkened back to Day 5 of last summer’s European Championships when Gevaert and Hellebaut, within a span of four minutes, produced the finest-ever moments in the history of Belgian athletics with their respective victories. This time obviously wasn’t the same, but after her overwhelming 7.10 victory, the fastest in the world this year and another national record for Gevaert, it certainly boded well for her anticipated third consecutive indoor continental dash title.
“I didn’t expect to do so well and I’m amazed by the time,” said Gevaert, whose latest national record came in just her third competition of the winter.
The popular Belgian star easily edged Ekaterini Thanou (7.22) and Susanna Kallur, the Swede who won the 60m Hurdles on Friday. Kallur’s 7.24 was also a personal best.
A personal best of 7.17 propelled Briton Jeanette Kwakye to victory in the first heat, with Russian Yevgeniya Polyakova, Daria Onyska of Poland and former world leader Tezdzhan also advancing to Sunday’s final. The major casualty of the semis was Yeoryia Kokloni of Greece, the 2005 runner-up and bronze medallist in 2002, who was a badly beaten last in the first semi.
The favourites advance in the 800m semis
There were no major surprises in the two semi-finals of the women’s 800, setting up another eagerly-anticipated showdown.
As promised, Slovenia’s World record holder Jolanda Ceplak set the pace from the gun in the first heat before being run down over the final bend by Russian Oksana Zbrozhek, as the pair advanced easily, clocking 1:59.53 and 1:59.84 respectively. Taking the third spot was Briton Marily Okoro, who needed a 1:59.87 personal best, her first trip to sub-two minute territory, to guarantee entry into the final.
The second heat was lead, also as promised by Slovenian No. 2, Brigita Langerholc, until she was run down by Ukraine’s world leader Tetyana Petlyuk (2:00.10) and Briton Jeanny Meadows (2:00.79).
Sunday’s final will see a pair each from Slovenian and Great Britain on the start line. Ceplak and Langerholc indicated that they might discuss the potential of utilizing some team tactics; Meadows said she and Okoro probably would not.
In addition the finals of the 60, 800 and 3000, the closing day includes the finals in the Pole Vault, triple Jump, Shot Put and 4x400 Relay.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF