Some might say that it was the rainthe first substantial day-long rain in more than a month in drought-stricken central Europe - that took center stage at last night's Intersport Gugl IAAF Grand Prix Meeting in Linz, Austria.
But as far as the 10,500 fans at the Stadium Auf der Gugl were concerned, the highlight of meeting's 15th edition was the first domestic appearance of the year by Austrian athletics flag-bearer, Stephanie Graf. And with her commanding 1:59.05 win in the 800 metres, the Olympic silver medallist didn't dampen the spirits of the enthusastic crowd.
"I was so nervous before the race because I was at home, and I haven't run here in nearly two years," said Graf, who was sidelined during the 2002 outdoor season after undergoing surgery to remove a benign tumor. "So I put a lot of pressure on myself and I don't like when it's raining. I had a lot to do to just concentrate on the race."
Graf took the lead from pacer Tina Paulino heading into the back stretch, with Sydney Olympics fourth place finisher Brigita Langerholc tailing closely. But the 30 year-old tested her kick with just over 150 metres to go and reached the finish unchallenged.
The race plan, Graf said, was to imagine the upcoming World Championships final.
"With my coach, we decided to just be quiet through 600. And then to try to see what it's like to run the last 200 like what it will be like against Maria (Mutola] and Jolanda [Ceplak] at the World Championships."
Is her kick coming back? "It comes slowly," she said, smiling, "but it comes. Maybe it will take another two races to be in really good shape, but I'm on the plan." Graf races next over 400 metres at the national championships in Salzburg next weekend, before resuming Golden League competition in Zurich on August 15. Before then, she may decide to race in Berlin as well.
Most eyes were on American Duane Ross and Austrian Elmar Lichtenegger in the high hurdles, but Jamaican Maurice Wignall had a different plan. Ross, the Zagreb Grand Prix winner, took the early lead, but by the third hurdle, was overtaken by the Austrian. Wignall, the 2002 Commonwealth Games silver medallist, began his attack by hurdle five, built an insurmountable lead by the eighth, winning in a personal best 13.28. The performance also bested the previous Jamaican national record, 13.38 by Chris Pinnock, set exactly two months ago.
"It was a nice surprise," Wignall said. "Considering the conditions, it was an even better surprise."
The 27 year-old has been on the rebound since sustaining a hamstring pull in late February, missing six weeks of training this spring. "It really hampered my training and progressions, so I'm glad now that things are coming together and am able to do things I'm supposed to do. [The race] just showed me that the things that I'm working on are actually working. I'm working on my lead arm to be more active, and to actually just run between the hurdles. I'm actually running now, so it's a good sign."
The Alexandria, Virginia-based George Mason University graduate said that he wasn't thinking about the rain. "You can't think about it in a race. I saw Elmar [Lichtenegger] get away so I had to just go for broke."
The quick-starting Austrian was second in a season's best 13.36, eight one-hundredths faster than his previous fastest clocking this season, and just three one-hundredths of a second off his PB. Ross faded to third (13.43).
The rain was considerably stronger during the women's hurdles race, making Aurelia Trywianska's 12.82 win a particularly notable one. The 27 year-old from Szczecin, Poland, who finished second behind Melissa Morrison in a PB 12.74 in Zagreb, returned the favor here, edging the American by two one-hundredths of a second.
Trywianska, who began the year with a 12.97 PB, described her career as "up and down" since showing considerable promise at the European U-17 championships in 1993, but attributes her improvement this season to a coaching change, and a more serious approach to her training. Jamaican Vonette Dixon was third in 12.95.
Frankie Fredericks didn't seem too bothered by the rain, as he raced to a 10.14/20.38 double sprint win within a sixty minute span. Neither race posed much difficulty for the 35 year-old, still the second fastest to ever run the half lap, but he looked more impressive with a powerful surge in the shorter dash.
"It felt good today," said Fredericks, who had just one day to recover from a long flight from his home in Namibia. "I'm really happy about the 100 metres. In the 200 I pushed a little bit harder around the bend, then just relaxed."
Fredericks said he'll definitely contest the longer sprint in Paris, and will decide after a pair of races over the shorter distance - in Helsinki and Berlin - whether he'll tackle the 100 at the World Championships as well.
A "buzzing sound" at the start caught Darrel Brown "off guard" in the blocks, but the 18 year-old Trinidadian closed impressively to finish third, just a hair behind Briton Jason Gardener. Both were timed in 10.17.
"Things are going well," the CAC runner-up said, who started the season very fast with a runner-up 10.08 finish at the Prefontaine Classic in late May. "I'm really looking forward to the World Championships. I hope to make the final." Brown's next appearance will come in Santo Domingo at the Pan American Games.
Other notable performances by Austrians primed the rain-soaked fans for Graf's nightcap.
Susanne Pumper, the national record holder at 3000, 5000 and 10,000 metres, took command from Kenyan Susan Kirui with 600 metres to go for a comfortable 15:18.79 win in the 5000, shattering Karoline Szabo's meeting record of 15:39.69 set in 1986.
Martin Proll, the European co-record holder in the steeplechase, sat back comfortably before taking the lead for good off the final bend en route to a 8:21.75 win. Ethiopian Leuelseged Walle was second in a PB 8:22.36.
Karin Mayr-Krifka won a close 100 metre dash over Slovenia's Merlene Ottey, 11.25 to 11.28. An hour later, Ottey returned to track, by then more wet and much more chilly, to finish second in the 200 in 22.98, nine-hundredths behind winner Cydonie Mothersill.
"It felt great," said the 43 year-old, who won four times here, the first time in 1989. "Good for the conditions. I wasn't first of course, but they were good races, good training. I've had a difficult season with a few injuries and a lot of setbacks. And after trying forever to run under 23 seconds, and here it comes in the rain, when you least expect it." Ottey confirmed that she'll contest both sprints in Paris.
Unheralded Kenyan Job Tanui beat a 19-man field in the 1500 in 3:35.73 in front of compatriot Paul Mwangi (3:36.13), while another Kenyan, Pius Muli, won the 5,000 in 13:37.27. With a strong surge over the final 150 metres, Kemel Thompson made it a men's sweep for Jamaica in the hurdles races, winning the full-lap race in 48.66. Saudi Hadi Al Somaily, who built a substantial lead on the back straight, faded down the homestretch to finish second in 49.09.
The field events were an even stronger battle against the elements. In the high jump, World Champion Hestrie Cloete didn't miss through 1.95, before failing at two metres. Croatian teenager Blanka Vlasic topped out at 1.93, while four others could only manage 1.84.
Bulgarian Ilian Efremov navigated the wet pole vault runway best, leading three vaulters over 5.70, missing only once before unsuccessful attempts at a personal best 5.80. World Indoor Champion Tim Lobinger was second, with Dutchman Rens Blom third.
Cuban Joan Limo Martinez was the only long jumper to leap beyond eight metres (8.01).