lunes, 19 de diciembre de 2011

Best Competition of the 2011 Athletic Year: Abakumova takes revenge on Spotakova in Daegu

Mariya Abakumova on the way to winning the gold medal in Daegu
Photo: Getty Images/ IAAF

              Barbora Spotakova and Mariya Abakumova offered us a thrilling javelin competition at Beijing Olympic Games. (1) As the reigning world champion, the Czech entered the contest being the prohibitive favourite, but she was unexpectedly challenged by the upcoming Russian, who had set a new European record at the 4th round, throwing 70.78, which meant an improvement of more than 3 metres on her previous PB.  Spotakova rose to the occasion producing 71.42m in her very last attempt. Thus she became the second Czech female Olympic champion in the event, after Dana Ingrova-Zatopkova, who joined on the top of the podium her husband Emil Zatopek in Helsinki-52, the year he achieved his historical hat trick of titles at the 5000m, 10.000m and the marathon. In the wake of her Olympic great success, Barbora would break three weeks afterwards Osleydis Menéndez’s world best at the World Athletics final, sending the implement 72.28 metres beyond the throwing line. Thereafter the Czech Republic owns both javelin records to the date, thanks to Spotakova and the best male athlete of all-time Jan Zelezny.

            The Beijing champion had started in athletics practising the combined events. She contested the heptathlon at the 2000 world junior championship, finishing in a praiseworthy 4th place. Then she enrolled Minnesota University, where she was required to score points for her team also at the javelin. It was precisely Zelezny who encouraged her compatriot to concentrate further in the spear, spotting her talent. The three times world and Olympic champion, who belonged to the same athletic club, Dukla Prague, gave Spotakova technical advice and brought her with him for a training camp in South Africa in 2004. He is also famously reported to have lent her female counterpart a first pair of javelin shoes, which miraculously fitted her feet. From then on her progression was meteoric: She reached 60.95 that year, improving her PB in 4 metres and in 2005 she was already throwing over 65m. The following season she struck her first international medal at the European Championships in Goteborg, a silver, at the same contest her illustrious mentor had also climbed to a podium for the last time, in the year of his retirement. Then Spotakova upset favourites from Germany Christina Obergfoll and Steffi Nerius in Osaka to clinch her first global title with 67.07, a new PB, thus proving right Zelezny’s predictions. (2)  

            Mariya Abakumova, who came from a sportive family as Spotakova did, had also embraced the heptathlon after trying several sports as gymnastics, football, swimming or tennis. Unfortunately, she was too weak at the 800 metres so she preferred to adopt just one single event: the high hurdles. In spite of crashing continuously the barriers, she was still fast because of her physical strength. Yet she got eventually injured and had to leave the specialty. Then she tried the javelin. In 2002 she finished runner up at the Russian Championships and the next year fourth at the World Youths. After that there were no doubts about which event to choose. (3) In 2005 she won at the European Juniors and kept improving steadily her marks. However the problem was always her poor throwing technique. In 2006 she changed to Coach Aleksandr Sinitzin, who would move her to a superior level. After several adjustments, only in 2008 Abakumova progressed no less than 6 metres. Sinitzin was aiming for his first Olympic champion and he was very close of it. Despite losing the gold medal in the last moment, the then 22-year-old was the first Russian global medallist at the javelin since Tatyana Shikolenko, and was overjoyed with her extraordinary performance. Besides it allowed her to move to a luxury apartment from her 6 square meter bleak room in Krasnodar, in which she had seen mice and endured a fire. The only disappointment for her came from hearing Spotakova say she was happy of having beaten a Russian in the day of the 40th anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union troops. Abakumova could not understand what she had to do with the historical events which happened even before she was born. Still today she does not get along with Spotakova and prefers the company of Nerius or Obergfoll, who she considers more humble and friendly than the Czech. (4)   

              Neither Spotakova nor Abakumova could keep their momentum at the 2009 and 2010 post-Olympic years. At Berlin World championships, local girl Steffi Nerius started the final with an excellent throw of 67.30m, her second best mark ever. Amazingly none of the two hot favourites could cope with the pressure and respond to the 37-year-old German, so this one finally won the first title of her long career and find the perfect moment for retirement. In spite they grabbed the minor medals, Spotakova and Abakumova’s performance can be considered disappointing. Suffice to say the latter had thrown 68.92 in the qualifying round. The 2010 season meant another step behind for both the Czech and the Russian. At the most important competition of the year, the European championships in Barcelona, the winner was another German, Linda Stahl, with a 66.81 new PB, ahead of compatriot Christina Obergfoll. Spotakova just finished third and Abakumova fifth. Both of them were trailing injuries: the Czech had a soaring elbow; the Russian a bad knee. The latter had led the year lists in both seasons but had not been consistent enough, always struggling with technical imperfections.

          For 2011 both throwers undertook necessary changes. Spotakova split with her coach for 11 years Rudolf Cerny and joined Jan Zelezny’s group. She stated the past campaign had been scheduled with too many competitions in a very short period and little time for training, which brought to injuries. She was grateful to Cerny but pointed out he was just a combined events coach and had always needed to go to Zelezny for the javelin technical stuff, so it was time to move with him. (5) Spotakova is quoted to have experienced a big improvement with her new coach: she says she has learned around 100 new exercises and now works the whole body, not only parts of it. Besides now she benefits from being a member of a group, along with Petr Frydrych, Jakub Vadlejch, Vitezslav Vesely, Jarmila Klimesova and recently Finn Tero Pitkamaki. She can learn from the others, especially about lifting techniques, while she can help her male companions with their speed training. (6)
             Abakumova also blamed too much competition earlier in the 2010 season. For 2011 her adjustments consisted in dedicating more time to work in her strength and technique in the first months of the year, in order to build up for the summer and avoid recurring injuries. She stated the last season was already throwing 68 metres by May (“too much too soon”). This time around she wanted to be sure of peaking at the right time. Mariya was proud of having progressed in bench pressing from 115 to 140 kg in one year, which is really huge for a female athlete. She also expected to be able of transfering her increased power to her always criticised technique and not depend all the time on physical strength. (7)

Barbora Spotakova, th day she became Olympic champion
Photo: Getty Images/ IAAF

    Barbora Spotakova seemed to have peaked perfectly for Daegu, reaching a 69.45 world lead at the Herculis Monaco meeting, the 22nd July. However the favourite could well be Christina Obergfoll with a flawless season, which included seven victories and two runner-up positions in nine appearances, most of them at Diamond League meetings. Abakumova was just the underdog and besides, as she unveiled after the final, was carrying a serious leg injury, which would have prevented her from participating had not been infiltrated. (4) The European title holder Linda Stahl, after a troubled year was the first casualty, not being able to start the World championship final. Not much was delivered either by rising athletes Martina Ratej, Madara Palameika or the Briton Goldie Sayers. (8) Olympic champion Spotakova was ready to put things in the right place since the very beginning, achieving a sensational 68.80. Obergfoll, who had gathered a well respectable number of silver and bronze medals in previous occasions, was expected to finally have her day. Yet she again fell short when it mattered most, delivering in the range of 64-65 metres throughout the final, which was only enough to fight for the bronze medal against African champion Sunette Viljoen. Eventually, the favourite would finish a disappointing fourth, thus depriving her country of a medal in the discipline for the first time in ten years.     

           The answer came from Mariya Abakumova. After beginning the competition with 60m, in the second round she unleashed a monster throw: 71.25, a mark which only Spotakova and Menéndez had accomplished before. The Czech was now in trouble. Every one of her attempts, always around 67-68m, was a winner, but not for that day. The fifth round was the decisive one. Firstly, South African Sunette Viljoen, rounded up the competition of her life, improving in two metres the Area record she had set recently when winning the Universiade. Her 68.38 was the best result ever in a global championship for a bronze medal with the current implement. Spotakova followed achieving at last the master throw she needed, overcoming Abakumova by 33 cm. It should be enough. She started to celebrate and lifted her arms in triumph for the photographers. Yet the Russian was not done. She proved all her mental toughness, getting another perfect throw, which landed beyond Spotakova’s: 71.99, a performance only shy to the world record. The Czech reacted laughing in disbelieve. She had been beaten in arguably her most outstanding deliverance of her career. Then still in shock would say to the journalists maybe the next time she would be ready to throw 73 metres to be sure of winning.

          Next time will be at the Olympics. Jan Zelezny thinks Barbora in only her second year with him should still be improving. (9) On the other hand, Aleksandr Sinitzin has promised to shave up his moustache if her protégée Mariya clinch the gold medal in London. The answer is in only 8 month time.