martes, 26 de julio de 2011

What's Up with Ukrainian girls

Hrystyna Stuy, Olesya Povh, Nataliya Pohrebnyak and Mariya Ryemyen after their victorious relay race
 at the 2011 Team European Championships, held in Stockholm 
 It came as a surprise, as a big upset. Once the German team had failed to complete their heat, France and Russia were unanimously favoured to dominate the Barcelona European Championships female 4x100 relay final.  The latter had three out of four members of the Olympic gold medallist squad, while the former counted with Myriam Soumaré and Veronique Mang, medallists in the sprint single events, Lina-Jacques Sébastien, finalist at the 200 metres, and no less than European record holder Christine Arron to anchor the team. Yet an unheralded Ukrainian quartet, with all their members younger than 23 years, beat the whole field in an impressive 42.29, the best winning time in the championships in 20 years and the 2010 best mark in the world, also smashing the existing national record of 42.96. (1) It was the first medal of any colour in the event at the Europeans for a nation used to finish in fourth place, and the second in a major championship, after their bronze at Saint-Denis 2003 World Championships, in the only occasion they have reached a final at Worlds or Olympic level to the date.  
Three of the four Ukrainian squad members in Barcelona had already competed together previously in Bergen, on occasion of the European Team Championship, where they offered a first glimpse of their talent, finishing in third place, after Russia and France, but ahead of powerhouses like Germany and Great Britain.  For the big contest of the year was added 20-year-old Elizaveta Bryzhina, winner in Bergen and freshly minted silver medallist in Barcelona, always at the 200 metres distance, with a huge PB of 22.44.  In the final, every member of the relay performed to perfection.  Olesya Povh was the fastest out of the blocks of the whole field; Nataliya Pohrebnyak ran a decisive backstretch long leg; Mariya Ryemyen was flawless in the bend; and Bryzhina culminated everybody’s work with an outstanding final acceleration, overcoming Polish anchor Veronika Wedler and holding French Christine Arron, to get a shock victory.  Especially inspired were the changeovers.  The first one between Povh and Pohrebnyak and the final one between Ryemyen and Bryzhina were technically among the best ever seen on a race track.

                Once more it was proved for relay races as important is speed as meticulous team preparation.  The United States due to their large choice of awesome sprinters never repeat twice the same team at major championships. Besides, workouts which join together the four recruited members are occasional and disaster arrives quite often as we could see in Berlin, where both US 4x100 squads failed in their respective heats. Curiously, relays have a rich tradition in American colleges as we can see at contests as Penn Relays but they are neglected in professional track and field.  On the other hand, the Ukrainian girls claim to have train on their changeovers for years and thus we can easily understand their flawless technique and international success.  As an indication, the main Ukrainian sprinters have raced together three times already this summer, while Jeter, Myers, Barber and Felix has done it just once. Yet, a casual All-America team beat the revelation of the year at the inaugural Continental Cup, where Pohrebnyak complained about tiredness and too much relaxation after a long and intense season and also… about Ryemyen “leaving her mark too soon and so losing a little of our rhythm”. (2) Even the best prepared teams can make mistakes sometimes!   
       This new generation of Ukrainian sprinters, which have covered the national emptiness in the sector since double world champion Zhanna Pintusevich-Block retired, first appeal the attention because of their youthful image.  Nataliya Pohrebnyak dyes her hair pink, brown or blond and have a tattooed dragon but “I do not paint my nails like the rest of the girls”(2) Mariya Ryemyen likes piercings very much… and so on.  Many interviews try to deal with this dilemma of teenage fun and professional sport sacrifice. Bryzhina says her coach understands we live only one life and allows her trainee go dancing and singing karaoke sometimes.  In the other cases they just talk about assuming that success is related to hard work.  Mariya Ryemyen knows the time she can dedicate to her passion of drawing never will be enough and she and Olesya Povh understand they could not visit Paris’ wonders during their stage for the European indoors, because it would have disturbed their focus on their races. (3) Eventually, athletics become fun and passion all the same and an ambition as well.  Pohrebnyak says she is a drug addict of track and field and do not even need a boyfriend.  Ryemyen talks about the beauty of racing, which requires such qualities as speed, strength and grace. (4)  

Yelizaveta Bryzhina anchors Ukrainian 4x100 relay to gold at Barcelona European Championships
Photo: George Herringshaw
                Before their senior breakthrough in Barcelona,  Nataliya Pohrebnyak (5) and Yelizaveta Bryzhina (6) had earned some distinctions in age categories. The former won the silver medal at the 2009 U-23 European Championships and was the first among the Barcelona relay winners in being named for major senior competitions as Beijing Olympic Games, despite being one year younger than Povh and Ryemyen, who had modest results in their teen years.  The latter also won a silver medal, at the 2007 European Juniors.  Yelizaveta is the daughter of two Ukrainian track and field legends, Viktor Bryzgin and Olga Wladykina-Bryzgina, and thus since her put her feet on a track has quite a big responsibility on her shoulders.
        Both her parents had been relay Olympic champions in Seoul 1988, representing the Soviet Union: Viktor in the 4x100 and Olga in the 4x400, anchoring her team to the current world record, ahead of no less than Florence Griffith-Joyner.  She was also World and Olympic winner in the single 400 metres event and finished runner-up in the race Marita Koch established the still existing world record at 1985 Canberra World Cup, becoming herself the 4th best performer all time as of today.  The gifted daughter is also training under their parents coach, Volodymyr Fedorets, who believes “she took from her father her speed and lack of nerves; from her mother her dedication; and what is her own is her extraordinarily strong sense of purpose, a thirst of winning." (7)

Olesya Povh at the 2011  European Indoor Champs
Photo: Stu Forster/ Getty Images Europe

2010 was Bryzhina’s year but in 2011 they are Olesya Povh and Mariya Ryemyen who are making the limelights.  These two awesome Ukrainian sprinters train together and also share an appartement in Zaporizhzhya. Povh (8) had an outstanding breakthrough indoor season (9) at her favourite event, the 60 metres, remaining unbeaten the whole campaign, setting the European best mark of the winter (7.13), besides dipping 10 other times under 7.20, and topping it with the European title at the distance.  Ryemyen (10) was second to her in every race, including the decisive one in Paris, where a third compatriot, Hrystyna Stuy, finished just 1 hundredth of a second short of the bronze, what would have meant a clean sweep of the medals in the event.  
The Ukrainian Cup, held in Yalta during the last day of May started the summer season in the country in style, with three male javelin throwers over 80 metres, three women under 1:59.40 at the 800 metres distance, four others beyond 14.20 at triple jump and another two under 55 seconds at the 400 hurdles, among other excellent results.  Among the speedsters, Nataliya Pohrebnyak scored an 11.17 PB at the 100, while Povh also obtained a huge PB of 22.58, again ahead of Ryemyen (22.84).  The excellent health of track and field in the country brought to another outstanding collective performance at the European Team Championship, where Ukraine achieved a historic third place overall. Ryemyen won the 200 metres, Povh finished runner-up at the 100 and the relay performed once more flawlessly, beating again the best European squads.
Mariya Ryemyen at the 2011 European Indoor Champs
Photo: Stu Forster/ Getty Images Europe

The old continent seems to be in recovery days at the sprinting events, after some years where only Kim Gevaert and the veteran Arron could face North American and Caribbean specialists.  Last year, at the 200 metres, the seven athletes who finished the race dipped under 22.70 in Barcelona, a feat only Gevaert could do in the precedent edition of the championships, and had not been seen at area level since Berlin Wall’s fall.  Neither French nor Russians sprinters are in the same form this year for the moment and Verena Sailer, the 100 metres continental champion is injured, but Ivet Lalova is back under 10 seconds territory, after overcoming a career threatening injury, Jodie Williams continues her meteoric progression and the Ukrainian new generation has proved especially solid and reliable.  Only Bryzhina is having a disappointing year and her seasonal best is just 23.03. This fact might jeopordize her selection for Daegu Worlds, with three other girls (Povh, Ryemyen and Darya Pizhankova), ahead in the world lists, all of them with the A standard.  She is likely to be replaced in the relay event as well by Stuy (11), who already ran the anchor leg at last European Team Champs or by the same Pizhankova.  On the other hand, Ryemyen and Povh, despite not having outstanding PBs yet (11.21/22.68 the former and 11.24/22.58 the latter), have rarely finished a race worst than third during the whole year and both seem bound to Daegu finals and... there who knows!  On paper, Povh is going to be more oriented to the 100 metres event for the Worlds and Ryemyen to the 200.  
Pizhankova (12), who used to be a long jump specialist, has moved to the track with amazing success, grabbing at the U-23 Europeans in Ostrava the 200 metres gold, the 100 silver and… no wonder, another gold as a member of the 4x100 squad, along with Olena Yanovska, Viktoriya Pyatachenko and Ulyana Levska.  So more girls are ready to take over if needed, only one year after Pohrebnyak and company made their big breakthrough in Barcelona.  Only in Junior category, where, by the way, Germany achieved an astounding continental best, improving a record set back in the eighties, Ukrainian girls were missed in the relay.  Will be able this new amazing 4x100 powerhouse to challenge USA, Jamaica or the Bahamas at the upcoming World Championships and Olympic Games?   

Ulyana Lepska,  Darya Pizhankova, Viktoriya Pyatachenko and Olena Yanovska  from the Ukrainian relay 4x100 on the European U-23 Champs podium, along with Russian and French teams.


domingo, 17 de julio de 2011

Bianca Perie, a future Olympic champion

Bianca Perie, the future of the hammer throwing event

           I am sorry I am not really enjoying the Diamond League meetings this year.  Maybe it has something to do with the TV coverage.  They probably forget the name of the sport is Track and Field, because they break completely the balance between races, jumps and throws, whose combination makes the beauty of Athletics, and offer just a succession of track races, with very little field coverage.  There is the cold blue diamond turning in the centre of the stadium and the athletes running around in their Adidas and Nike uniforms. Everybody is East African at distance races and all come from USA and the Caribbean at the sprints. Thanks to the monotonous pacemaking, every race looks the same.  Yet the rabbits seem useless this year: with Bekele and Dibaba injured and Rudisha half-fitted, nobody seems good enough to threaten any of the existing records. Bolt is also thinking more in peaking for Daegu than in the economic Diamond League rewards.
If I had to choose, I would rather watch the up-and-coming generation of runners, jumpers and throwers in contests like the NCAA and European under-23 championships.  There is a freshness and spontaneity, which cheers you up.  The athletes, who are still trying to make a name, surprise themselves with their huge improvements, supported for an enthusiastic crowd made up mainly by their own teammates.  The teens are learning how to compete, how to handle glory and failure and how to behave in front of  audience, mates and rivals.  
    We watched many amazing performances this week end in Ostrava, witnessed remarkable breakthroughs of some emerging athletes, who are going to become celebrated sport stars soon. (1) (2)
Romania was one of the most favoured nations in the final results of this European under-23 contest.  Only Russia, Germany and Ukraine were ahead in the female medal table. The latter country is progressing this year to one of the most fearsome powerhouses in Athletics.  Elsewhere, Turkey is the revelation of the season, getting for the first time to be promoted to the European Team Super League.  Romania, which once belonged to Athletics aristocracy, is struggling to make the way back, after some lacklustre years. Some amazing youngsters are up for the miracle.  Some like Angela Morosanu or Ancuta Bobocel are already consolidated into the world elite, while some others are expected to shine in senior competition in a near future. 

Bianca Perie competes at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona
Romania obtained no less than three gold medals and one silver in Ostrava, in female events.  Esthera Petre was the most amazing surprise, winning the high jump, after improving thrice her PB, from 1.92 to her final 1.98, which put her straight in Daegu’s medal picture.  Andreea Ograzeanu, added the under-23 triumph, to the one she got in the junior category two years ago, this time at the 100 metres event. Bianca Perie once again proved she has no rival in her age group in hammer throw.  Carmen Toma is also progressing well, and was a good second in triple jump, after Greek sensation Paraskevi Papahristou.  The only disappointment came from ex World Youth and Junior champion Mirela Lavric, who finished pitifully the 800 metres final, after being unable of sustaining Elena Arzhakova’s last powerful outburst.  Nevertheless she will have plenty of occasions to mend this wrong in future competitions.  Still younger, Bianca Razor, has already collected medals at World Junior and Youth Olympic level and finished a praiseworthy fifth at the recently held World Youth Championships in Lille, in front of an outstanding field.
Among all this young Romanian hopes the most solid contender for future senior medals appears to be Bianca Perie. When you watch a junior, youth or under-23 championship you are tempted to name who is going to be the new brand star of the sport, the man or woman everybody is going to talk about for decades.  Just some months ago, Angelica Bengtsson was seen like the new Isinbayeva.  However, Briton Holly Bleasdale, not yet in her twenties, has improved now to 4.70, and now things do not seem so plain.  Jacko Gill has been compared because of his precocity to no less than Usain Bolt, as a genius you only see once every ten or twenty years. Yet, he will have to face in future shot put challenges, another youngster, German David Storl, who at just 20 years of age is already claiming a spot in major championships podiums.  Nevertheless no obstacle seems to be in the way of Bianca Perie.  She is the strongest candidate right now, among the whole athletic field, to the 2016 Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro.  Yet she wants to win already in London, next year.   
Bianca, born in June 1990 at the Northern town of Roman (3), was raised in a sport -loving family, where the father was an accomplished amateur boxer. Her original passion was tennis but she joined soon the athletics family, initially practising shot put and discus throw, until her lifelong coach Lucian Cucos realised her speed fitted perfectly for the hammer event, which she adopted at 9 years of age, as she would also do later her little sister Roxane, the recently minted Youth bronze medallist in Lille. There are plenty of anecdotes about kid Bianca's efforts to handle the difficult implement and some small accidents in the way.
Bianca, sharing her time between Hammer and School duties
           As soon as 15,  Perie obtained her first victory of note in Marrakech, on occasion of the World Youth Champs, and she went on further the following year, crowning herself World Junior Champion in Beijing, after defeating athletes up to three years older, as Moldovan Zalina Marghieva, one of the best hammer specialists in the world right now, always improving the previous championship record. At 14, she had already delivered an outstanding age-best of 65.13 and by the end of 2006 she was already over 69 metres; but she must also be proud of beating for the first time her compatriot Mihaela Melinte, the 1999 World Champion and once the event record holder, before reaching 16 years.
Interestingly, Bianca Perie does not hold any World or European overall record in Youth, Junior or Under-23 categories: Zhang Wenxiu, the untimely death Kamila Skolimowska or Tatyana Lysenko are some metres ahead in the record books. Yet, she owns the championship record in most of the age major global contests, and almost each time has won the gold medal improving the previous best.  It speaks clearly about her stunning consistency when it matters most.   
Perie is the only athlete in history in any event, who has achieved the feat of defending the World title in both Youth and Junior categories, as she did at Ostrava-07 and Moncton-08 respectively.  Furthermore, she has been twice a European Junior champion too, and this week end has completed a clean sheet of age major victories, again in Ostrava, at the under-23 European contest.  It means seven gold medals out of seven competitions and unbeaten in her category for seven years. She is amassing victories for her curriculum, the same way she likes to do with jewelry, which she is quoted to own no less than ½ kilo in gold.
Bianca owns an excellent technique and is able of a speed and final acceleration inside the circle, almost nobody else can compete with.  She is also very strong mentally as she showed for example at Moncton World Juniors, where she kept focused and relaxed, and could deliver a championship record, despite awful atmospheric conditions; or this week end, as Sophie Hitchon’s national British record put her under pressure and she responded with a massive 71.59, her third best throw ever.
Notwithstanding, Perie’s biggest efforts are in order to gain muscle weight.  She is now 1.70 metres and 70 kilos.  Maybe this is the reason why her best throw is “only” 73.52, from last year.  She had needed time to adapting to senior challenges.  Bianca did not pass the qualifying round at Osaka-07, Beijing Olympic-08 and Berlin-09, but, for the first time, last year she faced successfully the best at Barcelona European Champs, finishing an excellent fourth, with a best throw of 71.62. 

Bianca Perie only wants gold for London Olympics
            This season she has won every international championship she has entered: European Winter Cup, European Team League, Balkan Championships and the European under-23 contest.  She is still not producing 75 metres plus throws, which will be required to win medals in both Daegu and London, against the likes of Betty Heidler, Tatyana Lysenko, Yipsi Moreno or Anita Wlodarczyk, but who knows she is going to achieve it at the same World Championship and Olympic dates.  It would not sound strange, acknowledging her pedigree.  She feels ready and full of confidence. I am craving for the answer in one month and a half time.