sábado, 31 de diciembre de 2011

Olga Kaniskina: Best Athlete of the Last Five Years

Olga Kaniskina wins the gold medal at 2008 Beijing Olympic Games
           After her flawless season with a 100% of victories and three world titles, it seems impossible not to select Vivian Cheruiyot as best athlete of 2011 (though the IAAF got it). Otherwise, how about bestowing awards for longer term performances, as best sportsman of the last decade or foremost track and field competitor during a complete four years Olympic cycle? If we look for the longest and most outstanding dominance in an event in recent times, the chosen one would be without a doubt race walker Olga Kaniskina, with the only close rivalry of shot put champion Valerie Adams, but this one suffered one major defeat last year at the World Indoor championships. On the other hand, Kaniskina, since she climbed to the top of an international podium for the first time at Osaka Worlds in 2007 at age 22, has never relinquished to nobody that privileged spot in an important competition; thus leading, along with counterpart Valeriy Borchin, the imperial supremacy of the Saransk school, which has swept all three walking events gold medals at the last two editions of the World championships.  http://www.moti-athletics-20wk-w.blogspot.com/2011/08/sandro-damilano-versus-viktor-chegin.html  Olga Kaniskina has grabbed three straight world titles in Osaka, Berlin and Daegu, becoming the only race walker in doing so, and she is also up for entering the books as the first female who gets to defend an Olympic gold medal in the specialty. Besides, Olga is the only athlete in the circuit in both sexes who currently owns the Triple Crown, as reigning Olympic, world and continental champion in a single event. Incomprehensibly she has never been even nominated by the IAAF for any of its annual awards but we know the distinctions usually go to track runners. Yet, as consolation, the race walker number one was named best sportsman of the year in her home country in 2009 by a prestigious magazine.     

Olga Kaniskina from the mountains and the forests
           Olga Nikolayevna Kaniskina was born the 19th January 1985 in Saransk, Republic of Mordovia, the capital city of race walking, but her family comes from the nearby country. (1) Up on a hill, into the forests, stands mum’s village, Podlesnaya Tavlya. Not far away you can see Napolnaya Tavlya, where dad was born. They moved to Saransk after their marriage. On that land, a ski resort is being built currently. In week ends and holidays, Kaniskina returns to that lovely place to visit granny and other relatives. Yet Tavlya will always recall Olga her mum, who died as the future race walking champion was just 8 years of age. She suffered of high blood pressure and was sent to hospital, where she was given a wrong injection... Some people think it is easier to overcome the lost as it happens as the daughter is very young, but it is not… There is a sadness you must live with for all your life. Olga remembers her mother as a very kind and radiant young woman. She always wanted to be like her. Dad says Olga has inherited her same smile and, according to her primary school teacher Clara Pasyaeva, her same sweet personality too: “she used to be an intelligent, beautiful, tender and affectionate girl and at the same time really serious and hard-working on regard to her duties. Someone who deserves not only a good sportsman but a very bright man.” (1) Despite everybody, including his mother-in-law, advised him to get married again, dad never wanted to. Thereafter he cooks, cleans and takes care affectionately of her daughter and younger son Vasiliy. Olga calls dad her teddy bear and recognised to have grown with him as a spoiled girl, but at the same time always was ashamed every time she broke a word given to him. (2)  It always was and still is a close-knit family: after the races, dad is the first person Olga calls and also her brother, who has now become a strong, reliable and supportive man for her. 
             No matter the great champion she has become nowadays, Kaniskina was not especially fond of sport as a young girl, despite admiring Irina Stankina and Yelena Nikolayeva. Encouraged by classmates she joined Lyudmila Fedorovna Rusyakina to try race walking as every Saransk kid does. Yet she did not like it at all: “This is the first lesson and the last.” (1) However her coach convinced her to practise running instead and she did it just to communicate with her friends. Surprisingly, Rusyakina enrolled 14-year-old Olga to take part at the 1999 national championships at the walking event, given her some technique basics. The young girl crossed the line last in that race, while the commentator would say: “Here comes the last competitor: look at her technique.” (3) Olga's face turned red of shame but at the same time felt flattered for the comment. She won a chocolate bar (1) or a candy (4), depending on the versions. Olga was back then a fragile girl, ill all the time: not to be forgotten she is just 1,59m, weights 43kg and her shoe size is 35!! Yet, once she took seriously training, she became stronger and improved quickly. 

Olga Kaniskina competing under the rain in Beijing
        Rusyakina recommended Olga to Viktor Chegin, but he was reluctant to take her, so she must insist and eventually convinced the guru of Russian race walking to enrol the hopeful in the High Performance Centre in 2004, as a member of the second national team, under Vera Nacharkina. For the first time Kaniskina was training twice a day and accordingly obtained a good sixth place at the Russian junior championships, but the ambitious girl was half-happy with the result. (4) Anyway, Chegin had realised about Kaniskina's potential and decided to incorporate her to his own team in the beginning of 2005, arguing she had chances for a big progression. Thereafter, Olga´s career took off. Both Rusyakina and Chegin coincide when they pointed at the Beijing Olympic champion strong points: willingness, capacity of work and an excellent technique. The former believes “Kaniskina had no natural talent. All her victories are the result of hard work, perseverance and sacrifice. She stunned among all my charges for her seriousness and maturity.” In similar terms, Chegin states “I have had more talented race walkers but none as workaholic, obedient and responsible. She trains with the men and endures tough exercices and high mileage nobody else does.” (1) He also thinks Kaniskina is a very special girl: “One of the greats said a man can be considered an intellectual but if he is wicked and envious he is nothing. Human intelligence is defined by its kindness and it belongs to Olga. She is very good, a real winner and always will fight honestly to the end." (5)
            The athete itself also has a high opinion of her coach. In the beginning she was afraid of him but now understands his sense of discipline and acknowledges she would be nothing in sport without the help she has received from him. Besides she credits Chegin as someone really committed with his work, to the point he supervises every workout, which is the key for his charges' technical improvement. (1) If in words of Kaniskina her dad is her “teddy bear”, Chegin is a second father: “a broody hen looking after us."

          Humour is a sign of healthy spirit and Olga Kaniskina has a fine explanation about how to focus in an important race: “I do not count the steps, I do not sing and I do not think in a loved one. I just concentrate on my technique, because otherwise it deteriorates and the speed drops. Go relaxed as if gliding on the solar beam.” (2) And indeed in her best days Kaniskina seems to be floating in the air, without gravity, a slider towards the sun or a faraway star.


              2005 was the year Olga Kaniskina entered the world elite, dipping for the first time under 1:30 at the 20km distance; then winning her first international medal, a silver one, at the U23 championship, held at the German city of Erfurt, after compatriot Irina Petrova. The following year she continued her swift escalade, with stunning victories at both winter and summer Russian Championships. At the former she clocked a sensational 1:26:02, which led the world seasonal lists. Yet when it mattered most, Olga still lacked stability: at the World Cup in La Coruña, she finished just 5th, while Petrova struck the bronze medal. Her more fancied compatriot was the Russian number one for Goteborg European championships but on the eve of the race she had to withdraw due to appendicitis and the athletic world never knew about her anymore. Kaniskina was the improvised leader of the team but Chegin advised her to never head the race, even if she could, because, as being unknown by the judges, he thought she would be for sure disqualified. The always obedient Olga finished second, after Belarusian star Ryta Turava. (4) At the 2007 European Cup in Leamington, both athletes repeated placement but Turava did not enter that summer World Championships and Kaniskina enjoyed her chance to grab an uncontested victory, under high humidity and heat conditions. In Osaka she followed simple tactics: she surged right from the start and never gave up her superior pace. Then she completed her outstanding year, with a special victory at her hometown, on occasion of the IAAF race walking challenge final. (6) Nikolay Merkuskhin, Head of the Republic of Mordovia, rewarded the world champion with a two-bedroom apartment. After further international victories she would be offered another house, three cars and bestowed several honorific mentions, which shows the high relevance race walkers’ prowess are allowed in Saransk.

Olga Kaniskina is awarded by Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev

            The Olympic year started with a new triumph for Olga Kaniskina at the winter national championships, clocking a no-homologated world record, because of the absence of international judges; then another one at the World Cup, held at the Russian town of Cheboksary, where she fell a mere second short of Olympiada Ivanova’s world best. It is maybe the only distinction which lacks in Kaniskina’s curriculum, yet considering she has two fastest timings than Vera Sokolova’s official record. Nevertheless at the big occasions Olga is unbeatable and she achieved another gun to tape easy victory at Beijing Olympic Games, this time around under the rain. Belarus Turava had been back but she was not in good shape. Thereafter, she would also disappear from the walking elite. After crossing the line, Olga was approached by Russian journalists, who asked which was her new dream, after getting the two most prestigious global titles: “to have a bun”, answered the overjoyed champion. (7) Kaniskina’s joke  made the highlights of the national newspapers. 

          In 2009 Olga Kaniskina accomplished her all-time best in late February in Adler (1:24:56). She was narrowly beaten at a shorter distance in Krakow by Beijing silver medallist Kjersti Platzer, but again had no opposition at the World championship in Berlin, where she defended her crown, this time surging mid-race. The following season, Olga was infringed another minor defeat at the winter Russian championship, where she finished just fourth, but silenced all the doubters at Barcelona European championships, where she killed the race in similar fashion than in Berlin, walking 2 straight kilometres at 4:12 pace. Russia swept all three places of the podium for the first time in the history of the event, after Anisya Kirdyapkina crossed the line second and Vera Sokolova third. (8)
            This year, Olga Kaniskina won all four races she entered, including Rio Maior, Sesto San Giovanni, the World championships and the IAAF race walking challenge final in La Coruña. In Daegu she completed a hat trick of golden medals but it was her hardest victory to the date. First she was challenged by Kirdyapkina’s attack; then witnessed how her small advantage was shortened by Chinese Hong Liu, who has progressed hugely in her technique under Sandro Damilano. Olga did not dare to look behind and was not sure of her victory until the very end.  It is worth considering Kaniskina was not at her 100%, because her preparation was hiccupped by a sinusitis and a hurting knee. After ending her season, the Russian wonder was given arthroscopic treatment and she looks with optimism towards the new Olympic year.

            In Kaniskina’s world there is not much time for fun. Too much dedication is needed to get to the top in sport and there are so many young girls pushing hard, who can take your place if you start to relax. Olga is not easy to be seen in a pub, karaoke or restaurant but she enjoys reading when she has the chance. Anyway she has some good friends as discus thrower Darya Pischalnikova. She gets angry when talking about her friend’s 33 months ban because of tampering, which she believes unfair. (2)  Once Olga stated she did not have time neither for boyfriends nor for children. She said as she had some free time she had to choose between having some fun and taking a rest. These days when asked anew she argues she was very young when talking like that, and, as for now, she would rather keep her private life for herself. (3) Is the most desired girl of the Republic of Mordovia hiding currently a secret love to her legion of admirers? 

            Olga Kaniskina is also an accomplished student. She has graduated in Mathematics, after a couple of busy years, when she had to get some extra hours to study, after her sportive duties. Modestly she said she entered maths because it was easy, and for having some earnings through a scholarship, as she was not a famous race walker yet. Notwithstanding a teacher remembers, as Olga was very young, she was able to find three different ways of proving the Pythagoras theorem. (1) The three times world champion is also about entering politics in order to contribute to the development of her region. (3) And if everything else fails she is really skilful with patterns and dressmaking and would easily become an accomplished tailor if needed.
            Despite not having much time for parties, Olga Kaniskina has great memories of her years competing all over the world. She remembers her first trip abroad to Erfurt, where she had the chance for a night walk to admire the peerless architecture of the old German city. She recalls too the polite people of Osaka, where she kept a conversation with a girl through drawings. (9) The first victories, the first trips, are always the most emotive. Still being an upcoming athlete she had to be grateful of the unexpected help of Ryta Turava, as she entered in oxygen debt trying to follow the Belarusian demanding rhythm: “Breathe! Breathe deeply! Breathe in! Breathe out! …” (5) Soon Olga became herself a children role model as well; an unbreakable champion under any circumstances and conditions. “In Saransk when it rains it is very cold. Your limbs seem made of wood. Yet in Beijing, it was refreshing and warm.”(10) And as the rain stops the sun comes out with its most radiant smile.    

 Come rain or Come shine (Olga Kaniskina)

martes, 20 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.

(1) http://www.iaaf.org/OLY08/news/kind=100/newsid=47206.html
(2) http://osaka2007.iaaf.org/news/kind=2/newsid=41267.html#spotakova+surprises+some+zelezny
(3) http://www.iaaf.org/news/athletes/newsid=58135.html
(4) http://www.trud.ru/article/06-09-2011/267199_marija_abakumova_nenavist_k_soperniku_ego_ne_oslabit.html
(5) http://www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs/spotakova-looking-forward-to-working-more-closely-with-javelin-legend-zelezny-after-injury-blighted-season
(6) http://www.iaaf.org/news/kind=102/newsid=58735.html?cid=rssfeed&att=index
(7) http://www.european-athletics.org/index.php?option=com_content&catid=1&id=9913&view=article
(8) http://daegu2011.iaaf.org/NewsEventReportsListDetail.aspx?id=62088
(9) http://sport.ihned.cz/atletika/c1-53541800-spotakova-bude-jeste-lepsi-veri-trener-roku-jan-zelezny

domingo, 18 de diciembre de 2011

Valerie Adams Back on the Top

Valerie Adams celebrates her victory in Daegu, holding the national flag and a picture of his coach Jean-Pierre Egger
Photo: Reuters           http://www.stuff.co.nz 
           Valerie Adams has always had an emotional attachment to the shot put discipline. She remembers watching with her mother on TV Cathy Freeman standing with the torch at the opening ceremony of Sidney Olympic Games, and how she dreamt of being part of it in the future. Mum would never be able of living that special moment for her daughter because she passed away just the day afterwards.  Concentrating in shot put practise helped the 15-year-old Valerie coping with her progenitor's untimely death. Also did her coach Kirsten Hellier, who would become a sort of second mother for her.
            Adams was born the 6th October 1984 in Rorotua, New Zealand, from an English father and a Tongan mother. As the biggest kid in school (she is now 1.96 metres tall), she was soon encouraged to the shot put event. Kirsten Hellier, a former Commonwealth silver medallist at the javelin, spotted Adams in 1998 and would be training her for the next 11 years. With Hellier she would be improving every season, from 14.15 in 1999 to reach 21.07 ten years afterwards. Her first international victory came at 2001 World Youth Championships in Debrecen and she followed this up adding the Junior crown in Kingston one year later. Still 18 Valerie achieved an astounding fifth place at the 2003 World championships and her Olympic dream came true at Athens. Yet her ambition was not only to participate. For the first time in a global senior contest she climbed to the podium at Helsinki Worlds to collect the bronze medal. Then the number one was Belarus Nadzeya Ostapchuk.
            The girl from Rorotua showed her credentials at the 2006 season, where she achieved two major victories, at the Commonwealth Games and Continental Cup, and broke for the first time the 20 meter barrier. She was finally ready to upset the best and she did at the World championships in Osaka. After trailing Ostapchuk all over the contest, Adams ended up her competition with a massive 20.54 new area record, which her Belarusian archrival could not match. Thus she became the youngest shot put champion in the history of the championships with 22 years and the second world gold medallist from her country, after another thrower, Beatrice Faumuina, who won the discus in 1997.  With this triumph Adams joined Jana Pittmann, Yelena Isinbayeva and Veronica Campbell at the illustrious club of women, who have been winners at World youth, junior and senior level. (1) His father had recently died and Valerie would dedicate in tears, her victory to his memory and also to her other inspiration in life and sport: her mother.    
              Since that victory Valerie Adams became the uncontested leader of the event. Nobody could beat her in the following two seasons, holding a remarkable winning streak of 28 finals. After grabbing also the world indoor title, the towering New Zealander showed special consistency at Beijing Olympics, producing 20 metres in every one of her five valid throws, to win the first gold medal for her nation since middle distance runner John Walker’s victory in 1976. (2) She also defended her world title in Berlin. Then came the crisis.

Valerie Adams and Coach Kirsten Hellier at the 2009 Halberg Awards
Photo: John Selkirk


            After some disappointing years Nadzeya Ostapchuk was back in full strength not wanting to be the bridesmaid anymore. She started the 2010 winter season with a huge 21.70; the best throw indoors or out since 1988. Then she broke Adam’s streak, winning with ease at the World indoor championships in Doha and continued in the same fashion during the summer, beating her archrival in seven more occasions. (3) The struggling New Zealander only seemed to find her way at the end of the year getting the better of the Belarus at their last clash of the season at the Continental Cup. Adams had stagnated. For the first time in her career she had not improved her PB during the year and moreover had not response to the renovated Ostapchuk. Some said her star had started to fade. The Olympic champion felt the old ways were not to produce positive answers anymore and decided to split up with the woman who had brought her to the top, Kirsten Hellier; a really painful move, after 11 years sharing happiness and tears. (4) She first changed to teen sensation Jacko Gill’s coach Daniel Poppe; then to Swiss Jean-Pierre Egger, the man who had trained legendary three times world champion Werner Günthör. Similar breaking up arrived to her marriage with New Caledonian discus thrower Bertrand Vili. 2010 was really a year to forget for Valerie Adams.

                After the 2010 problematic season, Adams moved her training base to a Swiss mountain to join Egger; in complete solitude for nine months to start anew and find herself again. (5) Without a doubt, the first months were really depressing and “pretty boring”, being away from her family, following a hard training regime, then back home for having a bath, watching some TV and going to bed. Then she met a Kiwi family at the foot of the mountain and it started to change her routine somewhat. "It was tough. I could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. The season had not started and my first competition in Europe was still two months away. Every day, every week, was a grind. But I knew I was there for a reason. There was purpose.” (5)

           The sacrifices paid off and Valerie Adams was back in winning days. Jean-Pierre Egger had transformed the New Zealander into a more dynamic and athletic shot putter, who recovered faster. At the same time she had improved on her technique: she had always relied on her strength to win competitions but now she had something more to offer. Finally, confidence was back and also the passion for training. Valerie beat Nadzeya at the Bislett Games and also at three other Diamond League meetings. The Belarus was again leading the world lists with 20.94 but the general feeling was the world champion was in the right way to get a hat trick of titles, and she lived up to the expectations in Daegu, leaving the indoor title holder more than one metre behind. With the gold medal in her pocket, Adams had one attempt left and with no pressure she delivered a monster throw, reaching 21.24, a new personal best and a championship record. (6) Now she was equal to the great Astrid Kumbernuss, the only other athlete who had accomplished three world victories in the event.   
              For 2012 Valerie is aiming to regain her indoor title and defend at the Olympic Games. There are also questions about how far can she throw now after her demonstration in Daegu. When asked about the world record she is plain enough: “I do not really give a damn about it.” (5) She acknowledges the 22.63 Natalya Lisovsaya produced back in 1987 are unaffordable for reasons everybody knows. Valerie Adams instead focuses in winning titles and improving on her personal best. She is still 27 and has chances of matching Peter Snell, as the Kiwi with more Olympic gold medals, in Rio de Janeiro, but Valerie does not think so long: first she must do her best in order to win her second Olympic title in London.    

Valerie Adams proud of her competition at Daegu World Championships
Photo: Getty Images/ IAAF


miércoles, 14 de diciembre de 2011

Jacko Gill: the Building of a Champion

Jacko Gill at the family residential property in Devonport
              Are you a lucky parent with a kid who excels in all kind of sports? Would you like to guide this genius so he can become a future champion but you do not know how to start? Then maybe you can learn some lessons from here. There is Jacko Gill, a shot putter from New Zealand not 17 years old yet, who is predestined to cause one day in his event a similar shock to the one Usain Bolt produced at Beijing Olympics. Actually he already broke the Jamaican runner record as the youngest athlete ever to win a gold medal at the World Junior Championship with only 15 years and 7 months of age. (1) Jacko also shares with Bolt the distinction of being the only man in the sport who has followed up a global junior victory with another one in the youth category, which he achieved last July in Lille. (2) Rules did not allow the hopeful New Zealander competing at Daegu World Championships, despite having met the B standard, but he is ready to deliver a major upset at London Olympics, where he is also going to become the youngest thrower in the history of the Games. For this purpose he landed the 7.26 kg senior implement at a distance of 20.38 last week, which is a new personal best, a new national record and the longest throw in his age category. However, Jacko Gill was only half-happy with his London qualifying result, objecting his technique was very bad. The new shot put ace always want more... 
             And how is the building up of this precocious champion? All his close family are accomplished sportsmen. Father Walter Gill was twice a national champion at the shot put discipline back in the eighties and his wife Nerida also won the title at the discus. Finally, the older sister Ayla is a hammer specialist who is studying at Texas University. She got the 6th place in Moncton, when his brother became world junior champion. The progenitors soon discovered their son have inherited all the best family genes and made him practise all kind of sports from soccer to basketball, karate or boxing; yet excluding deliberately rugby, because they did not want Jacko to join the All Blacks but to follow their steps on the athletic field circle. The parents did not need to force him too much. One day, the Gill’s 11-year-old kid told daddy he intended to do a shot put marathon; that is to see how many attempts he could manage with the shot in the time a marathon runs. After a couple of hours of throwing he required some plasters for his damaged tip fingers and kept still putting for about 60 minutes. It is worth to say his best throw of the day was not reached until the 268th effort! To say he is fanatical about his sporting passion is bordering on understatement. Suffice to remember, when the son was misbehaving, the father used to punish him forbidding throwing for a week, instead of locking the videogames as it would be normal for a boy of his age. (3)  

Jacko Gill Training (Vimeo) from JoséNunoJacko on Vimeo.

              Since Jacko was 10, he and his father used to check thoroughly on the Internet the records achieved by the best putters of his age. The New Zealand youngster never had rivals at his level on the other side of the computer. Always to facilitate further progression, the dining room was changed in a weight room and a large area in a corner of the garage was conditioned to become a big gym. Small accidents may happen: a mislead ball landed straight into dad’s 1956 Buick convertible and fluorescent lights are smashed now and then but this is not big deal. (4) The motivated son wakes up every day around noon and practises some six-seven hours a day, divided in three demanding sessions. Up to 3 or 4 in the morning, Jacko can still be relentlessly lifting weights or bounding up and down the interior stairs, sometimes awaken his parents and scaring the dog outside, but this is just a small price to pay for the brightest future. (5) In an age boys are normally thinking in fun, the young Gill is totally focused in his shot put targets, not fearing stress or injuries. His only other hobbies are fishing and take care of his pet lizards, blue tongues and bearded dragons, all of them prehistoric; appropriate for someone who devotes himself to the ancient athletic discipline with an old school spirit.  Friends come to the house but there is a moment they know it is time to leave the “genius” alone. Soon school became incompatible: first Jacko obtained special concessions from his teachers but last year it was decided he would quit altogether studying to concentrate in his training. The Kiwi kid is training in the toughest possible fashion to become the best and at the same time, helped by nutritionists, is eating like a horse. Thus he has become much bigger, stronger and faster: he has added 12 kg in bulk this season and can bench-press 195 kg; around 30-40 kg more than in the beginning of 2011. Specialists say he has achieved in the last two years what usually takes ten. Because of this outstanding improvement, the Gill family receives periodical visits of drug testers, which they qualify as "a compliment." Also New Zealand Athletics has realised about the hopeful's potential and is investing good money in financing a part of his expenses.
             It is remarkable Jacko Gill is really light in comparison to the typical shot putter. He is 1.90 tall and only slightly superior to 100 kg. Even last April as he threw for the first time 20 metres he was just 96, defying odds which estimated it was impossible for someone below 100 kilos to break that barrier. World Champion in Berlin Christian Cantwell’s height is over 2 metres and his weight is near 140 kg and most of the best known putters fit in the same mould. Gill seem to be rewriting the rules of the discipline: from now on it is not only necessary strength but also speed and agility. The New Zealander has run the 100 metres in 11.5, can long jump 6.20 and high jump 1.55 standing, something unlikely in the specialty, before his arrival. It is his special weapon in competition and he do not forget to always alternate in training weight lifting with speed and agility drills for arms and legs. Gill dreams of help become the shot put event in an elegant and beautiful discipline in which David can beat the giant Goliath. Now the putters should attract masses as sprinters or distance runners do and he is already paving the way making public his spectacular workouts on the Internet.
            It is also worth of mention the young prodigy is almost self-coached. French Daniel Poppe, who also worked with Valerie Adams, is his official coach but he acts only as an advisor. Sometimes the former javelin specialist comes around in Gill’s house or the athlete join him at the Millenium stadium but most of the time Jacko works on his own, using Poppe’s lessons, along other information he collects through his computer, and other valuable helps as the late legendary weightlifter Graham May, who wrote for him a program of training and Nigel Avery, who taught him basic lifting techniques. (5) Jacko believes in his own capacity of decision and independence and prefers training alone: “I like to train, not talk.” (4) In the end it is a question of mentality and it is where Gill start to make the difference. He is determined, confident and focused as no teen of his age is and it allows him to maintain his seven hours of hard training and keep pushing. When competition is near he builds himself mentally for the moment to get extra energy of his body. (6) In words of Walter Gill “the atmosphere is unbelievable. The look on his face… It is uncomfortable to be around.” (4)  

Jacko Gill, showing his shot putting technique

              Jacko Gill progression is being meteoric and some are already launching predictions about the precise moment the Kiwi is going to smash the 21 year-old Randy Barnes 23.12 world record. Gill reached the 20 metres mark with the 5 kg youth implement two years ago in Timaru; he needed 7 more months to achieve it with the 6 kg junior shot in Moncton; and only 9 months later he had done it with the senior one. (7) With his awesome 20.01, last April Gill broke the New Zealand overall record, which had been set by Les Mills no less than 44 years ago. Besides, he also got the goal of becoming the youngest putter ever in breaking the 20 metres barrier, beating another former teen prodigy, Michael Carter by 2 years and 7 months. At the same time he threw beyond the best mark for a 17-year-old, who owned no less than Olympic champion in Montreal Udo Beyer. It was also worth to see his groundbreaking performance at Lille World Youth Championship, where he established the new World record with 24.35, leaving his next rival exactly 4 metres behind. Just another athlete had gone beyond 23 metres before, yet Gill produced the 24 metres distance in three occasions during the final. Only the junior record with the 6 metres shot had resisted for the moment the ambitious Jacko. World Champion David Storl keeps the top all-time position with 22.73, while the New Zealander is second 42 centimetres behind. However he will still be a junior for two more seasons.
            All are praises for the new track and field phenomenon, starting by the man who lost his long standing record Les Mills: “Jacko is the complete package. He is explosive, is extremely well coordinated, has excellent technique and an amazing attitude for someone so young.” (3)  He goes further stating he could be to New Zealand what Peter Snell was in the sixties, and do not forget the three times Olympic champion Snell was chosen by the prestigious Track and Field magazine best athlete of the decade. Interestingly, a country which used to excel in distance running could soon win global titles in shot put simultaneously in women with Valerie Adams and men with Jacko Gill. Dave Wollmann, one of the most respected throw coaches in USA said he had never seen anything remotely like it in 35 years and believes Gill could do to shot putting what Bob Beamon did to long jump. (3) Statisticians have calculated the New Zealander will smash the record Randy Barnes set just before being banned by massive steroids use, by the time he will be 27 or sooner. Only coach Didier Poppe is cautious, stating nothing can be took for granted and we do not know if can come a day Jacko Gill reach a level he can not improve over anymore or finish being a case of burn-out for all the energy he has been generously expending in his teen years. (8)       
            Nonetheless, for the moment Poppe and the athlete itself think the 21 metres are a reasonable target in the Olympic season. The day Gill threw 20.38, his technique was not the best possible and even in the warm-up he had delivered 20.70 meter long throws. A 21 metres mark would put the young New Zealander in contention for a medal in London, which he already stated in Lille was his immediate target, and we know about his determination and mental strength when it matters most. For the Olympics, all the classic shot putters in the last couple of years, Cantwell, Hoffa, Nelson, Mikhnevich, Majewski, Armstrong, Bartels… will be there and also the amazing David Storl, who surprised everybody winning the gold medal in Daegu at 21 years of age, throwing 21.78. The younger generation is already taking over from the old guard. Among them are Storl, Gill, and also American Ryan Whiting and Polish Krzysztof Brzozowski, the man who upset Jacko at the inaugural Olympic Youth Games last year. We expect the arrival of a new golden era for the shot put event with clashes for the ages.

Jacko Gill, a babe among the brutes
Picture by Lawrence Smith

domingo, 11 de diciembre de 2011

Jake and Zane Robertson following their Dream in Kenya

"Skies are the Limit"  (Jake Robertson)

Landscape from Kerio View in Iten, Kenya
               Some years ago I was often telling friends I wanted to live in Africa one day. However there is a long way between said and done. As I was talking idealistically about Kenyan sunsets and dawns there was always someone who asked how many times I had seen “Out of Africa”. Actually I have never watched that movie but I read it is based in the autobiography of Danish writer Karen Blixen who moved to Kenya in 1914, following a convenience marriage to establish a coffee plantation, and finished up finding true love and real life before being forced to return to Europe. By then, Africa was still a mysterious and little known continent open to free spirits and all sorts of adventurers. Nearly half a century before the legendary missionary and explorer David Livingstone had discovered the Victoria Falls and was investigating the sources of River Nile when he was famously spotted by Henry Morton Stanley, who was leading a fancy expedition, financed by the New York Herald, in search of news of the long-lost hero. Livingstone was so involved with the native community than after his death, when his body was required by British authorities, they cut the heart out to keep it in Africa, where it belonged. 

             In modern times many of the visitors which East Africa attracts from Western countries are runners. Brother Colm O’Connell realised a long time ago the best mission he could undertake was helping young Kenyans become professional athletes with the school he created at the Iten hills.   http://moti-athletics-histo.blogspot.com/2011/05/john-ngugi-and-his-time.html    In the same way (1) actors and singers flock to Hollywood seeking for their artistic dreams, Kenyans from all around the country come to Iten thinking in making a fortune through running.   http://moti-athletics-marathon-m.blogspot.com/2011/06/about-last-boston-marathon-and-current.html   The setting is also a privileged destination for athletes from all over the world. Champion Lornah Kiplagat invested in the creation of a luxury training camp with swimming pool and a stunning gym and this is the place chosen for many of the arriving guests for their 2-3 months workouts at altitude. The Iten and Eldoret inhabitants are getting used to this new sort of “tourism”, but there are two foreign athletes based in the region who have drawn the attention of the local population, because they are not following the typical trend: Jake and Zane Robertson decided the best fashion to approach an athletic career was to leave their native New Zealand and go to Kenya to stay, in order to live the same life and train the same way the best runners in the world do. They settled in Iten more than four years ago and have only move from there to compete sporadically in international meetings. 

              The twin brothers from Hamilton have been described by mates they had in their beginnings in track and field as people obsessed at a very young age with running, to the point it seemed a little weird. Their heroes were El Guerrouj and Gebrselassie and knew everything about every African runner (PBs, workouts, races won, etc). They had all Kenyan and Ethiopian running videos and were also fond of East African music and food. (2) Their coach at the time, Don Willoughby, confirms the huge commitment of Jake and Zane with athletics and also their strong competitiveness and determination. (3) The idea of moving to the black continent was quite old and Jake talked about it to the Kenyan athletes in the first opportunity he had, when competing at the 2006 World Cross Country Championship in Fukuoka. He declared his wish of going to their country and the athletes encouraged him so he thought about moving as soon as possible. (4) The Robertson brothers were just 17 in the following edition of the Championship, conveniently held in Mombasa. Then, they communicated their parents and Willoughby their decision of taking a one way ticket to the World Cross.  

          Mum and dad reacted in disbelief and confusion, ultimately expressing their lack of faith in such risky adventure. Yet they had to accept it because it was not possible to convince their sons about how wrong they were of going to live to a poor country, on their own means. Usually the most promising athletes in New Zealand join American Universities for both track and field and scholar formation as such are the cases of Kim Smith or Lucy Van Dalen but Jake and Zane did not like this safe way. However, with the time, their parents have become proud of all their sons have achieved with hard work in Kenya. (5) Willoughby also shows a deep admiration for them but still believes it is not necessary to move to altitude or even to the States in order to make the grade as an athlete; it is also possible staying in New Zealand. (3) Not so long ago, the homeland of Peter Snell, John Walker, Rod Dixon, Dick Quax and the coach of coaches Arthur Lydiard was a favoured training place for foreign runners.   

Jake and Zane Robertson from Losse Veter on Vimeo.

           Once in Africa, Jake and Zane Robertson first went to Ethiopia, where they had a New Zealander contact. It was in this same land where comic book genius Hugo Pratt met the legend of decadent romantic poet Arthur Rimbaud. Nonetheless as for the last 20 years Ethiopia most foremost son is the big champion Haile Gebrselassie. The twins had the chance of being welcomed at the house of the living legend, who they acknowledge as the man who taught them how to use properly a gym. Weeks afterwards they moved to Eldoret, where they survived living in a small room about 3x2 metres in the back of a bar and sleeping on a foam mattress. Yet, Jake and Zane did not dislike the experience because they said to be used to camping in their home country. Then, the local runners realised they were serious about staying in Kenya and Fukuoka acquaintance Saif Saeed Shaheen decided to help them out with their integration in the country. The 3000 metres steeplechase record holder got them a house in Iten next to his, and took them to train with his own group, besides affording their rent and supplying them food, when it was necessary. The twins speak highly about Shaheen, which they consider a mentor, a hero, a motivator and an elder brother (5). Amazingly, last year Jake got to beat for the first time his benefactor narrowly at the Belgrade’s Race through History, which clearly speaks about his fine progression. Zane also obtained a praiseworthy 32nd place among 350 starters at the highly competitive Discovery Cross Country Race in Eldoret, just ahead Martin Lel.
            In the beginning the New Zealanders had to adapt to the new lifestyle. Power electricity cuts are frequent in Iten and, when the dry season, water only arrives to the houses once or twice a week for one hour. It does randomly so if you are then out for training you must go ask for it to friends. For one thing or another you will not avoid walking about 15 km a day. (6) Then after training, massages and physiotherapists are not easily available so it is important a good and long rest in the evening.  Life does not offer in the Rift Valley many distractions but, once you get used to it, you love the simplicity of this existence, in close relationship with mates and nature. Otherwise, in Eldoret the same products you can buy around the world are at your disposal. For example you can have a spaghetti bolognaise for lunch if you want to. No wonder, Jake and Zane say they miss their parents but they have met in Kenya many of their very best friends and call Iten “home sweet home.” Most recent news say both twins are now engaged in a love relationship with local girls. In Zane case she is Ethiopian so he has moved to Addis Abeba for her. It seems they do not have any intention of returning to New Zealand for the moment.  
             Kenyans are reputed for training harder than anybody else and the Robertson brothers agree with this theory. Up to three daily sessions are normal with the first two being an easy jogging and the final one a tough interval workout. However it is balanced and, as already mentioned, rest is necessary too. It is also important to learn to listen to your body: training is scheduled according to your daily response and not the opposite. Both Kiwi twins had frustrating results in races last year due to overtraining. For this year they have chosen to train only in a small group with friends to avoid the stress of being pushed for random runners as it happened in 2010. Jake and Zane have baptised this selected bunch the HotBoyz, which is under the guidance of Patrick Sang, a former silver Olympic medallist at the steeplechase.    

Jake and Zane Robertson running at the 2010 Belgrade's Race through History
Photo courtesy Belgrade Marathon Ltd
    Jake and Zane Robertson are steadily progressing, though they still need much further improvement to become world beaters. At last World Cross Country Championship in Punta Umbría they finished respectively in modest 60th and 92nd positions. Zane has set a PB at the 1500 metres of 3:41.77, while Jake also achieved a new personal record at the 5000 with 13:22.38, which qualified him for Daegu. There, he had a noteworthy performance. In spite of being tripped, he bravely made up a 50 metres gap and went to the front but was pushed again, finishing his heat injured. The officials put him into the final, where Jake tried his best but he had not recovered physically. Nonetheless, what attracted the attention of New Zealand head coach Steve Willis was Jake’s strong confidence in his possibilities, which comes from his tough training in Kenya, along some of the best runners in the world. (4) Jake has set high goals for him and he would like to start in 2012 beating Adrian Blincoe’s 13:10.19 national record; then fight for the medals at the Olympics. Zane also expects a huge improvement in the new year.
           The New Zealand twins’ adventure in Kenya has gained them as many sympathizers as detractors as we can see in threads in athletic websites (2). Some accuse them of irresponsible and destructive behaviour, following impossible dreams to the extreme so they finally become nightmares. Furthermore they are blamed of abandoning their home to sail to the third world, renouncing to quality of life and education and having to depend on the help of strangers. On the other hand, others praise their brave attitude and willingness to open to new ideas, embracing another country. People with restricted minds confound an education with a degree. There is no better learning than being in contact with a different culture, which in any way can be considered inferior because of having a less competitive economy. Whether they become world class athletes or not, Jake and Zane Robertson will obtain from their experience in Kenya excellent lessons for their future lives as how to be kind and generous with the others as athletes from Iten have been with them. Anyway, they will never regret not to have tried their dream because of fear or mental barriers.

Jake and Zane Robertson training with Kenyan mates in Iten