Thu. Feb 22nd, 2024

Somewhere among the dozens of young athletes competing at the European U20 Championships in Jerusalem this week lie the names that will grace the great combined events meets of the future.

Previous winners include Thomas Van der Plaetsen, Carolin Schäfer, Kevin Mayer, Nafi Thiam, Jan Doležal, Caroline Agnou, Niklas Kaul, Alina Shukh, Simon Ehammer, Maria Vicente and, most recently, Jente Hauttekeete and Saga Vanninen.

Kai Kazmirek, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Martin Roe, Laura Ikauniece, Xenia Krizsán, Janek Õiglane, Fredrik Samuelsson, Noor Vidts, Johannes Erm, Karel Tilga, Makenson Gletty, Adrianna Sułek, Markus Rooth, Sander Skotheim, Leo Neugebauer, Annik Kälin, and Kate O’Connor also started their careers at these champs.

Not all athletes are able to make a successful transition into senior rankings, but for those who do, they often credit the experience at these age group competitions with preparing them for the structure and challenges of senior championships.

And others have gone on to have successful careers in other disciplines. The 400m hurdler Lea Sprunger won bronze in the heptathlon in Novi Sad in 2009, while sprinter Dafne Schippers took gold in Tallinn in 2011. And, of course, the 400m hurdles world record holder Karsten Warholm was the silver medallist in the decathlon – 7764 if you’re interested – in Eskilstuna in 2015.

The most recent cohorts have gone on to promising starts at senior level, Hauttekeete over 8000 this year, and Sander Skotheim and Markus Rooth establishing themselves as genuine contenders for medals in global championships over the next few years. Vanninen, Vicente and Kälin have also made strong transitions into the senior fields.

HEPTATHLON

Success, or at least experience, at the European U20s before going onto senior events is the way of the world. But for several of the athletes competing in the heptathlon, they have turned that order on its head.

Jana Košcak, the favourite for the heptathlon coming into the competition, has already enjoyed her debut at Götzis in 2023, where she won Rookie of the Year with her first senior heptathlon score of 6293. That and her 4432 pentathlon to finish third in Tallinn in February means she is technically qualified for the Budapest World Championships heptathlon field by ranking, although the rules exclude athletes aged under 18 – Jana is 17 – from the combined events.

Curiously, while Košcak is too young to compete in the heptathlon at Budapest, she is not too young to be ranked, since the U20 heptathletes use the same implements as the senior athletes. Even though she is not able to use the ranking, she is able to build it up in time for when she turns 18. At the same time, the U20 decathletes cannot build up ranking positions since WA rules deem the use of U20 implements ineligible for rankings.

Košcak’s stand-out event is the high jump, at which she ispermitted to compete in Budapest, and in Götzis she was the top performer in that event with Anna Hall at 1.92m.

Like Košcak, Estonia’s Liisa Maria Lusti achievements also led to an invitation to Götzis, in 2022. Lusti, together with the 2023 NCAA heptathlon champion and European U23 bronze medallist, Pippi Lotta Enok, is injecting energy into Estonian combined events in a way that most recently has really only been evident in decathlon, the Estonians’ traditional strength.

Traditionally, the Germans field a strong squad to the European U20s. In 2021 in Tallinn, Marie Dehning, Serena Riedel and Lara Siemer finished third, fourth and eighth respectively. The trio on this occasion is the world U20 bronze medallist Sandrina Sprengel, Pia Messing and Kajsa Zimmerman.

Košcak quickly put herself into the lead in the first two events of the competition, 13.37s in the hurdles and 1.86m in the high jump. Sprengel set a lifetime best of 1.83m in the high jump to put herself firmly into second place.

The shot is one of Košcak’s weaker events, and although she threw 11.93m, the Croatian suffered a hamstring injury and withdrew from the competition. Otherwise, Kajsa Zimmerman of Germany had the longest throw with a 13.67 PB, followed by Sophie Kreiner of Austria 13.55 and Melissa Wullschleger of Switzerland with a 12.91 PB. That moved Kreiner from eighth to third, 123 points behind Sprengel and 13 points ahead of Lusti.

In the final event of the first day, Czech Republic’s Adela Tcakova was the fastest in a PB of 24.01, while Sofia Cosculluela of Spain recovered from a poor high jump with the second fastest time in 24.02. Lusti also had a good run, and at the end of the first day Sprengel led by 123 points from Lusti, who was 23 points ahead of Kreiner, with Lusti in particular with a good long jump to come.

However, next morning, Lusti had a tough event, unable to land a full legal jump. Although she gathered some points with her one valid attempt (just over 4 metres), that ended her medal ambitions. After the long jump, it looked like the Germans Sprengel and Messing were pulling away with Sophie Kreiner.

But a PB javelin throw of 43.68 by Wullschleger moved the Swiss from fifth to third, 13 points ahead of Kreiner who was in turn 72 ahead of Tcakova.

Sprengel had a comfortable lead of 212 over Messing, who in turn had 75 points to spare to third place.

Messing is a faster 800m runner than Sprengel, and she ran 2:20.85 to Sprengel’s 2:26/44. While that took 74 points out of Sandrina’s lead, the positions remained the same for the Germans, Sprengel with gold and Messing with silver, the latter a day after her 18th birthday.

But everything changed in the race for bronze. Tcakova was the fastest among the leaders with 2:19.22, a time that catapulted her ahead of Wullschleger (2:27.67), two places above her. However Kreiner had also moved past the Swiss, and the Austrian’s time of 2:21.14 was enough to bring her the bronze medal – two years after Kreiner fell in the first event at the 2021 EU20s in Tallinn and was pipped to the bronze medal at the WU20 championships in Nairobi by just 22 points.

DECATHLON

While the heptathlon field offered some clear favourites ahead of the competition, in the decathlon we are promised a much closer two days.

There is little between Great Britain’s Sammy Ball, Germany’s Amadeus Gräber (the European U18 champion) and Switzerland’s Andrin Huber, all with PBs in the 7800s set this year.

Close behind them is a cluster of athletes between 7600 and 7800: Matthias Lasch of Austria, Melchior Treffers of the Netherlands, and Sofus Vølund of Denmark.

The Czechs have sent a full team (Adam Havliček, Petr Svoboda, Michal Jára) as have the Germans (Emanuel Molleker and Friedrich Schulze), Estonians (Valter Viisel, Jaroslav Sivuha, Harry Jääger), Swiss (Joel Temeng and Louis Miller), the Dutch (Job van Keulen and Jip De Greef) and the Italians (Alberto Nonnino, Stefano Demo and Alessandro Carugati).

The Swedes have a strong pipeline in decathlon, with Jacob Thelander and Elliot Duvert the reigning World U20 silver and bronze medallists, and in Jerusalem they are represented by Leo Göransson.

However, there’s an athlete whose current decathlon PB, only 7393, belies much greater potential. With echoes of 2021, earlier this year France’s Maxime Moitie-Charnois became only the third athlete to score over 6000 points at the U20 heptathlon, equalling Sander Skotheim’s 6015 and just 47 points behind Jente Hauttekeete’s world record of 6062. That should translate into something much higher than 7300 in decathlon for him.

Completing the field are Roko Farkaš of Croatia, Eduardo Figueroa of Spain, Konstantinos Karagiannidis of Greece, Artur Brzezinski of Poland, and Andris Skadinš of Latvia.

Ahead of the competition, some of the athletes shared how they were feeling coming into the event:

AMADEUS GRÄBER, GERMANY

“I feel very good and ready for the competition. The season so far has been great, after the first decathlon this year, in which I had 7842 points, I was able to work on the weaker disciplines. For example, I totally changed my run up for the pole vault and was able to jump 5 meters already. I think everyone’s gonna be in their best shape and the key to succeed is to be the most consistent. I also really look forward to experiencing the atmosphere in the stadium and to compete with the best U20 decathletes of Europe. All in all, it’s gonna be a tough battle, and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one person can get a score over 8000 points.”

SOFUS VØLUND, DENMARK

“I’m really looking forward to Jerusalem, and I can’t wait to see what I can do when it matters. Hopefully I can set a new personal best, but the most important thing for me is to have a lot of fun.”

SONDRE JAHREN, NORWAY

“I feel quite a bit of pressure leading into this competition, being the most handsome man in the field. Nevertheless, I will use this as an advantage, since Jerusalem is hot, as well as me. Other than that, I’m looking forward to meeting my friend Sofus from Denmark again. When the competition starts it will be two weeks since the last time I saw him, and that’s too much.”

MICHAL JARA, CZECH REPUBLIC

“We have a good quote in Czech and it translates like “it’s better with three” or something like that and I think it describes the three of us the best. We are really good friends for almost 5 years, and this is the dream to go to international Champs together and for the first time.”

JIP DE GREEF, NETHERLANDS

“I’m just really happy with where I’m at, from a lot of injuries these years and not even jumping or running this year too qualifying for my first championships. I’m just really excited for this EU20s, competing with 2 other Dutchies in the decathlon, meeting other athletes and if all goes well putting down a big score.”

VALTER VISEL, ESTONIA

“I’m in the best shape of my life, the results even in training show that: “Believe in yourself and you’re halfway there.””

LEO GORANSSON, SWEDEN

“I’m feeling pretty good ahead of the champs and I’m very excited to come back to Jerusalem this year again and fight for the medals. But at the same time a bit nervous considering some of the great results done by the other decathletes this season.

Compare it to last year when I was ranked 3rd before compared to this year being ranked 11th coming into the comp. But training has been going well and hopefully we have managed to time everything right so that I can perform at my best in Jerusalem.

I’ve been improving a lot in my not so good events such as hurdles and pole vault but also in some of my good ones like 400 and 1500.

It’s always a big honor to wear the Swedish clothes and representing my country.  But the thing I’m mostly looking forward for is probably meeting all the guys I got to know from last year but definitely also getting to know the guys born 04.

Otherwise, being with the team and the other athletes during junior championships is amazing and you always have a great time. Unfortunately, though some of my best friends haven’t been able to qualify due to injuries which is very sad considering the fact that we always have the best times together.”

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