Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a boy called Kevin. He was only 19, and he and his friends had a wonderful time running, jumping and throwing over 2 days.
Ten years later, Kevin and his friends travelled to another land for a competition…only to find a new band of brothers in town.
Ladies and gentlemen, the 2021 European Indoor Championships heptathlon: the Masters versus the Youngsters.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN TALLINN AND TAMPERE
“Once upon a time” was actually 2011, and the “land far away” (for Kevin anyway) was Estonia. At the European Junior Championships in Tallinn, 19-year old Kevin Mayer won the decathlon, with 18-year old Darko Pešić from Montenegro also in the field. Two years later in 2013, while Kevin went to Moscow, Darko sailed across the Baltic to the European U23 Championships in Tampere in Finland. That was won by a 22-year-old German called Kai Kazmirek, with a young Pole called Pawel Wiesiołek, and a young Dutchman called Pieter Braun also in the competition.
Almost a decade later, with numerous titles and medals under their belts, the gang are back together again in Poland in 2021. They are joined by their Spanish peer Jorge Ureña, the defending European Indoor champion from Glasgow 2019.
But the six illustrious decathletes are met in Poland by six audacious youngsters. They are: Dario Dester (20), Simon Ehammer and Andreas Bechmann (both 21), Risto Lillemets and Maksim Andraloits (both 23) and Rik Taam, who celebrated his 24th birthday earlier this year.
THE ROAD TO TORUŃ STARTED IN GÖTZIS
The road to Toruń actually started in Götzis in May 2019, where Pieter Braun scored one of the best European decathlon marks of the year (8306). A few weeks later Kai Kazmirek scored 8444 in Ratingen, and 18 months later Kevin Mayer scored 8552 in Réunion. And so those three – by dint of their position on the 2019-20 European decathlon lists, were invited to Toruń.
With no need to chase qualification, none of them have yet done a heptathlon in 2021, but all have impressed in individual events. Pieter won the Dutch long jump title with 7.43m, Kai leaped 7.52 in Dortmund, and Kevin hurdled a PB of 7.68 in Lièvin and vaulted 5.30 in Clermont Ferrand. Kai has a heptathlon PB of 6238 from 2018, Pieter 6072 set in 2020, and Kevin the European record of 6479, set in Belgrade in 2017.
But we will only know their form over 7 events as the weekend unfolds, and the same can be said for Jorge (PB 6249), who had a slight injury earlier in the year.
With 5 slots reserved for 2019-20 athletes, one reserved for the defending champion, and one for the home country (in this instance Pawel Wiesiołek), 5 places remained up for grabs.
TAAM, LILLEMETS, PEŠIĆ, EHAMMER AND BECHMANN PASS 6000
Rik Taam was the first to stake his claim on a place in Torun, scoring over 6000 points (6001) for the first time at the X-Athletics event in Clermont Ferrand in the first few weeks of January. He had enjoyed a great tussle with Paweł, with either man capable of winning, until Pawel dropped out late in the competition to protect a minor injury. Rik scored 6001 and set the bar for the year. He followed up his performance with 5903 a few weeks later at the Dutch championships.
The field should also have included, from the 2019 world lists, Maicel Uibo and Janek Õiglane, but both injured themselves earlier in the season. Maicel injured his thigh in the days before the combined events competition in Tallinn in February, and Janek his foot later in the month. So, the field went from the maximum number of Estonians to zero Estonians.
Enter Risto Lillemets. No longer excluded due to the quota of two athletes per country, he had a chance to participate in his first senior championships. He had a superb outdoor season in 2019, breaking 8000 points in a solo decathlon and finishing on the podium behind Kevin Mayer in Réunion. Having just missed out on 6000 points at the equivalent competition in 2020, Risto left nothing to chance and scored a lifetime best of 6089 to win the combined events competition in Tallinn on 7 February.
The same weekend as Risto became the 11th Estonian to score 6000 points, Darko Pešić was enjoying the form of his life at the Serbian Championships, where he competed as a guest. He set four national records – a 7.24 long jump, 2.08 high jump, 7.95 hurdles and finally a heptathlon NR of 6036, which included a massive shot of 16.69.
And as Risto and Darko were stacking up 6000 points in Estonia and Serbia respectively, there was a third competition going on, in Switzerland. Simon Ehammer was attempting to break his own national record of 5915. But he was doing more than that – he was on track for an insane score of 6300+ after his first day.
His second day started as usual, with his customary sub 8 second hurdles. And then, at the pole vault, the world fell in. He overestimated his form and entered at 4.70, and no-heighted. While Risto and Darko collected their tickets for Toruń, Simon would need to try again.
The next week Simon travelled to Frankfurt, joining Andreas Bechmann on the German’s home ground for a heptathlon. This time, no mistakes. Simon put together a solid heptathlon – entering the pole vault at 4.50 – and scored 6092, to go to the top of the world lists.
While Ehammer won the competition in Frankfurt, it was a close one, with Bechmann pushing him all the way. The two have different strengths, and Andreas finished day 1 well with a PB of 2.10 in the high jump, pushed to new heights by an 18-year-old Belgian called Jente Hauttekeete who also jumped 2.10. While Ehammer played it safe in the pole vault, Bechmann vaulted 5.20, having cleared a PB of 5.21 a few weeks earlier. In the end both athletes were overshadowed by Hautekeette’s surprise WU20 record. But Ehammer and Bechmann had done what was required to qualify for Toruń – Ehammer for his first senior championships, and Bechmann his second Euro Indoors (he finished 5th in Glasgow).
NO JOY FOR ILYA
Meanwhile in Belarus, 23-year old Maksim Andraloits had performed well at the Belarussian champs at the end of January, scoring 6057. His teammate Vitaly Zhuk had scored 6010 behind Lillemets in Tallinn. Both were in contention for the championships.
The best score of the year would actually come from Ilya Shkurenyev, the 2015 champion and bronze medallist from Glasgow. He scored 6269 (including a 5.40 pole vault) at the Russian Championships on 19 February. But the actions of his country means that he remains ineligible for competition.
A few days after Ilya’s WL, Pawel Wiesiołek would win the Polish championships in a PB of 6103, ahead of Ehammer on the world lists. Paweł was no longer going to the Euros simply as host country representative, but with the highest score of all the participants.
And so, we approached the end of the qualification period. Ehammer, Lillemets, Bechmann, Andraloits and Zhuk held the top spots and were confident of invitation, while Rik Taam sat nervously in the final qualifying position.
Only the Italian championships to go.
And what a competition that was – 31 year old Simone Cairoli and 20-year old Dario Dester locked in battle over two days, with just a few points between them. Going into day 2, Dario took a huge chunk off his hurdles PB and started to stretch away. Both men surpassed the previous 12-year old Italian record of 597. But it was Dario who scored 6076 points, landing just ahead of Andraloits on the world lists and bumping Rik out of contention.
But then news came that Zhuk would not take up his place, and Taam was back in!
And so, there’s our field. The experienced decathletes and the young bucks.
The Masters: Mayer (6479), Kazmirek (6238 PB), Braun (6072 PB), Ureña (6249 PB), Wiesiołek (6103 PB) and Pešić (6036 PB). Almost 6 decades of experience between them, Wiesiołek and Pešić both in the form of their lives.
The Youngsters: Bechmann (6097 PB), Ehammer (6092 PB), Lillemets (6089 PB), Dester (6076 PB), Andraloits (6057 PB) and Taam (6001 PB). All barely turned teenagers when Mayer and co participated in their first European championships, and all scoring – or coming within a few points of – their lifetime bests in 2021.
You can read more about the individual athletes in my profiles for Decathlonpedia.
Only 102 points separate the highest (Paweł) and the lowest (Rik) scores among those who qualified in 2021. As the qualification closed, the top 12 in Europe were the top 12 in the world. Of course, if Mayer is at his best and can deliver it, he is capable of a score beyond 6400.
But this is no one-man show. This is a world class field. Let’s see who lives happily ever after.
- Olavi Kaljunen: Darko Pešić, Kai Kazmirek, Jorge Ureña, Pawel Wiesiołek
- Michel Fisquet: Kevin Mayer
- Markus Schwarz: Andreas Bechmann
- Bjorn Paree: Pieter Braun, Rik Taam
- Marko Mumm for Estonian Athletics: Risto Lillemets
- Getty Images for European Athletics: Simon Ehammer
- Dario Dester via Cremona Sportiva