Sat. Jun 22nd, 2024

HEPTATHLON

As Anna Hall came around the final bend at the front of the 800m field and towards a bronze medal at the World Championships in Oregon, Adrianna Sułek appeared on her shoulder. Something drastic would have been required in the final 100m for the Pole to puncture the lead Hall held after six events, but the American knew the threat her rival posed.

“I knew Adrianna, the way she competes. By no means did I feel safe with the bronze medal until I crossed the line,” she told Decathletes of Europe at the time.

That duel promises to keep us entertained for years to come, and it will be the centrepiece of competition this weekend at Hypomeeting Götzis.

Sułek and Hall haven’t met in competition since, but their rivalry continued from afar during the indoor season. Sułek declared to Decathletes of Europe in Tallinn in February that she intended to break the world pentathlon record. A few days later, Hall blew open the stagnant pentathlon all-time lists when she scored 5004 at the US Champs, becoming only the third athlete to score over 5000 points, the first since KJT in 2015, and at that point second of all time. 

Sułek responded at the European Indoors in Istanbul, and this time when she metaphorically edged onto Hall’s shoulder in the final event, she found the kick she needed to cross the line and score 5014, one point more than Natalya Dobrynska’s world record. As she finished, Sułek’s face transitioned through a series of emotions. Exhaustion, shock, joy, and then crushing disappointment as Belgian goddess Nafi Thiam timed her effort beautifully to add 41 points to Sułek’s short-lived world record.

Thiam, with multiple World and Olympic golds, is now focused on scores. She is using Ratingen in mid-June, rather than Götzis, to test individual events before she seeks to hunt down JJK’s 7291, a score set in that period of the 1980s where results were stratospheric, and legacies would be long.

Returning to Hall and Sułek, 7000 points are a very different proposition from 5000 points. With nowhere to hide in their weaker disciplines, the reach beyond their heptathlon PBs of 6755 and 6672 respectively will require excellence across all seven events. But Hall and Sułek have one thing in common – when they say they are going to do something that, on the face of it, sounds eye-wateringly ambitious, they have a habit of delivering it.

On paper, it might be tempting to assign favourite status this weekend to the 2023 Götzis winner, Olympic silver medallist Anouk Vetter, or to two-times winner and 2019 world champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson. That would be fair, because when Vetter is performing well, she is a confident and formidable presence in the field. Her upbeat mood at the pre-competition press conference bodes well. For KJT, things are a little more uncertain. Her championships in 2022 were below her usual standards, but a few tests events last weekend in England have left her hopeful for a positive heptathlon experience in Götzis.

With Emma Oosterwegel and Noor Vidts withdrawing from competition, the eye is drawn next to Carolin Schafer of Germany, and 2022 US champion Annie Kunz.

Schafer has been working steadily with Niklas Kaul and his family’s coaching team in recent years, and while she has remained in the mix on the international field, she hasn’t yet returned to the force she promised to be when she won silver at the World Championships in London in 2017, and bronze at the Euros in Berlin in 2018, currently closer to 6200-6400 that 6600-6800.

Kunz’s breakthrough in 2021 was special because she was, at that point, relatively unknown outwith the combined events circuit, even with solid performances in Multistars. But Kunz’s individual marks promised much more than her heptathlon PB showed at the time, and she made good on those – and then some – when she did 6703 at the US Olympic trials. Kunz trains in California with the early season world leader in decathlon, Harrison Williams, and they are tracking each other back from injury wilderness. Williams has done his part to qualify for Budapest – it’s now over to Kunz to see if she can do the same.  

With Schafer no longer the dominant German heptathlete, Sophie Weissenberg and Vanessa Grimm are, step-by-step, moving into that space.

Last year in Ratingen, Weissenberg won the competition and came within a few points of her PB of 6293 from Götzis in 2019 but has been extraordinarily unlucky with illness and injury at major champs.

Grimm was a little in Weissenberg’s shadow too, until 2022 when she scored 6323 to finish third in Götzis. Her season was then truncated due to injury, and if her recovery has gone well, Grimm could mix it up with the bigger names we might expect to be above her. The third German in the heptathlon field is Anna-Lena Obermeier, with her trademark long socks, who improved steadily during the first half of 2022 and was rewarded with a 6000-point-adjacent 5936 at the Thorpe Cup.

We know exactly what sort of form Taliyah Brooks, the third US heptathlete in the field, is bringing because we saw her win Multistars a month ago in Italy, delivering a 6330 PB as she did so. While that score included good performances in the events on which she needed to work, it didn’t capitalise on her best events, and so a World Champs qualifying score of 6480 is clearly within reach. That would set her up for a much more positive experience than the US trials in 2021, where thanks to the extreme conditions, she lost the opportunity to make herself eligible for Olympic selection.

As Euro Indoors 10th placer Marijke Esselink enjoys her Götzis debut, her teammate European U20 silver medallist and 2022 Götzis Rookie of the year Sofie Dokter could be one athlete who makes a breakthrough. She finished close to the medals in Istanbul and is very much on an upward trajectory.

Her peer, double World U20 champion Saga Vanninen of Finland has not yet made significant progress on her 6271 2021 heptathlon mark, but Dokter has started closing the gap to Vanninen significantly and added 340 to her pentathlon PB indoors.

Dokter’s successor as Rookie of the Year is most likely to be the wonderful Jana Koščak, the 17-year-old Croatian who is performing way beyond her years, and likely be the star of the European U20 championships this summer. Expect her to be enjoying the limelight alongside Sułek and Hall at 1.90m in the high jump, and to convert her 6106 girls heptathlon score into a solid senior mark.

The Australians, and indeed the Cubans, tend to dominate the early season world lists and the Cuban pair of Adrianna Rodriguez and Marys Patterson scored 6279 and 6113 respectively back in March, on this occasion without the hurricanes for which multis in La Habana are notorious.

Taneille Crase scored 5960 to win the Australian champs this year, and is making her Götzis debut, coach Glynis Nunn in tow, following her 6026 and fifth place at the Commonwealth Games last year.

The Commonwealth Games bronze medallist, GB’s Jade O’Dowda had a strong competition in Multistars last month, pushing Taliyah Brooks all the way and finishing second overall. O’Dowda is extraordinarily consistent around 6200 points, and the excellent environment in Götzis may be what helps Jade step up further to 6300 or beyond.

Three athletes are returning from long periods of injury: Canada’s Georgia Ellenwood (who scored 6224 and 6314 on her 2021 Mittel Europe road trip but missed the opportunity to challenge KJT for gold at last year’s Commonwealth Games), Finland’s Maria Huntington, perennially injured since her 6318 in 2021, and returning home favourite, the World U20 silver medallist from 2018 Sarah Lagger who already has 6010 this season from Multistars.

With Ivona Dadic again giving Götzis a miss and Verena Mayr confirming she won’t realistically be seeking to qualify for Budapest – stymied by the combination of inflated standards, requirement for two scores for ranking purposes, and restricted fields – Lagger leads a home contingent trio that includes Chiara-Belinda Schuler, and Vorarlberg local Isabel Posch.

The field is completed by ever-improving neighbouring Swiss duo Celine Albisser (a PB of 5858 so far this year) and Sandra Röthlin (4281 PB indoors), Poland’s Paulina Ligarska in her first competition since a season abandoned nine months ago, and Ukraine’s Yuliya Loban.

DECATHLON

As Olympic decathlon champion Damian Warner returns to Götzis for the tenth time, his average score across the previous nine occasions is 8508 points. Only three other athletes in the field – Pierce LePage, Ash Moloney and Lindon Victor – have ever scored an individual decathlon higher than Warner’s average.

While his early season tests in the USA suggest that Götzis might be a little early for a 9000+ point score, we can expect Warner to deliver a clear world lead that should hold – unless Kyle Garland repeats his 2022 US trials performance – until the major championships of the season. You can read more about Warner’s thoughts on this edition of Götzis in my article for Athletics Weekly.

We haven’t seen much of Pierce LePage since he pushed Kevin Mayer to gold in Eugene (LePage won silver) but he has been defrosted from the Canadian winter and ready to start alongside Warner. Moloney has been missing at the top level since his bronze medal at the 2022 World Indoors – he had a DNF in Eugene and a DNS in Birmingham – but he did have a hopeful return to 8000+ with an 8060 in December.

At their best, they can score 8701 and 8649 respectively.

Commonwealth champion and 2022 Decastar winner Lindon Victor struggled to have an injury diagnosed and treated properly earlier in the season, so he is playing catch up. It isn’t too early to expect great things from the only Estonian in Götzis Karel Tilga, who secured an outright World and Olympic qualifying score of 8484 to win Multistars in April, with plenty points left unscored in several events. If LePage and Moloney can be pushing beyond 8500, then Tilga should not be too far behind them.

The Estonian team is unusually light this year: no Maicel Uibo, no Risto Lillemets (the European Indoor bronze medallist has been troubled by his back in recent weeks) and the other leading Estonians either choosing to compete at Ratingen or delaying the start of their season due to injury.

This is a key season for the European decathlon silver medallist Simon Ehammer. Ehammer is from just across the border in Appenzell, Switzerland, and in the absence of top-class Austrian athletes in the field (although expect Matthias Lasch to join those ranks soon following his U20 NR last weekend) Ehammer is the closest thing to a home favourite for the Austrian crowd. Ehammer performs best when he is the darling of the crowd, and if we acknowledge that Warner is on another level, then Ehammer is the one to gain most from the Götzis atmosphere.

One sometimes forgets that Ehammer’s decathlon PB is still below 8500 – he couldn’t quite capitalise on his world decathlon long jump best of 8.45m last year in Götzis and turn that into a monster score, although he improved to 8468 in Munich. While he’s consistently capable of 8200-8400 scores, he needs another 100-200 points to challenge the likes of Warner, Kevin Mayer, LePage, Moloney, Victor and Garland for global decathlon medals. Ahead of the Olympic Games in Paris next year, where Mayer and Warner will be well into their 30s, this would be the perfect season for Ehammer to step it up.

Like the Estonians, many of the top Germans are missing as European champion Niklas Kaul focuses on Ratingen and Leo Neugebauer is engaged in NCAA duties. The rise of Neugebauer has changed the dynamic of German decathlon in that there is now essentially only one space up for grabs on their championship team – and those who previously would have laid claim to it now have a horde of young decathletes approaching and exceeding 8000 points.

Tim Nowak is one of those competing in Götzis this weekend who is going to have to work harder to make the German team, and he’s joined by Manuel Eitel – on the cusp of a bigger score if he can just get beyond those niggling injuries – and perhaps one of the most exciting of the Europe-based German zehnkampfers Marcel Meyer.

Nowak and Eitel and co should expect to be tussling with Ash Moloney’s teammates, Dan Golubovic and Cedric Dubler, although both Aussies are capable of getting above 8300 at their best. Dubler and Victor swapped the leaders’ vest repeatedly at the Commonwealth Games as the running balance adjusted after jumps and throws, but Dan Golubovic came very close to causing an upset, finally settling for silver when Dubler took bronze.  

Devon Williams had an inspired comeback in Multistars last month, just short of 8000 points with lots more to come. Fredrik Samuelsson has somehow managed to defeat his massively debilitating health issues and returned to 8000+ in decathlon in Multistars. He brings Swedish domestic challenge back to Marcus Nilsson who had a super 2022, revising his ageing PB and coming very close to a medal in Munich.

Switzerland’s Finley Gaio was Rookie of the Year in 2021 and edging closer to 8000, and European U23 silver medallist Sven Roosen is also returning to Götzis. While most of the rest of the French squad is at the Defi’Athlon in Montpellier, Makenson Gletty is looking to capitalise on his outstanding indoor season over ten events.

Ondřej Kopecký – the top athlete in Roman Šebrle’s squad – tends to perform at his best in the Czech Republic, and while he qualified for both major outdoor championships in 2022, he didn’t make it to the start line on either of them. Götzis would be a great place to break that pattern.

The indestructible Pawel Wiesiołek is back again in Götzis for 2023, as is Belgium’s Nils Pittomvills. Pittomvils and Thomas Van der Plaetsen both suffered horrible injuries in 2021 after fantastic lifetime performances in Götzis that year – TVDP returned in Multistars (withdrawing due to a niggle in his foot but hoping to go again in Ratingen) and Pittomvils is back in action this weekend.

In contrast to the Götzis veterans, there will be a few new faces competing from Greece: the 2022 Balkan champion Aris-Nikolaos Peristeris, and Alexandros Spyridonidis who came near to an 8000-point score in Texas earlier this year. Cuba’s Yancarlos Hernandez is also a new face, and the 22-year-old set his PB of 7820 at the same competition as Rodriguez and Patterson in March. Edgaras Benkunskas relieved Lithuanian legend Darius Draudvila of his heptathlon NR in Tallinn in February, and Canada’s Nate Mechler comes to show off just what he’s been teaching his training partner the Olympic champion over the last few months.

Now, to finish this preview, in addition to Hall v Sułek, there are two further double acts that bring extra excitement to this weekend’s competition.

SKOTHEIM V HAUTTEKEETE

In 2021, Norway’s Sander Skotheim and Belgium’s Jente Hauttekeete tracked each other through the year.

In February 2021, Hauttekeete broke the U20 heptathlon world record with 6062, although if it is ratified before he reaches 30 it will be a miracle. A few days later, Skotheim scored 6015, the second ever best score by an U20 (coincidentally, matched by Maxime Moitie Charnois of France this year, who is competing at the Defi’Athlon this weekend).

Into the summer, and even with the threat of Skotheim’s stronger final two events over decathlon, Hauttekeete won the European U20 title while Skotheim took silver. When 2022 arrived, Hauttekeete’s transition into the senior ranks was thwarted by injury at the last minute ahead of both Götzis and Talence. Meanwhile, Skotheim ran riot, exceeding Martin Roe’s previous decathlon NR with 8298, and qualifying for both World and European Championships. His 6255 in Tallinn in February this year took him to the European Indoors in Istanbul, where he scored 6318 and had the Ehammer-esque audacity to make Kevin Mayer work for his title. Now, it’s time for Hauttekeete to see what he can do. The indoor season went well for the Belgian, scoring 6059 at X-athletics and making big strides in multiple events.

BAHAMAS KEN V KENDRICK

While it may sound weird for a writer who runs a website called “Decathletes of Europe” to be obsessed with Bahamian decathlon, sue me, because I am.

Last summer Ken Mullings qualified for the World Championships through the then  protected place available to the winner of NACAC. He delivered on that investment, breaking Kendrick Thompson’s national record and scoring 7866. He decided not to go to the Commonwealth Games a few weeks later, and Thompson instead represented Bahamas. Fast forward a few months and Mullings breaks the indoor heptathlon national record with 5933, but the mark was not recognised for World Athletics top list or rankings purposes because the meet wasn’t in the official calendar #JusticeForKen.

Then, onto outdoors. At Mt Sac in April, when Harrison Williams was setting an 8400+ world lead, Thompson and Mullings both had phenomenal competitions, hurling themselves towards not only the national record, but towards the achievement of first Bahamian over 8000 points.

On this occasion, Kendrick stepped up and took the honour, scoring 8015. Mullings also broke his own previous best, just short of 8000 with 7933. When Mullings finally breaks 8000 points, the Bahamas will have one 8000+ decathlete for every 200,000 people. Estonia currently has one for every 185,000, and Grenada one for 60,000.

Whether it’s Anna v Adrianna, Sander v Jente or Ken v Kendrick – pick your favourite Mehrkampf. It’s time for Götzis!

You can find the full details here.