Mon. May 27th, 2024

“Finally, we are at home” declared Barbara Lombardi, breathing a sigh of relief in her command centre, at the Tre Stelle Stadium on the eve of the 36th Multistars competition on Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th April.

Home for the Lombardi meeting directors, Barbara and Gianni, is Desenzano del Garda, on the south shore of Lake Garda. After years touring Italian stadia such as Grosseto (2022), Lana (2019, 2021) and Firenze (2018), the 2023 edition of the competition is finally on their doorstep. The setting also serves as the launchpad for Olympic 100m champion Marcell Jacobs’ new athletics academy. Gianni Lombardi was Jacobs’ coach for many years, and the 100m star will be a special guest at the event.

However, unless proceedings take an unexpected turn, Jacobs is unlikely to be participating in the decathlon. So, let’s take a tour of the athletes who will be embarking on ten and seven events this weekend.

Markus Rooth was the winner of the 2022 decathlon competition, breaking the Norwegian national record with a score of 8307 and beating his younger teammate Sander Skotheim as stormy skies gathered over Grosseto. Rooth’s thunder was subsequently stolen by Skotheim, though, as Skotheim made his debut at World and European championships, and won his first senior medal in Istanbul earlier this year. Rooth’s trajectory following Multistars 2022 was diverted by injury and this competition for the 21-year-old is his comeback, at a meeting in which Norway always does well. “It’s our lucky place,” he told me after his win last year.

2022 Multistars decathlon podium (Photo: Bjorn Paree)

Comeback is also the theme for Thomas van der Plaetsen, whose inspired lifetime best performance of 8430 to finish third in Götzis in 2021 took him to Tokyo, only for the story to end cruelly and painfully in the long jump. Team VDP has since expanded to welcome fellow Belgian and new pentathlon world-record holder Nafi Thiam, and it’s with curiosity we await the form of one of the most respected athletes in track and field.

There’s another return to competition for another 8300+ decathlete, this time Devon Williams of USA. Williams hasn’t been quite the same since his 8345 at Spec Towns in Athens in 2017 and the big scores that followed afterwards; over and above injury he’s gone through a period in which the iconic University of Georgia (UGA) decathlon academy was essentially dismantled, and training group turbulence followed coach Petros Kyprianou’s move to Florida. There’s a sense that Williams has potential not yet been tapped, and if he can take some steps towards finally achieving that, it will be a good outcome for the talented American. His sister Kendell Williams and family have made the journey to support his return.

Williams’ former training partner at UGA, Karel Tilga makes his debut at Multistars. The Estonians regularly feature in the Multistars decathlon, usually through some combination of the Holy Trinity of Lillemets, Rosenberg and Tšernjavski. This year it’s just Tilga, second only to Maicel Uibo on points among the current generation of Estonian athletes. After his 8484 in 2021, also at Spec Towns, his Olympic and World seasons were uneven, flashes of brilliance hampered by individual events constrained by injury.

Although their paths didn’t cross in Georgia, there’s another UGA athlete competing this weekend, Slovenia’s Jan Duhovnik. Duhovnik placed 8th at last year’s World U20 championships in Cali, and the silver medallist Jacob Thelander from Sweden is also competing (gold medallist Gabriel Emmanuel has been invited to Götzis). Thelander’s teammate Fredrik Samuelsson returns to Multistars, continuing his long road back from serious illness over the last few years.

It’s a transition year for both Duhovnik and Thelander, and worth remembering that the rankings system penalises decathletes exiting the U20 ranks, since it does not count scores with U20 implements. Newly senior decathletes are therefore required to score two ranking competitions in the first few months of their first senior season to have a chance of qualification for major championships, while other decathletes and all heptathletes have a full 18 months to collect scores.

The young heptathletes in the field are Britain’s Abi Pawlett (7th at the Euro U20s in Tallinn in 2021), the Netherlands’ Sophia Mulder (10th in Tallinn), and Spain’s Laura Aguilera who has been steadily progressing indoors and out.

German qualification for the World Championships has become significantly harder over the last year, as Leo Neugebauer joins Kaul in the automatic qualifying standard (8460) zone following his 8478 in Texas. For all other Germans, male and female, high placings in Multistars and/or Ratingen are likely to be more valuable than a top ten finish in Götzis. So, the lead German this weekend Tim Nowak has the opportunity to position himself in the mix for Budapest with the likes of Kai Kazmirek, Manuel Eitel, Malik Diakite, Marcel Meyer and Till Steinforth. Nils Laserich is also on the entry list for the competition, but European U23 champion Andreas Bechmann tore his achilles last week and has withdrawn.

Strategic navigation through the rankings will also be on the minds of the female US contingent, Chari Hawkins and Taliyah Brooks.

US heptathletes have traditionally enjoyed great success here – most recently Annie Kunz won in 2019 shortly before her breakthrough while Riley Cooks and Alyson Reaser-Halverson were third and fourth respectively. While both participating athletes have strong PBs – Hawkins 6243 and Brooks 6252 – they are short of the inflated standard of 6480 set by World Athletics to force athletes to collect rankings points.

Hawkins’ win in Arona in 2022 put her in contention for Worlds selection, but she ultimately lost out to Ashtin Mahler who was also eligible and finished top three at the US trials.

Brooks is memorable for her fight for better conditions for combined eventers, after she fainted in the scorching heat of the penultimate event of the US Olympic trials in 2021. At that point she was not qualified for the Olympics, either by rankings or by score, but she lost the opportunity to finish strongly and stake her claim. Like Hawkins, a strong score and podium place would serve Brooks very well when it comes to fighting for Budapest places behind World bronze medallist Anna Hall.

The South American contingent, for whom Multistars is a particular favourite event, have also made the long trip to Desenzano. This year’s combination is Brazilian all time No.2 Felipe dos Santos – recently not too near his 8300+ best – his teammates Jose Fernando Ferreira Santana, Raiane Vasconcelos and Puerto Rico’s Alysbeth Felix Boyer. The journey has been a little shorter for irrepressible Venezuelan Gerson Izaguirre, who is based in Spain and set his PB of 7827 in La Nucia last year. He brings with him the Spanish indoor champion Andrea Medina, as well as Laura Aguilera.

The 2022 Multistars heptathlon winner Annik Kälin has been on training camp nearby but is not starting the event, so the Swiss team consists of Celine Albisser, Katelyn Adel, Lydia Boll and Nino Portmann, all of whom have improved their PBs in the last year, some indoor, some outdoor, and some both.

2022 Multistars heptathlon podium (Photo: Bjorn Paree)

The indestructible Pawel Wiesiołek of Poland starts his season this weekend, alongside Edyta Bielska on the back of her indoor PB earlier this year. Myke van de Wiel is the second Dutch athlete on the entry lists, and of course a 6000 pointer too, following her 6012 in 2021.

Sarah Lagger makes her long anticipated return from injury this weekend, and Chiara-Belinda Schuler, perhaps the most consistent of Austrian combined eventers in recent years, is competing too.

Unfortunately, there will be no Super Dario Dester and no Super Sveva Gerevini this weekend, the Italian No.1s responsible for revitalising Italian combined events both unable to compete.

The home favourites will therefore be Lorenzos Naidon and Modugno, and Andrea Cerrato. Modugno’s participation will be particularly welcome news for GB’s Lewis Church. After a so-so performance in the first half of his Multistars decathlon in 2022, Church delivered an astonishing final 1500m to secure the English qualifying standard for the Commonwealth Games. Those 7773 points would have had him 14 points away from 4th place, had England Athletics not shot themselves in the foot by excluding him from selection for a Games in…um, England.

Church credited Modugno in helping him to that score. “It helped so much running behind someone who was tall,” said Church of Modugno “it doesn’t look as hard. When you’re behind small people, it looks like they’re moving their legs so fast, it makes me feel tired. But it was perfect – he (Modugno) said he was going for 4:22 and I thought – well then. Here we go.”  

A final note on the final two competitors. Much has been made in other coverage of the American women leading the heptathlon field. Great as they are, that does an injustice to GB’s Jade O’Dowda. Over and above her Commonwealth bronze medal, she finished around 6200 in all three of her heptathlons in 2022, and certainly won’t be intimidated by athletes with PBs just a handful of points beyond hers. If things go her way this weekend she – and teammate Jodie Smith – could step up to the podium.

As always, the action will be covered on Decathletes of Europe Instagram, and live-tweeted on Decathletes of Europe Twitter.