Thu. Aug 11th, 2022

On paper, the dynamics of the World Championships heptathlon might look like what you would expect. The Olympic gold and silver medallists repeating their competition from Tokyo. A bronze medal on offer to a range of other athletes ready to step up.

If we dig a little deeper, it was not as straightforward as it seemed. It was a Benelux battle, and the young pair of Hall and Sułek did challenge for bronze. But the destinations of the medals were not decided until the last two and half minutes of the competition.

100M HURDLES

Of course, on Day 1 the USA was leading the way in the hurdles, but it was not the athlete we might have anticipated. Dealing with a torn plantar fascia, the World Indoor bronze medallist Kendell Williams was a second below her best and towards the back of the field with 13.45. Instead, World Championships debutante Michelle Atherley was the fastest in a time of 13.12s. The Swiss record holder Annik Kälin was next in a PB of 13.17s with Anna Hall of USA and Noor Vidts of Belgium in 13.20s. Ominously, the next fastest was the Olympic Champion Nafi Thiam, in a PB of 13.21s, taking a tenth of a second off her previous best time from Götzis in 2017. Further down the field the sole German competitor Sophie Weissenberg and the Spanish champion Claudia Conte set lifetime bests of 13.51s and 13.65s respectively.

After one event:

  1. Michelle Atherley 1106
  2. Annik Kälin 1099
  3. Anna Hall 1094
  4. Noor Vidts 1094
  5. Nafi Thiam 1093

HIGH JUMP

The challenge facing Kendell Williams became more apparent as she took several attempts to get over her early heights, each time with a truncated run up. She would soldier on for another four events, only admitting defeat ahead of the 800m. The Olympic bronze medallist Emma Oosterwegel diced with danger at her opening height, taking three attempts to clear 1.65m, but once she was over, she kept going to 1.77m, just 3cm short of her lifetime best.

And that was the pattern for the other jumpers too – no unexpected performances, but many athletes coming close to their lifetime bests. Anouk Vetter was pumped after clearing 1.80 (PB 1.81), Claudia Conte delighted at 1.86 (PB 1.88) and close at 1.89m, Noor Vidts 1.83 (PB 1.84), and Anna Hall 1.86 (PB 1.89).

Meanwhile Adrianna Sułek had had a solid start, but not yet matching her whirlwind openings to the Polish nationals and Götzis where she improved her hurdles and high jump PBs. Sułek’s high jump has been one of her most improved events this year, building from 1.86m to 1.92m. It took her three attempts to get over 1.89m, but the successful third attempt brought out the fight in Sułek, and while she didn’t make it over her recent PB height of 1.92m, the change in her demeanour was palpable.

Meanwhile Nafi was far above the field in her standout event, clearing 1.95m, a championship best.

After two events:

  1. Nafi Thiam 2264
  2. Adrianna Sułek 2176
  3. Anna Hall 2148
  4. Noor Vidts 2110
  5. Claudia Conte 2082
Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images for World Athletics

SHOT PUT

With two Belgians in the top five, the Dutch – sitting in seventh and ninth – had ground to make up. Vetter, with a PB of 16m, and Thiam, with a PB of 15.52m, were the two strongest throwers in the field coming into the competition. Thiam’s first throw was 14.33m, followed by 14.92m and then finally over 15m in the third round with 15.03m. But Vetter made significant progress stretching out to a lifetime best of 16.25m in the second round, which catapulted her from seventh place to second overall. Likewise, Emma Oosterwegel moved up three places into sixth with her throw of 14.40m, and Noor retained fourth position with a PB throw of 14.43m.

Hall dropped a couple of places into fifth with her best throw – a PB – of 13.67m, but while Sułek was overtaken by Vetter, the Pole held off Vidts thanks to three PBs in a row. All three of Sułek’s throws were over 14m, which she had not achieved before the competition, and the longest was almost 40cm beyond her previous lifetime best. The World and Olympic medallists were not having it all their own way.

After three events:

  1. Nafi Thiam 3127
  2. Anouk Vetter 3003
  3. Adrianna Sułek 2979
  4. Noor Vidts 2933
  5. Anna Hall 2920

200M

Every time Anna Hall took a jump, or launched a throw, the home crowd went wild. Not only was she the home nation favourite, but just over three months earlier she had won the NCAA championships, and then a month later the US trials, both in Hayward Field. And in the final event of the first day, she gave the crowd something to cheer about, as she steamed around the bend, like a young Allyson Felix, to a lifetime best of 23.08 PB. That was well ahead of the defending champion KJT in 23.62s, Anouk Vetter in 23.73s, and Adrianna Sułek in a PB of 23.77s.

The performance moved Hall nine points ahead of Sułek and into third place, and Vetter closed the gap to Thiam from 124 points to just 61 at the end of Day 1.

Less than 100 points covered the Olympic champion, the 2022 Götzis winner, the European U23 champion, and the NCAA champion, with the World Indoor champion only a further 60 points behind.

After Day 1:

  1. Nafi Thiam 4071
  2. Anouk Vetter 4010
  3. Anna Hall 3991
  4. Adrianna Sułek 3982
  5. Noor Vidts 3921

LONG JUMP

When Anouk Vetter returned to her best form in early 2021 after several years in the wilderness, it was her long jump that signalled big things were coming. Vetter improved her indoor LJ PB to 6.42m in February 2021, and at the World Championships some 18 months later, she would do similar outdoors.

Vetter started tentatively with a foul, improving to just 6.17m in the second round. In the meantime, Thiam had jumped 6.49m in the first round and 6.59m in the third. Annik Kälin was next in 6.56m. But then Vetter jumped a PB of 6.52m in the final round, holding on for dear life to the Olympic champion.

Thiam extended her lead but not by as much as she might have done, and going into Vetter’s strongest event, Thiam was only 83 points in front. Vetter had already brushed 60m in the javelin in Götzis with a PB of 59.81m, while Thiam’s form was unknown. Thiam did not yet have this competition won.

A similar cat and mouse game was playing out just behind them, as Adrianna Sułek equalled her PB from earlier in the year with 6.43m to Anna Hall’s 6.39m. The pair swapped places again, this time Sułek moving into third place a mere four points ahead of Hall. If we were to assume that both would run to PB form in the 800m then the javelin would be where the bronze medal was decided.

Both Sophie Weissenberg and Xenia Krizsan had 3 no-jumps. In the last event in which Katarina Johnson-Thompson had any hope of making up ground on the others, the defending champion jumped just 6.28m. There would be no medals for KJT today.

After five events:

  1. Nafi Thiam 5107
  2. Anouk Vetter 5024
  3. Adrianna Sułek 4967
  4. Anna Hall 4963
  5. Noor Vidts 4874

JAVELIN

In the race for the bronze medal, Adrianna Sułek threw 38.16m in the first round of the javelin, but it was less the outright distance that mattered, more her distance relative to Hall. The two were of similar standard in the javelin, Hall’s lifetime best 45.12m to Sułek’s 42.50m.

Hall responded with a throw of 42.85m, which meant Sułek would need to throw over 46m to be in with a chance come the 800m, a very big ask. Sułek under pressure is a dangerous athlete, but the Pole only went on to throw 40.55m and 41.63m – theoretically not enough to put her within distance of Hall. And then the young American threw a PB 45.75m which, barring disasters, would secure her the bronze medal. Or would it?

The longstanding Polish record of 6616 came into sight, set by Małgorzata Nowak in 1985. Sułek would almost certainly break that if she ran well in the 800m, especially with Hall to chase. But would she simply be chasing Hall in attempt to deliver a big score, or did she still have aspirations of bronze?

Over to the big throwers and Vetter opened with 53.89m and then improved to 58.29m, close to her best. If Thiam wanted this gold medal, she was going to have to work very, very hard for it. Thiam’s first throw was 51.22m. Then 50.76m. She was letting Vetter get away. Then in the third round the Olympic champion found almost another two metres to reach 53.01. But at this critical stage in the competition, Vetter overtook Thiam.

Ashtin Zamzow-Mahler of USA enjoyed a good event with a throw of 48.41m, Annik Kälin threw 48.25m and Sulek’s teammate Paulina Ligarska 45.89m

After six events:

  1. Anouk Vetter 6045
  2. Nafi Thiam 6026
  3. Anna Hall 5741
  4. Adrianna Sułek 5666
  5. Annik Kälin 5606

800M

And so, with only 12 competitors remaining – Weissenberg, Krizsan and Williams having fallen by the wayside – all the women lined up in the same heat of the 800m. However, there were two races ready to unfold – the race for gold and silver, and the race for bronze.

Elsewhere, Annik Kälin’s javelin had moved her into fifth place, and her own national record of 6398 from Grosseto in April was on borrowed time. After a solid two days, Claudia Conte also had Maria Vicente’s national record of 6304 in sight, for which she needed to run 2:06.63.

Anouk Vetter was almost certainly going to break her own Dutch record of 6693 from Götzis earlier in the year, but would she do it with a gold or a silver medal? She was 19 points ahead of Thiam, around 1.5s in the 800m. With similar PBs – Vetter 2:17 to Thiam 2:15 – neither scenario was a done deal. Arguably Vetter had the advantage, with the opportunity to sit on Thiam and then kick ahead to find the gap she needed. A crazy run from the front for gold would not work for Vetter, as their PBs were too close for her to be sure of outrunning the Belgian.

Of course, if the pair chose to play cat and mouse at 2:24 rather than 2:16, there was an outside chance that Anna Hall could throw down a 2:03 and sneak past them both. But with gold and silver on the line, it was unlikely that the big names would dawdle.

But in the end, the chase for gold and silver was decided by one of the most surprising developments of the competition. For who had on their list of things that might happen a 2:13 800m – a two second PB – for Nafi Thiam? The Olympic champion, even not at her best, showed why she is one of the all-time greats of heptathlon. As Vetter ran 2:20.09, the battle in the final event was not a close one.

Meanwhile, things got very exciting in the race for third. Ahead in the points, and with a PB over four seconds faster than Sułek, surely Hall was safe for a home medal? The NCAA champion was of course at the front of the pace, but she was not tearing away as she had done at the Olympic trials, where she had run the fourth fastest 800m of all time in a heptathlon.

As they rounded into the final bend, Sułek was on Hall’s shoulder and even those of us who had done the maths started to ask whether we had called bronze too soon. Even though she needed to be some four seconds ahead of Hall, for a moment it looked like the Pole, with that familiar look of determination on her face, was going to kick and kick away. But the crowd of Hayward Field was not having that. In the stadium where Hall had collapsed in agony a year earlier in the US Olympic trials, the home favourite held on and found enough not just to hold off Sułek, but to pull away and cross the line first, putting a medal beyond doubt

The Olympic champion won her second world title with 6947, the Olympic silver medallist just 80 points behind her in a Dutch record. The US champion finished third in 6755, a 300 plus point PB, and the Götzis runner up added over 200 points to her lifetime best to break the 37-year-old Polish record with 6672. The world indoor champion was fourth in 6559, and the winner of Multistars broke her own Swiss national record in 6464.

Final results

  1. Nafi Thiam 6947 WL
  2. Anouk Vetter 6755 NR
  3. Anna Hall 6755 PB
  4. Adrianna Sułek 6672 NR
  5. Noor Vidts 6559
  6. Annik Kälin 6464 NR
  7. Emma Oosterwegel 6440
  8. Katarina Johnson-Thompson 6222
  9. Claudia Conte 6194 PB
  10. Paulina Ligarska 6093
  11. Ashtin Zamzow-Mahler 5974
  12. Michelle Atherley 5959

You can find the full results here.

Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images for World Athletics

THE VIEWS FROM THE ATHLETES

The silver medallist Anouk Vetter told Decathletes of Europe afterwards:

“I’m so happy – a few years ago I wouldn’t have expected it at all. I almost quit. But I really could enjoy the competition, I was not that stressed. I just thought I would do my best, I would give my all, and see what the results are. But 6800 – my dream was someday 6600 and now I have 6800.”

“Some people are asking me ‘are you sad?’ and of course you want to win the gold. But to lose to Nafi is not a shame. I can’t be more pleased – after Tokyo, and Götzis… what a season, right?!  I’m so happy! A month ago, I wasn’t sure if I could compete here, because I had a little tear in my hamstring. A month ago, I was crying on the track and now… what a month!”

The bronze medallist Anna Hall described her mindset going into the final event:

“We had a long break, so I had a lot of time to think about it. I thought that Anouk and Nafi were too far to catch. But I’m going to run as hard as I can, and if they don’t run hard enough, then that’s where the chips fall. But I definitely didn’t expect that. And then I knew Adrianna, just the way she competes, I know she’s going to run with me. Everyone was like “Oh, you’ve probably got bronze in the bag.” I was like – no. This girl is going to give me a run for my money. And I knew I didn’t have it in my legs that day to go out in 57 like I had been earlier this year. But I know if I go out in 57, she might come with me. That’s how much of a competitor she is. So, by no means did I feel safe with the bronze medal until I crossed the line. But that multi just took a little bit more out of my legs so 2:06 was all I had. I came through in 60 and it felt just as hard as when I’d come here in 57 and I was like, oh, this is going to be tough!”

The new Polish record holder Adrianna Sułek said:

“I think it was a good competition, it was a national record. I am impressed with Anna Hall and Nafi Thiam and Anouk Vetter – I fought at these championships, but I have to be proud of myself – I’m young and I hope better is coming. In Munich, I would like to catch a medal.”

On the 800m:

“It was fast, but I wasn’t tired – I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew Anna Hall would be so fast, I promised myself I would do my best and I did.”

In sixth place, Annik Kälin described her satisfaction at stepping up to global competition:

“It’s amazing after a hard year last year with the back injury. I’m very pleased that I was able to show another very consistent heptathlon, with good results across the board, a new national record and a 6th place in such a great field, and I’m very happy with that.”

“I think my velocity is very good at the moment and very consistent, very similar to Grosseto, but some improvements in some events that added to the new PB. In Munich, my goal is to improve on some technical events to keep my form, and to show my best competition.”

For the European U23 silver medallist Claudia Conte, her first outdoor world championships were an experience to remember.

“It was so exciting. Sometimes maybe you don’t do the mark you expect, but every time I had the feeling of being aware of where you are, enjoy every single moment, and record the memories that you’re making. At the end what you will remember is the victory lap, the crowd, the screaming when you do the jump, and enjoying the event with your teammates. It was just so beautiful – I just wanted to cry sometimes, because I so enjoyed it!”

“I was hoping to make it (Maria Vicente’s NR) here, that was the goal but in heptathlon, it’s really hard to explode and to do every single event well. I have had some back pain in the last one or two months, so I haven’t trained as much as I wanted. The second day I was just so tired, and I couldn’t do as well as I wanted.”

And for Ashtin Zamzow-Mahler, after injury in Arona, her call-up to the US team for Worlds was a surprise bonus.

“I wasn’t expecting to come to Worlds! I was preparing for Decastar in September in France, and then I got the call and I have two and half weeks of training. The competition score showed the lack of training unfortunately, but it was a good experience, and I learned a lot about myself. It was the first time I got to compete against all my idols – I was starstruck for a long time, but I thought to myself – I can be one of them, eventually.” 

Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images for World Athletics