Multiple national records, multiple world leads and the only world record* set on Saturday that would survive the day, X-Athletics in Clermont Ferrand was the place to be on 29th and 30th January.
The crescendo of noise accompanying the grand presentation of the athletes peaked with the arrival of the decathlon world record holder and Olympic silver medallist, Kevin Mayer.
Mayer was relaxed and smiling, in front of an intimate and adoring home crowd. The audience included a gaggle of small children, who would abandon their football and shout “Kevin May-errrr!” every time he stepped on the track. One of the children wore an Mbappé shirt; perhaps an opportunity was missed to resolve once and for all who would win in a Mayer v Mbappé sprint.
Ahead of time Kevin had indicated he would do the long jump, shot and pole vault, but in fact he did 5 of the seven heptathlon events: the 60m, long jump, shot, 60m hurdles and pole vault.
The effect was to give the other athletes an opportunity to test themselves against one of the best of all time, at his best events, in a scenario where he couldn’t win the competition – and with some free mentoring thrown in for good measure.
The first heat brought a suite of sub 7.20 lifetime bests for the young French athletes competing – 18-year-olds Alan Lefevre, Rigo Honvault and Sacha Rifflart. Matthias Steinmann of Switzerland improved his lifetime best too, taking almost a tenth of his previous best to run 7.19. In the second heat, a Swiss 1-2 as Nino Portmann charged to a PB of 7.06 while Andri Oberholzer improved his PB to 7.13. The European U20 bronze medal Téo Bastien equalled his PB of 7.13, while Poland’s Rafał Horbowicz had the first of a number of good performances to run a PB of 7.19.
A warp in the seeding had Finley Gaio in the penultimate heat, and he ran away from everyone else to improve his PB significantly, but not surprisingly, by almost 2 tenths to 6.85. So far, 4/4 for the Swiss in terms of lifetime bests. Simon Ehammer didn’t run a lifetime best in the 60m, but he was the fastest with 6.83, followed in his heat by Spain’s Jorge Ureña in a PB of 6.87, and Mayer in 6.92.
After 1 event, Ehammer led from Gaio, Ureña, Mayer (although he would vanish for reasons about to become clear) and Italy’s Dario Dester.
The first round of the long jump was largely unremarkable, but with some solid jumps from Gaio (7.47 indoor PB), Belgium’s Benjamin Hougardy (7.25) and Nino Portmann (7.20 PB). Unfortunately, Portmann injured himself and had to withdraw. The penultimate jumper in the first round was Mayer, who fouled.
And then, one of those events occurred which can catapult a small meeting to the attention of the world. Where you suddenly realise that – like Mayer’s revenge WR in 2018 – you would find yourself in the right place, at the right time to witness a piece of history.
The European U23 long jump champion took to the runway for the final jump of the round. Generating enormous speed, he launched himself to a colossal jump of 8.26m.
A lifetime best – his previous was 8.15 outdoors. A Swiss record. A 2022 world lead. A world heptathlon best, beating Ashton Eaton’s previous best of 8.16 by 10cm. Just 2cm behind Damian Warner’s equivalent jump outdoors. The second longest jump ever in a decathlon or heptathlon. Like Warner, a jump that would have placed Ehammer third at the Olympic Games in the event.
In the wake of Ehammer’s jump, Benjamin Hougardy improved to a PB of 7.45. Andri Oberholzer logged a solid indoor PB of 7.42. Paweł Wiesiołek, one of the pre-event favourites, hinted all was not well by only just scraping 7.00m. Ureña improved to 7.47. Mayer, unfortunately, had three no jumps.
After 2 events, Mayer of course dropped out of the top end of the rankings, while Ehammer extended his lead to 2072 ahead of Gaio (1863), Ureña (1856), Hougardy (1783), Oberholzer (1759) and Dester (1746).
The shot put should have been Mayer’s domain. His PB is over 17m – pound for pound he is one of the best shot putters in the world, as Damian Warner likes to remind us – and his best within a combined event is well over 16m. But he wasn’t quite in that form, and his longest throw was 15.49. However, Rafał Horbowicz excelled among the throwers, and he putted 15.77 to set a meeting record, and an outright PB. Ehammer recorded a solid 14.09m to maintain his momentum.
Ureña threw 14.49, Oberholzer 14.43, Wiesiołek 14.14, Dester 14.01 and Gaio an indoor PB of 13.75, drawing closer to his 14m+ outdoor best.
A little later on Saturday, across the Atlantic it looked like Ryan Crouser might steal Ehammer’s thunder by throwing a shot WR of 23.38 (1311 heptathlon points if you’re interested). But as Crouser quickly told the officials, something wasn’t right. The laser had malfunctioned, and all marks were subsequently annulled. Thankfully, the tape measure was fully functional in Clermont Ferrand, and so Ehammer remained the only new world record* holder of the day.
After 3 events, Ehammer led with 2806 points ahead of Ureña (2614), Gaio (2576), Oberholzer (2514) and Hougardy (2503).
Mayer wasn’t competing in the high jump, but he made a perfunctory attempt at 1.72 to ensure he could continue in the competition on Day 2. Meanwhile, Jorge did not start the event in which he was most likely to be able to make up points on Ehammer, due to a niggle in his ankle.
Andri Oberholzer had, curiously, been put in the lower group despite being one of the best jumpers in the field. The groups converged quickly, and the competition started to get interesting at 1.96. Gaio had topped out at 1.93 (just below his best of 1.95) and Dester also at 1.93, 10cm down on his best. Horbowicz and Wiesiołek cleared a best of 1.96, alongside Valentin Charles (returning to combined events), Sacha Rifflart and GB’s Nic Gerome. Another 4 men went onto clear a best of 1.99 – Ehammer, Honvault, Oberholzer, and Yann Besson.
The nature of combined events is that in every event there is a different athlete who has the chance to shine. In the high jump in the 2021 edition of X-athletics it was Nic Gerome, who – alongside Bastien – set a PB of 2.04. In 2022 it would be Tanguy Mariac, a 19-year-old high jumper still in the early stages of his combined events career. Mariac went onto clear 2.02 and 2.05, the latter an indoor PB and a meeting record. He was joined at the height by Téo Bastien to share the MR.
End of Day 1, and Ehammer led the competition on 3600 points from Gaio (3316) and Oberholzer (3308), with Benjamin Hougardy in 4th with 3243.
At this point, it was worth looking back to Ehammer’s competition at the 2021 Swiss champs in Magglingen, where he had been en route to a seemingly insane score before no-heighting in the pole vault.
In Magglingen he finished day 1 with a score of 3592 (6.81, 7.80, 15.31, 2.02).
In Clermont Ferrand, he finished day 1 with a score of 3600 (6.83, 8.26, 14.09, 1.99)
The size of the potential score seemed equally exciting – but Ehammer’s pole vault problems in 2021 kept overnight expectations in check.
Day 2, and on paper there should have been no change in the top three. And there was no change in the top three.
Oberholzer ran 8.17 in the penultimate heat to equal his personal best and retain his 3rd position. Dester ran marginally faster in a PB of 8.12. But the final heat was a real treat of world class combined event hurdling, if diminished slightly by the absence of Ureña.
Mayer, Ehammer and Gaio finished 1-2-3 in superb times of 7.73, 7.74 and 7.84, respectively. Mayer was within a 10th of his PB, Ehammer improved his PB by 0.06s, and Gaio was likewise only a few hundredths outside his best.
But Pawel Wiesiołek was struggling, practically jogging over the line. It was clear he wasn’t at his best, and he confirmed afterwards that a neck injury was inhibiting some of his events. He didn’t compete further and is instead aiming for Polish nationals.
In the U20 event, Sacha Rifflart and Rigo Honvault both went under 8 seconds for the first time with 7.91 and 7.92 respectively.
After 5 events, Ehammer was leading by over 300 points with 4648, from Gaio (4338), Oberholzer (4247), Dester (4167) and Hougardy (4165). Horbowicz was only 25 points behind Hougardy, and Téo Bastien another 34 behind in 7th.
Barring disaster – and that was by no means certain – Ehammer would certainly win the competition. The question was just how high in points he could go.
Onto pole vault, and the adversity to be navigated. Ehammer had failed at his opening height of 4.70 in Magglingen, and at the much safer height of 4.50 in Toruń.
Gaio (4.80 at his best) came in at 4.23, safely.
Hougardy (4.95 at his best) came in at 4.33 – a little less safely, but he got over at the third attempt thanks to a cheer squad led by training partner Mayer.
Bastien came in at 4.43, cleared at 3rd attempt.
Dester came in 4.53 and cleared it safely.
Ehammer came in at 4.63. First time clearance. Safe, and good to go to pursue the big score.
Oberholzer (a 5.20 vaulter) also entered at 4.63. Dester, however, passed at 4.63, while Hougardy failed to clear 4.63. But Dester – who has been over 5m – lost the opportunity to put 30 or so more points between himself and the Belgian ahead of the 1000m, when he failed to clear 4.73.
Back to Ehammer. Over first time at 4.73. First time at 4.83. Second time at 4.93. The page had been turned in the no-height chapter.
Oberholzer matched Ehammer all the way to 4.93, joined at 4.83 by Jeremy Desailly. But in an unusual turn of events Ehammer jumped higher than Oberholzer. He, and Desailly, were the only men to go over 5.00m, clearing 5.03.
Well, there would one more guy, but he hadn’t entered the competition yet. Enter Mayer. A simple clearance at 5.13. However, that was it. One attempt at 5.23 and two at 5.33 – none of them successful – and the king was done.
During the weekend, while Mayer’s sprints had been close to his A-game, he wasn’t quite there yet in the technical events.
After 6 events, Ehammer was on 5568, Gaio 5137, Oberholzer one point behind on 5136, Dester on 4936 and Hougardy two points behind on 4934 in fifth.
Time to get out the Decathlon 2000 world heptathlon all-time list. Erki Nool’s 6374, 9th of all time, looked tempting, and within reach for Ehammer.
At the conclusion of the first heat of the 1000m, 18-year-old Sacha Rifflart rounded off a superb weekend with a score of 5674 to win the U20 event. In the year of another WU20 Championships, Rifflart put himself at the top of the world indoor lists. His name is one to note for the future.
Benjamin Hougardy, by far the fastest man at the top end of the field, disappeared from sight after the first lap of the second heat. Too far ahead to be of pacing use, it instead fell to Matthias Steinman (whose PB is 2:45) to act as the rabbit, and he was tracked closely by Dario Dester, Simon Ehammer and Jérémy Lelièvre. Lelièvre had been an integral part of the French guard that escorted Kevin round to 9126 in 2018, ensuring he kept on pace and, more importantly, wasn’t tripped.
Ehammer started to drift in the 4th lap. But with one circuit to go, Oberholzer kicked like a madman, and overtook Steinmann, Dester, Lelièvre and everyone except Hougardy to run 2:44.52 (a 5 second PB) and improve his heptathlon PB of 5940 (a national record at the time) to 5960. His run overtook Gaio for second place, and Gaio only just held off Hougardy for third, finishing in 2:56 to score 5838 to Hougardy’s 5810 – personal bests for both. Dester finished 5th in 5747.
In the end, Ehammer was several seconds off the pace he had wanted, in 2:54. His final score was 6285. For now, he settled for breaking his own Swiss record by almost 200 points and overtaking Ayden Owens to take the world lead. He should be in a good place to qualify for the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade, for which he already has a qualifying mark in long jump.
If there’s one thing that Ehammer knows how to do, it’s to maintain and build on performances, as his breakthrough season in 2020 demonstrated.
After winning the competition, Simon talked to Decathletes of Europe about his return to combined events in 2022, and how he overcame the problems in pole vault he’d experienced in 2021.
“It was tough, hard – but all in all I’m very happy. I came back after one year without a decathlon, and without a heptathlon, and to score such a big score – it’s unbelievable. The long jump was a high point. The sprint was OK, but not the best, but the long jump gave me more energy, more power, more flow.”
“I had to change to do nothing in the summer, only long jump. In this winter, we really focused on the pole vault – jump one per week and look to do nothing wrong in this discipline. I jumped very well the year before outdoors, and right now it works pretty well.”
For now – as predicted here in 2020 – Swiss decathlon is now in the best shape it’s ever been.
*Technically a “world best.” We don’t care. We’re soaking up the world record vibe.
Like Hauttekeete in the heptathlon, 2021 European Indoor silver medallist Noor Vidts didn’t make it to France. But the 2019 bronze medallist, Solène Ndama, still in her first few competitions after her cruciate ligament rupture in February 2021, was a welcome late entrant. She, of course, started the competition with some world class hurdling, not too far away from her 8.03 lifetime best with a run of 8.18.
The 2019 European U20 champion Maria Vicente got off to a great start in the same heat as Ndama with 8.35 (just a 10th off her best). One heat earlier European U23 champion Adrianna Sułek took another 10th off the PB she set a few weeks ago to run a hundredth faster than Vicente in 8.34. While Esther Turpin was the second fastest overall in 8.32, Leonie Cambours ran 8.33, faster than both Sułek and Vicente.
Ndama clearly wasn’t back in full combined event form, and she was only able to clear 1.51m in the high jump. It wasn’t a great event for Maria Vicente either, clearing only 1.69, almost 10cm below her best. But at the business end of the high jump, Spain’s Claudia Conte, Cambours and Sułek all jumped over 1.81m, and Sułek went onto set an indoor lifetime best – and meeting record – of 1.84.
Sułek looked like she might stretch away. While the shot isn’t her strongest event, she ensured she didn’t lose ground by landing another indoor PB, of 13.10. But the Polish delegation is strong in this event, and like Horbowicz in the heptathlon, teammate Paulina Ligarska threw the furthest in the competition, 14.06m. World heptathlon bronze medallist Verena Mayer threw 13.91, while Vicente threw a big PB of 13.62.
After 3 events, Sułek was leading with 2815, ahead of Cambours (2699), Ligarska (2683), Vicente (2661) and Conte (2658). Mayr was next in 6th (2656). At this point, Italy’s Sveva Gerevini was sitting just outside the top 10, on 2569 points. More on Sveva later.
If Ehammer was dominant in the men’s long jump, then Maria Vicente was equally dominant among the women. Having jumped 6.70 earlier in the month, this weekend she delivered a very solid 6.44, almost 30cm ahead of the next athlete, Cambours in 6.15m (Cambours has jumped 6.40 outdoors – so plenty more to come from her). Gerevini jumped 6.12m, her first 6m+ jump indoor or out, while Sułek just made it beyond 6m with 6.01.
After 4 events, Vicente had drastically cut Sułek’s lead to just 19 points. Sułek sat on 3668, while Vicente was now in second on 3649. Cambours was third in 3595, 90 points ahead of Conte in 3504. Ligarska was 5th (3469) and Gerevini had leaped – literally – from 11th to 6th place with 3456 points.
Sułek was comfortably the fastest among the podium contenders going into the final event, and an indoor PB of 2:14 secured her a clear win. Vicente and Cambours both did enough to retain 2nd and 3rd, running 2:18.32 and 2:17.23 indoor PBs respectively. But the revelation was Gerevini. While Mayr might have been expected to be the fastest – and the Austrian ran 2:11.57 – Gerevini absolutely annihilated the event, running a 5 second PB and meeting record of 2:09.10 to pass Ligarska and Conte for 4th place and an Italian national record of 4434.
Sułek set a new world lead of 4569, Vicente was just 6 points short of her Spanish record with 4495 (and that was with a 1.69 high jump), and Cambours was third in a PB of 4457. Behind Gerevini, Claudia Conte also set a lifetime best of 4429.
Afterwards Gerevini expressed her joy to Decathletes of Europe:
“Yesterday’s competition was breath-taking. I didn’t expect to be able to break the Italian national record. I knew I was fine, but it’s hard not to make any mistakes in the combined events. But I did it. In 2021 I had several injuries including a fracture to the foot, and this is why I couldn’t express my potential. It was a painful year, but the tears, the anger I had inside of me and the desire to improve led me to have even more incentives to do really well. It was an excellent competition, with 4 personal best results out of 5, the first time over 6m in the long jump and a “work of art” in the 800m run. To achieve this much-desired record, I had to improve my [indoor] personal performance by 7 seconds in the 4 laps of the track, so I put my all into this: heart and head and…I did it! After 13 years, I can finally say it: the Italian indoor pentathlon record belongs to Sveva Gerevini!”