Article: Kat Challenges Nafi (ECh Heptathlon Review)

By Alex Walker @AlexAHW 

It was day three of the 2018 European Championships in Berlin and after the exploits of Arthur Abele the night before, fans of multi-eventing could turn their attention to the women’s side of affairs, with the start of the heptathlon.

The overwhelming favourite to take the title was Nafissatou Thiam of Belgium; the 2016 Olympic champion held the world leading score across the seven events going into the championships, while no other European had cracked the top 3 of heptathlon scores in 2018.

That’s not to say that the event was going to lack suspense, many questions still loomed over the competition: Would Nafi be able to challenge for Jessica Ennis-Hill’s championship record, or even the European record of Carolina Kluft? Would she overcome the teething problems she had experienced with her new javelin run up? And perhaps most importantly, would she be able to fend off Katarina Johnson Thompson and her newfound confidence?

The heptathlon began, as ever, with the 100m hurdles. The fastest time in this event would go to Louisa Grauvogel, the 22 year old German, who crossed the line in 12.97 much to the delight of the Olympiastadion crowd. Cachová of the Czech Republic and 2017 World silver medalist Carolin Schäfer provided the next fastest times over the barriers.

As for the two arguable main contenders, Johnson Thompson clocked a time of 13.34, 0.05 seconds short of her personal best in this event while Thiam’s time of 13.69 was 0.14 seconds slower than the time she had posted in Götzis earlier this year.

There is only so much that can be read into the first event of a multi-event competition, but Katarina Johnson Thompson showed that she was ready to fight for the title when Thiam was still blowing away a few cobwebs. If these two were to continue this way, then multi event fans would be in for a real treat.

Onto the high jump and what is usually the highest scoring event in the heptathlon. Following Nafi’s clearance of 2.01m in May, the crowd were expecting something big from her, and were pondering whether her British rival could respond.

A notable victim to the earlier heights was Carolin Schäfer, who only managed to clear 1.79m, 7cm and 88 points shy of her performance in London the year before. This left her adrift of her main two competitors and took her out of the race for the gold medal for the rest of the competition.

Thiam and Johnson Thompson however, both managed to keep a clean sheet up to and including 1.91m.

On her first attempt at 1.94m, Thiam had an uncharacteristic failure. This was brushed off by many a viewer as little more than a blip in her pursuit of higher heights. Her Liverpudlian rival also had her first failure of the competition at this height, although appeared to have the necessary elevation to clear the bar, with just a few minor adjustments needed.

Despite the crowd’s expectation of impending clearances for both athletes, the Belgian dislodged the bar yet again. Strangely though, instead of the standard sigh of disappointment, the crowd let out an exclamation of intrigue. There was a genuine sense in the stadium that this was Johnson Thompson’s chance to gain an edge over the woman who has been so dominant since the 2016 Olympic heptathlon.

Excitement grew. And with that support for the Brit. She took her run up and… just as before. It was evident that she had the capability to clear the height but she did not quite have the capacity to execute.

On their respective final attempts at the height, both athletes failed to demonstrate a level of belief prior to their jumps, which made their eventual failures all the less surprising.

This outcome pushed Johnson Thompson into first in the overall standings on 2193 points while Thiam sat in second with many of her stronger events still to come.

From a British perspective, it was somewhat frustrating to watch KJT not being able to capitalise when Nafi showed signs of weakness. For a neutral it was perhaps disappointing that neither athlete went higher, with both having achieved far more impressive results in a high jump. Nonetheless, with both the Belgian and Brit scoring the same on the second event, the seeds of an exciting head to head were planted.

The shot put portion of the heptathlon began proceedings on Thursday’s evening session. Being the event which has unravelled so many competitions for Johnson Thompson, the upper hand in the overall heptathlon still belonged to the Belgian due to her much stronger throwing ability.

However, the Briton was not weighed down by historical expectations and instead managed a put of 13.09m, her best ever in a heptathlon. The 733 points produced from this throw kept her firmly in the chase for the medals, with a growing sense of confidence to boot.

Thiam though, never being one to bow to pressure, achieved a new personal best in the shot put, with a throw of 15.35m, which more than made up for the previous two events which were disappointing by the Belgian’s high standards.

This marked the first point in the competition where Thiam had led the overall standings, and her mentality for multi-eventing shone through by not dwelling on what could have been in the previous events. Similarly, Johnson Thompson kept composed and showed signs that her move to Montpellier is working for her. By reducing the usual deficit in points in this event, the Liverpudlian ensured that she would not be entirely written off for the gold medal.

With Nafi at the head of standings, and Kat with the fastest 200m PB of the field, the margin between the two increasingly became the focal point of the competition. Nonetheless, the duo would not face off in the concluding event of the first day of the heptathlon, owing to the Belgian’s comparative weakness in the sprints. She would instead race in the third heat of the 200m, in which she would finish in fifth place with a time of 24.81, two tenths of a second down on her season’s best.

A door was opened for Kat. Going sub-23, as she had done numerous times before, would give her a workable lead over night. The gun sounded in the final heat. Kat gained a superior start over the rest of the field. The only athlete that was able to match her speed during the race was Louisa Grauvogel, the young German, but she wasn’t quite capable of matching the stamina of the Commonwealth champion. Kat stopped the clock in a highly commendable 22.88, while Grauvogel followed in a time of 23.10.

At the end of day one, Katarina Johnson Thompson was left with a workable lead over Thiam, having gained 4017 points to the Belgian’s 3930, third place was occupied by Carolin Schäfer with 3848. The overall winner was looking harder to predict, with each of the frontrunners being only a sub-par result away from handing the crown to the other.

KJT interviewed by The BackstraightBoys After Day  2

The fans returned to the Olympiastadion the following morning, and for the most part, gathered around the long jump pit in order to decipher the ever more intriguing heptathlon competition.

The long jump is the last event in a heptathlon in which Kat and Nafi are evenly matched, and so it is the last chance to see them compete on like for like terms before they each try to stop giving away too many points to their rival in the final two events.

Katarina opened proceedings with a jump of 6.44m, a distance similar to what she produced in the long jump at both the World Indoors and the Commonwealth Games. Well below her potential in the event, but it was a relief that she had a mark on the board, especially after her training partner, Kevin Mayer suffered three fouls in the decathlon long jump just days earlier. Nafi, being the next jumper in the start order managed to go one better than her opponent, quite literally, by jumping 6.45m in the first round.

Both athletes went on to foul in the second round, but managed to go further on their third attempts, with KJT leaping 6.68m, 2cm shy of her season’s best, while Nafi posted a jump of 6.60. The rest of the field were somewhat adrift of the two leaders in the long jump, with the third longest jump belonging to Hanne Maudens of Belgium at a distance of 6.42m.

This left Johnson Thompson 113 points ahead of the favourite after 5 events, and with the uncertainty over the Olympic champion’s form in the javelin, a gold medal did not seem out of reach for the British athlete.

As the women warmed up for the javelin it became clear that this was going to be where the title would be decided; if Thiam could produce a throw close to her personal best, she would be the overwhelming favourite for gold. If she were to throw as she had done in Götzis a few months earlier, she would hand the advantage over to her main competitor.

The Belgian was second to throw in the group. She took to the runway, released the javelin and… 46.36m. The crowd began to murmur. Nafi seemed to be facing the same difficulties she experienced in May. She may have had two attempts left, but her chances of a significant improvement did not look promising.

Another strong javelin thrower, Anouk Vetter, followed Thiam, and just like the Belgian threw well below her potential. Geraldine Ruckstuhl, on the other hand, launched the spear 55.66m down the field, indicating that the relatively poor throws from some of the athletes could not be attributed to the conditions.

Hopes were beginning to rise among the British fans as Johnson Thompson prepared for her opening throw. She obviously wasn’t going to throw further than her main rival, but she was still capable of producing something that was special by her own standards.

And perform she did.  With a throw of 42.16m, she surpassed her personal best dating back to 2015, while also keeping a applying a significant amount of pressure on Thiam.

If the javelin portion of the competition had ended at this point, Kat would have led Nafi in the overall standings by 32 points and the gold medal would have belonged to the Briton in all but writing, but Nafi has a mentality that is so well suited to multi-eventing; she doesn’t dwell on her disappointments and instead focuses on remedying the situation at hand, which is exactly what she did in Berlin.

On her second throw, the Belgian recorded a distance of 53.55m, comfortably a season’s best albeit someway short of the mindboggling marks she set in 2017. Her new mark would give her a cushion of approximately 7 seconds going into the 800m, a gap that could feasibly be overcome by Johnson Thompson over two laps, but one that still kept Nafi’s chances of gold alive.

As for the other competitors in the second round, Vetter improved to a distance of 50.08m while Ruckstuhl earned herself a new national U23 record in the javelin with an effort of 56.31m. Carolin Schäfer of Germany declined to take her two final throws of the competition after throwing a new personal best of 53.73m in the opening round.

Johnson Thompson’s second throw didn’t surpass her first round effort, but British fans were still feeling confident. The scores seemed to suggest a real tussle for the title in the final event, with both of the main contenders having to strain every sinew so as not to allow their opponent to finish with a higher total score. At least it looked that way until the Belgian’s final throw.

57.91m. That is what it took to clear away the doubts over Nafi’s form in the javelin. With just one, final throw, she had all but clinched the gold medal away from her rivals and made herself the heir apparent to the continental heptathlon throne.

The trend of improving with each attempt was also followed by Vetter, who increased her mark out to 51.25m, however Johnson Thompson was unable to improve on her new personal best, although she did succeed in sending the javelin beyond 41 metres on all three attempts for the first time in her career, showing considerable progress made in the throws since moving to Montpellier.

Johnson Thompson’s chances looked slim. Not only did she have to find a 14 second gap over Thiam, but she would have to do so alone, with other fast competitors over 800 metres absent from this race (Kriszán of Hungary was placed in the penultimate heat while Salman-Rath was absent from Berlin altogether, due to a knee operation undertaken in late 2017). Yet despite all of this, the Commonwealth champion looked unfazed when she stood at the start of the final event and this translated to her race. She confidently took the lead after the first bend and worked hard to build up a lead over the rest of the field.

Nafi, meanwhile, showed her confidence differently and took to the track at her comparatively slower pace, knowing that she only had to keep the Briton in her sights in order to secure the title.

At points of the race it looked as though Kat would do it, she opened a sizeable gap over the other competitors, yet despite clocking a highly respectable 2:09.84 over two laps, it wasn’t enough as the points leader was less than 10 seconds behind Kat, registering a time of 2:19.35, giving her an overall total of 6816, 6 points more than her Olympic winning score, but 7 points short of the championship record. Carolin Schäfer rounded out her series of events with a solid 800m that left her with the bronze medal and 50 points ahead of Ivona Dadic who scored a new national record over the seven events to finish fourth.

KJT interviewed by The Backstraight Boys After Day 2

It didn’t turn out to be the record breaking heptathlon that we might have hoped for, but it was one that hung in the balance until the final round of the penultimate event with the leader in the standings changing after almost every event.

Nafi took the title as expected, but she didn’t look as convincing as she has done in previous competitions, and certainly didn’t look unbeatable. Of course there was no real need for her to push herself in the 800m, but had a few events gone slightly differently, she would have found her dominance under considerable threat.

As for Katarina, she has much to be proud of: A new personal best, a third major medal of the season and another series of events without a disaster. She may have felt disappointed with her results in some events, but she followed up these disappointments with strong performances. Her progress in the throwing events should also fuel her confidence going forward while still allowing herself room to improve.

So what of the future? Thiam still seems to be the most likely candidate to take the European record in the heptathlon, but due to Johnson Thompson’s increasing consistency she will not be alone in the chase to surpass 7032 points. As for major medals, both have positioned themselves nicely with just two years before the Tokyo Olympics, but they will need to fight for position in the global top three, with Erica Bougard and Yorgelis Rodriguez being capable of posting scores in the same league as those produced in Berlin.

The heptathlon in Berlin showed a lot of promise for multi-event fans in the years to come. Whether we end up with astronomical scores or fierce fights for the medals, we certainly have something to look forward to.

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