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European Under 23 Championships Final Day (Day 4) report

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James Ellington
James Ellington

Thanks to a golden surge of skill, effort and every other quality that adds up to success, the Norwich Union Great Britain and Northern Ireland team finished second in the medals table at the European Under 23 Championships in Debrecen, Hungary, with six Gold, three Silver and two Bronze. Only the huge Russian team achieved more and it represented an improvement on the 2003 Championships, when the team was fifth in the medals table with three Gold, five Silver and one Bronze.


There was also an improvement in the team’s position in the Placing Table – from fourth with 128 points in 2003 to third with 132 points this time. Russia were first with 334 and Germany second with 140. Of the 44 nations, the only others to top the century were Poland (131) and France (106).


“Our young lions have roared,” said delighted Team Leader Steve Rippon. “Our experienced athletes came through for us. And people who were not very experienced performed superbly in most cases. It has been an encouraging all-round team performance as we strive to improve our quality in every area of the sport in order that we have a broader base of international-standard athletes.”


The facts support him: the team contributed to these high quality championships:


  • 1 European Under 23 Record – by Ryan Scott, Craig Pickering, Rikki Fifton and James Ellington in the men’s 4x100m;


  • 2 Championship Records – in the men’s 4x100m and by Simeon Williamson in the men’s 100m.


To support these high-flyers, 71 per cent of the team (35 athletes) reached finals – and 17 achieved personal bests, mostly when the temperatures were knocking on or above 30° Celsius.


The fourth and final day was illuminated by four gold medal performances, each of which will live for a long time in the memories of the band of British supporters who travelled to Hungary’s second city to check the quality of the generation most likely to peak at London 2012.


First came the men’s 4x100m final: There was drama in the last hour before the semi-finals when both Leon Baptiste and Simeon Williamson felt twinges while warming-up and withdrew as precautions. After much rushing – most notably by Norwich Union GB&NI team official Jeremy Moody showing all the sprinting prowess from his previous career as a rugby hooker – Ryan Scott, Craig Pickering, Rikki Fifton and James Ellington reeled off a routine win in 39.27 seconds, three-tenths ahead of runners-up Germany, to underline the value of the more frequent squad sessions that have been held by UK Event Coach Michael Khmel over the past few months. Ellington finished dancing on the track, leading some to wonder if he too had suffered an injury but he quickly explained: “I’m all right. It’s just that the track was so hot it was burning through my spikes.” 


In truth the only challenging part of the final came afterwards when a rumour spread like wildfire that the team had been disqualified for a faulty change between Fifton and Ellington.


“No way,” said Fifton, the 200m bronze medallist. “We were definitely in the box. I saw it.” And the judges agreed.


Once it was confirmed that the result stood, Ellington – the late, late substitute in the team – said: “Bringing that baton over the line was the best feeling in my career so far. I’ve earned my spot in the team. I’ve been to a lot of the practices. I didn’t think I was going to run today. But I warmed-up with the boys and heard I was in about 20 minutes before the semi-final. It was a good feeling. And now it’s a great feeling.”


Scott, disqualified from the 60m final at the European Indoor Championships in March, kept his nerve after the Czech Republic false started here. After running the first leg, he beamed: “If I had false started here, the boys would have slapped me up.”


Team captain Pickering, surprisingly beaten for the individual 100m title by Williamson two days ago, had an eventful final: “The German guy fell into my lane just as I was setting off on the second leg and I had to dance round him without going out of our lane. Then Rikki set off a bit soon and I came round the bend shouting to him, ‘Slow down! Slow down! But that’s why the relay’s so much fun.”


As he lost the 100m, did the European Cup winner regret opting to compete in Debrecen rather than the Norwich Union British Grand Prix? “No,” said Pickering. “I came here, learnt a lot and got a gold medal – though not in the event I wanted. But I was beaten by a better man in the 100. I have no regrets … unless I discover that the temperature is in the 30s in Sheffield and the wind is +3.”


Abby Westley
Abby Westley

Gold No.2 came in the women’s 1500m final – along with a delightfully surprising Silver medal. Loughborough University-based Abby Westley (Hallamshire Harriers Sheffield), who won over this distance to help Norwich Union GB&NI win the European Cup First League match in Finland last month, registered the kind of victory trademarked by Dame Kelly Holmes during the Athens Olympics. Under the watchful eye of her vastly experienced coach, George Gandy, she waited patiently on the shoulder of long-time leader Susan Kuijken (Netherlands) before making a devastating break with just under 100 metres to go. She said: “I expected the Russian, Tatyana Beltyukova, to be there on my shoulder. But halfway down the straight, I looked and there was no-one there.”


Lizi Brathwaite (Herts Phoenix), an Oxford University law graduate making her international debut, snatched second place in the most dramatic manner, using all of her 800m sprinting speed to catch the pre-race favourite, Tatyana Beltyukova (Russia) in the last stride and a half. Her time, 4:16.45, was just four-hundredths quicker than the Russian’s and she said: “I’ve been doing a lot of work with my coach [Liam Cane] on being able to run that kind of race. I’m so pleased. I’ve never been in a race so bumpy. Every time you saw a space and moved into it, somebody closed in and you had to slow down.”


Birmingham University-based Hannah England (Oxford City AC), the England Under 23s’ champion, kept the flag flying high by finishing fifth in 4:18.70, just 0.21 outside of the medals. She said: "It's nice to be part of a strong team. The race was physical like they always are in Europe and I found it hard to get into a good position. It was a good experience even though it's crazy to be fifth in Europe and third Briton!"


Gold No.3 arrived in the Women’s 5000m. Abby Westley’s former housemate at Loughborough, Laura Kenney (Royal Sutton Coldfield AC) completed a double for Coach Gandy in the most emphatic manner. Despite the sapping heat, she made her move with 800m to go and won by 50m in 16:22.28. “I was inspired by Abby,” she said as she eased off a blood-soaked right spike to reveal a badly blistered set of toes. I took sponges early on in the race, as George had suggested, and I’m sure that helped. With two laps to go, I was suddenly in the lead. I didn’t mean to but, I thought, ‘All right, I’ve got to go now!” And those blisters? “I never run in socks – maybe I should learn how to.”


Susie Hignett (Bournemouth AC), the England Under 23s champion over the distance who is coached by Norwich Union GB&NI Junior Team Leader Martin Rush at the University of Bath, battled into ninth place in 16:53.38. She said: “I was a bit baffled during the race. I think the heat was getting to me.”


Gary White
Gary White

Gold No.4 – the most surprising of them all – splashed down in the men’s triple jump: Norwich Union GB&NI debutant Gary White (Cardiff AAC), ranked 11th of the 12 competitors, went out to 16.33m, a lifetime best by 24cm, in round four … and remained aloof to every attack thereafter. The 22-year-old Sport and PE student at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff, paid fulsome tribute to coach Sean Power after turning the formbook upside down.


He said: “I cannot believe it! It’s phenomenal. ‘European Champion Gary White’ … Whaaat? It’s crazy. I was lucky to get through the qualifiers yesterday. I expected to finish eighth or ninth today. But before the fourth round Sean told me that my step was rubbish. So I thought, ‘OK. No-one else has been jumping that great so far.’ Sean gave me the belief to go for that big hop. I got out of it and … 16.33!”


Power said: “Miracles do happen, you see. On the first day here, Gary watched the first medals ceremony and said, ‘It must be a fantastic feeling to watch your country’s flag go up.’ Now he knows.”

“It’s more than fantastic,” said White. “But I still can’t believe it!”


There was another GB&NI PB in the men’s pole vault. Steve Lewis (Newham and Essex Beagles), Commonwealth Games bronze medallist coached at the UK Athletics East Midlands High Performance Centre at Loughborough by GB&NI Under 23 Team Leader Steve Rippon, gambled and finished seventh with a clearance of 5.55m. He had needed two attempts at 5.30m, had two failures at 5.50m, passed on his third and, with the pressure at its most intense, cleared 5.50m first time. But then he missed at 5.65m twice, gambled his last attempt at 5.70m and missed that, too.


In the women’s long jump final, Amy Harris (Birchfield Harriers), the 2005 European Junior silver medallist who is not 20 until September, finished 10th. Having qualified yesterday with a first round effort of 6.37m (wind: 1.0), she was not lacking in confidence going into the pressure cooker of a competition. But her first effort of 6.27m (wind: +0.6) turned out to be her furthest as she followed with 6.19m and 6.22m. She said: “I felt better in myself yesterday. I just don’t think it was happening for me today. Maybe I got a bit over-heated. I felt quite lethargic. To get into the last eight, I would have needed a PB [her best so far is 6.38m] because the standard is pretty amazing. I’m going to learn from this week, go back and do a lot of hard work, and come out better next time.”

The title went to Anna Nazarova (Russia) with a PB of 6.81m (wind: 0.0).


Men’s 3000m steeplechase: Luke Gunn (Derby AC), who has been based in the USA since he ran in the 2004 World and 2005 European Junior Championships, battled into sixth place in 8:37.54, within touching distance of his season’s best in his second major championships final of the summer.


Gunn, who was in the NCAAs in the USA last month, said: “I seem to get a mental block when I get in finals. I was right there at the bell but, as usual, three or four spots down. But it was a good field. That time would have got a medal two years ago.


“It’s a case of getting a couple of places up at the bell because I passed a couple on the last lap. To be honest, I wanted to see if I could steal something. There are definitely guys out their who are beatable – though I knew the French guy was going to be up there.”


The ‘French guy’ in question, Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad, won the title in 8:33.91.


Men's high jump final: Adam Scarr (Enfield and Haringey) was placed eighth in the official result with a first-time clearance at 2.18m though it appeared that one of the athletes placed in front of him had not jumped as high. "I think I was seventh," he said, "Even so, I was a little disappointed and upset. The opportunity was there for me and I think I should have got a medal. But it did not happen. The qualifying round was cancelled and that would have been a warm-up jump that I couldn't get at the warm-up track, where there was no bed. I'm annoyed. I should have done better for my country." The gold medal went to Linus Thornblad (Sweden) at 2.24m.


Heptathlon: Louise Hazel (Peterborough AC) ran herself into the ground – literally – in the intense heat.


She began the second day by registering a long jump of 5.93m to move up two places to 11th in the overall standings. It came in the last round, after leaps of 5.92m (wind: 0.0) and 5.70m (-0.1) as the temperature hit 30° Celsius.


She threw the javelin 32.65m to go to 15th. She ran the first lap of the 800m, then stepped off the track and slowly sank to the ground. She was stretchered into the over-worked medical centre beside the track and treated by the team’s Dr Noel Pollock.


There was no medal – but bags full of spirit – in the men’s 4x400m final. The 400m hurdles champion David Greene gave it a miss as a precaution, leaving sprinter Jeffrey Lawal-Balogun (Kent AC) to run his first-ever 400m as lead-off man for 800m specialist Richard Hill (Notts AC), 400m hurdler Ben Carne (Harrow AC) and 400m specialist Richard Buck (City of York AC). They were fifth in 3:07.06, while Russia won in a European Under 23 Record of 3:02.13.


What an experience for the quartet! Lawal-Balogun, whose split time was 48 seconds, relished the challenge so much, he reckons he wants more 400m races when he gets home. “He was fantastic,” said Buck. “He jumped in, volunteered, when he realised we were short.”


Hill, clocked at 46.2, said; “That’s the most fun I have had at a major championship in my life. You do the 4x400m for your club for points. But when they’re all quick, like today, it makes it more interesting.”


Carne said: “I am so tired! But you can’t not run for your country.”


Buck, the Leeds Met student, was delighted to be credited with 44.9, and spoke for all the athletes: “I want to thank the team’s medical staff and the team. This has been the most positive championship I have ever been to.”


Relays coach Michael Khmel said: “We knew it was going to be tough. We had a guy who has never run more than 300 metres in training, Jeffrey. Richard was awesome in his fifth race of the championships. Ben never does less than his best. And Richard Buck was awesome.”