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SPAR EUROPEAN CUP: Women’s Preview

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The “bouncebackability” of the Norwich Union Great Britain and Northern Ireland women’s team will be put to the test this weekend as they aim to return to the top flight of the continent’s athletics nations at the European Cup First League Group A match in Vaasa, Finland.

Individual victories from Jo Pavey and Natasha Danvers-Smith were not enough to prevent the women’s team suffering relegation in Malaga, Spain last year.  The experienced duo are likely to be to the fore again as the team seeks a quick return to Super League status.

Pavey goes in the 5000m, the distance over which she won Commonwealth silver last year.  Despite a switch in focus to the 10,000m and road racing this year, she should still have enough in hand over her less experienced rivals.

400m hurdler Danvers-Smith opened her season late at the Norwich Union Glasgow Grand Prix on 3 June with a tentative 56.42 and she will be looking for improvement in Finland, where Czech Zuzana Hejnova should provide the strongest challenge.

One British athlete whose season is already well launched is Goldie Sayers, who set a new UK javelin record of 65.05m in Loughborough in May and went on to defeat a world-class field in Glasgow.

On of her scalps from that rainy Sunday in Scotland was last year’s European Championships silver medallist Barbara Spotakova (Czech Republic) and the two will renew rivalries again this weekend in one of the most eagerly anticipated contests.

Aside from Pavey, the Norwich Union team should also have plenty more to cheer in the endurance events.  Marilyn Okoro is the only sub-2 minute runner in the 800m field and will hoping to maintain her momentum towards a place at the World Championships in Osaka, Japan.

Commonwealth 1500m champion Lisa Dobriskey goes in the 3000m and is also the fastest in the field on paper. Taking the 1500m slot is Dobriskey’s training partner Abby Westley who will be hoping to carry her impressive early season form into the international arena as she makes her GB&NI senior debut.

In the 3000m steeplechase, new UK record holder Hatti Dean will face a stiff test against Kristine Eikrem Engeset (Norway), who has clocked 9:34.28 this season to Dean’s 9:43.11.

If the GB & NI team are to be celebrating come Sunday evening, much will rest with the strong legs and safe hands of Joice Maduaka.  The experienced sprinter will double up in the 100m and 200m and is also part of the 4x100m relay squad, which also includes Emily Freeman and Anyika Onuora, who along with Maduaka took European 4x100m silver in Gothenburg last year.  

Lee McConnell is another key figure.  For many years she has been a crucial member of the 4x400m team and with the late withdrawal of Nicola Sanders she is also stepping up to the plate to contest the individual 400m as well.  It is a role she has performed well in the past. 

In the Super League in 2003, she was second in the individual event, before anchoring GB&NI to silver in the relay.  Training partner Carey Easton, who clocked a new PB of 52.44 last weekend joins her in the squad that also includes Danvers-Smith, Okoro and the reliable Jenny Meadows.

Anyone doubting the quality of a meeting which is one tier below Super League status need look no further than the opposition facing Sarah Claxton, Stephanie Pywell and Jade Johnson in the 100m hurdles, high jump and long jump respectively.

Claxton will have 2006 World Indoor gold medallist Derval O’Rourke (Ireland) and European indoors and outdoors champion Susanna Kallur (Sweden) to contend with; GB&NI senior debutant Pywell competes against World Champion Kajsa Bergqvist (Sweden) and Johnson will have to fight out the points with the likes of European indoor bronze medallist Denisa Scerbova (Czech Republic) and modern legend Carolina Kluft, the Olympic, World and European heptathlon champion.

Their contributions in the face of white-hot competition will be vital.  Completing the GB&NI team for individual events are Kate Dennison (pole vault), Nadia Williams (triple jump), Kara Nwidobie-Sharpe (discus), Zoe Derham (hammer), and Northern Ireland's Eva Massey (shot) on her GB & NI debut,  all of whom will fancy their chances of picking up a few points for the cause.