Saturday, July 26, 2014

As Good As Gold

Tshepang Makhethe, South Africa
Tshepang Makhethe is going places. Remarkable, considering the places he's already been.

The day before competition began at the World Junior Championships, a group of athletes from the Netherlands and South Africa was gathered in the fan zone in front of a plexiglass wall, part of a display that shows the names, by region, of each of the junior competitors from around the world.
The athletes, who were taking pictures of each other, had just met. I got out my camera (I was wearing a press pass), but what was permission to me was new to them.  They were not used to having their pictures taken. For most, it was their first time at a major meet.
An interesting discussion took place, and Tshepang Makhethe, a hammer thrower from South Africa, emerged as spokesman for the group. After a successful dialogue, he and I moved on to discuss his anticipated experiences in Eugene as well as his passion for the hammer.
World Juniors is Makhethe’s second international meet, as he threw 75.54m (5kg hammer) at the World Youth (17 and under) Championships in Donetsk last year when he was 17 years old.
(Makhethe was second youngest among the hammer finalists in Eugene; each of the medalists here is 50+ weeks older than Makhethe, which he accurately describes as a “very big gap.”)
Makhethe came into World Juniors with a personal best of 74.13m (243' 2.5", 6kg hammer) from his national championships in April this year.
In qualifying rounds on Thursday, Makhethe threw 72.99m to advance to the finals.
Friday, he finished 10th in 72.94m, just missing the final 8 and three more throws.
“Today I was disappointed,” he said. “I would have loved to go out with a personal best, but I guess today was just not my day to get it.”
“I was really enjoying the experience because that’s basically what I came out to do. And learn a few things or two and that’s exactly what I did. It was pretty nice.”
He continued, “You’re not all going to get the medals so you all have to learn something from the experience.”
What did he learn?
“First of all, I’ve learned to handle my pressure. It was a very strong field I was in and I just had to relax and do my own thing. I think I was too worried in what the other athletes were doing and not focused on my own thing.”
“But now we know how to do it for the next one.”
After a long trip back to South Africa on Monday and Tuesday, Makhethe will return to his senior year of high school.
Hammer throwing remains an integral part of his future.
“Me and my coach (Basie Koen) - it was in our plans from the beginning to see how far we can throw. If, God willing, anything can happens, so we just keep going with what God has planned for us.”
I was struck by the number of times Makhethe used ‘we’ instead of ‘I.’ Clearly, he sees his performance and progression as the outcome of a group effort.
Makhethe feels he is in a good place to fulfill his potential.
“The setup I am in right now is a pretty good setup. Back in my high school they have a beautiful gymnasium,” he says, as well as two throwing circles at the back of his school. The initiative to build this hammer facility came from Chris Harmse, the 2010 Commonwealth Champion and South African record holder at 80.63m.
Makhethe salutes Koen by saying, “My coach is basically the only one in the whole country who has the knowledge and experience to be a qualified international hammer coach.”
And with Chris Harmse as his training partner, he is surrounded by South Africa’s best coaches as well as training facilities.
“It was interesting because today I have a disappointed heart, but there’s something gained as well. It’s time to go home and back to school work.”
We wish each other the best and I note that I have been to the World Championships seven times.
Without hesitation, Makhethe replies, “I might meet you in Beijing.”
Not at all a surprise that he knows when and where the next senior World Championships will be.
Donetsk – Eugene – Beijing – what a triple that would be.
With a knowing sparkle in his eyes, he captures his future.
“If it’s a passion, you can’t hold it back.”

Friday, July 25, 2014

Found: What Hayward Field Has Been Missing All These Years

The art of the possible was perfected Thursday evening on Day 3 of the World Junior Track and Field Championships.

With nine finals in a packed schedule, Hayward Field came alive. Featuring dramatic ‘can you top this?’ competitions, frequent lead changes, a final-throw win in the javelin, and a crowd that was rockin’ at last, international track and field received the embrace it has long sought here - and deserved.
Russia’s Ekaterina Starygina led the javelin competition until the 6th round when Sweden’s Sofi Flink took the lead. But Starygina had one last opportunity, and in a track and field classic, won on the event’s final throw.
Ekaterina Starygina
World Junior Javelin Champ
Both the men’s 110m hurdles and shot put had a ‘we have seen the future’ aspect to them. France’s Wilhelm Belocian set the world junior record and became the first junior ever under 13.00 in the 110m hurdles with his historic 12.99. Hard to believe that Jamaica’s Tyler Mason mined only silver with his 13.06.

Harder to comprehend is that Konrad Bukowiecki’s (Pol) massive 22.06/72' 4.5" earned him the yearly shot put lead and third on the all-time list, but not a championship record, as Jacko Gill’s 22.20/72' 10 1/4" withstood Bukowiecki’s assault. There will be some significant reshuffling of the international pecking order as Belocian, Mason, and Bukowiecki move into the senior ranks.
US vault phenom Desiree Freier twice set the American junior record, only to be topped by Russia’s Alena Lutkovskaya’s championship record of 4.50/14' 9 3/16". The men’s long jump saw China go 1-2 with favored Qing Lin second to teammate Jianan Wang, who soared past 8 meters (26' 1/4") to win.

Jonathan Sawe
World Junior 1500m Champion
Kenya’s Jonathan Kiplimo Sawe won the 1500m with a scintillating last lap. When Race Results Weekly’s David Monti asked him when he thought he would win, he replied, “At 400 meters.” Now that is confidence in your kick. He won going away by 1.36 seconds, a significant margin in this day and age of sit and kick races.
Kenya’s Margaret Wambui won the women’s 800m after Iceland’s Anita Hinriksdottir went out in an eager 56.33 for the first 400m. This race was a reminder that it's kids who are competing here - all under 20 and some far younger than that - most with modest experience on a stage such as this.
Well, that about wraps it up… oh, wait, did someone say Mary Cain?! The US distance prodigy ran 62.93/29.90 for the last 400m/200m to blow the competition off the track in a tactical, edgy 3,000m race.

The crowd could be heard in Portland.

Mary Cain
World Junior 3,000m Champion
The Prefontaine Classic, held here at the end of every May, is an international event whose focus is always, necessarily, on individuals. Medal ceremonies, however, change the nature of a championship.  They cause us to pause and note that the achievements of the three medalists honored are supported by many.

When flags are raised and anthems played, we are reminded of the distinctive cultures these athletes represent. As we were reminded last evening, it is - often to widely varying degrees - a national effort that gets these remarkable athletes to the podium.
Even the setting sun added flair to the medal ceremony for the men’s 110m hurdles. As the athletes were presented their medals, the first sunset of these rainy championships painted the East Grandstand gold.
Heretofore, the focus in this stadium - in a college setting - has rightly been on individuals and teams. Last night, as the first chords of the French national anthem were played, that changed.
What historic Hayward Field has been missing all these years is 
La Marseillaise.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Walk in the Rain - Day 2 World Junior Track + Field

Anezka Drahotova is the new World Junior record holder in the women’s 10k racewalk. The Czech’s 42:47.25 in the drizzle and rain of Eugene took down Yelena Lashmanova's (Rus) previous standard of 42:59.48. Drahotova, who will be competing in the European Championships 20k walk in Zurich in August, led at every split and pulled away for a  dominating victory of just over 75 seconds.
The stunningly versatile athlete finished 2nd and 3rdrespectively, in the cycling road race and time trial in the 2013 Czech national championships; she was 17 at the time. Meanwhile, her 3,000m steeplechase PB is 10:10.45.
Her twin sister, Eliska, finished 27th and 12th in the same cycling championships, and was DQed in this morning’s 10k walk.
Drahotova has a small but important support group, “Just me and my sister and three or four guys.”
“I don’t train with her but she support me really early and I really appreciate that she is next to me and supporting me,” said the newly crowned World Junior Champion. “I don’t think that I could go on without her help.”
Drahotova says of her future over the barriers, “I also enjoy the running but I have no time to train running, so maybe next year I will do running and maybe I will be better because I have really bad technique on the water, on the hurdles.” She plans to focus on running after next year’s World Championships in Beijing. Watch out, world.

Now, her goal is to “go to Zurich to enjoy the race and do the best I can do.”
“The girls they are really good this year. I saw the race from China from Taicing!”  A look of awe came over Drahotova’s face. There she finished 3rd in the junior 10k walk to China’s Dandan Duan and Jiayu Yang and then watched the seniors. But she is not the one to have to worry about her competition in Zurich.
The racewalking prodigy was 7th in the  Moscow World Championships 20k last summer after being in medal contention for much of the race. She had just turned 18.
Today, she won her world junior title and set her junior world record a day after turning 19 - rather a nice combination of birthday presents for herself.

Drahotova acknowledged that last night she had a dream about winning today and setting a record.
A very strong candidate for a medal in Zurich next month, World and Olympic medals are in her future - and sooner than even she dreams.  

photos by Mark Cullen

Notes and Quotes: Day 1 World JR T+F

photo by Mark Cullen
A dramatic men’s 10,000m final highlighted the first day of action at the World Junior Athletics Championships in Eugene on Tuesday.
Keisuke Nakatani and Hazuma Hattori of Japan were the somewhat surprising early leaders. They clicked off consistent laps in the 70-71 second range and led at 6k, but a strong chase pack made quick work of them in the seventh kilometer. Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda led Elvis Cheboi and Nicholas Kosimbei of Kenya to a 1-2-3 African sweep of the medals in the meet’s first final. Cheptegei ran an unanswerable 2:02.85 for the last 800m and won in 28:32.86.
Cheptegai said that he was concerned that the Japanese runners went out so fast, but that he was confident in his race plan. His coach, Narisesio Bigingo, said that he attributes Cheptegei’s win to “good preparation, good training, building stamina, and disciplined work.”
Bigingo concluded, “When you train hard, you win easy."

photo by Mark Cullen
Joshua Cheptegei, Uganda, 10k Champion
Ecuador’s Angela Tonorio had the most unusual path to the women’s 100m semi-finals. She was disqualified for a false start, but her protest was successful and she was allowed a solo rerun. She had to run 11.77 or faster to advance, and her run was added to the meet as the last event after the men’s 10,000m. After an agonizing delay due to technical reasons, she finally ran solo in front of an appreciative and enthusiastic crowd – and flew to an 11.28 clocking, the second fastest of the day.
Note well, bid deciders: in Sacramento at US Outdoor Nationals last month, when the men’s 100m finished, half the crowd left – and missed the next and final race of the evening, the scintillating women’s 10k won by Kim Conley over Jordan Hasay. Here, a large crowd was present for the men’s 10k, and almost everyone stayed to watch one woman run against the clock - and herself – in what was now the woman’s 100m dash.
Kudos to Conductor Brian McWhorter who led an orchestra in playing throughout the men's 10k race this evening. McWhorter, a University of Oregon conductor, composer, and music professor, composed the music for this evening's event. His creative process was celebrated in an article in the New York Times:
Highly recommended reading. Props to Professor McWhorter, who, of course, will henceforth be known as 'Coach.'
The evening ends late, and as I approach Franklin Boulevard, an animated man asks me if I have men’s 400m results from today. I look through entry lists on my phone and finally we find the heat results. The man introduces himself as Alex and says that he wants to find the results for Kazakhstan. We find his athlete only to learn that he has been disqualified. I let him know where the Jury of Appeals tent is located so he can find out more in the morning.
We talk for quite some time and after a while I ask Alex if he was a competitor… something is stirring in the deep recesses of my brain and I know I have seen him before. Now Head Coach of the Kazakh National Youth and Junior Team, Alex is Alexsandr Korchagin, a successful pole vault competitor in the 1990s. Where had I seen him compete? At the World Championships in Stuttgart in 1993 in my very first trip to Worlds, 21 years ago.