sábado, 16 de junio de 2012

Chemos Vs Zaripova: an exciting Rematch for London

Milkah Chemos and Yuliya Zaripova's duel at the steeplechase  at  the 2011 World Championships in Daegu
Photo: Mark Dadswell/ Getty Images AsiaPac
               Following a highly impressive clean sweep of the podium at the two inaugural finals, the women’s marathon and 10.000m, Kenya completed last year in Daegu its best ever performance in the history of the IAAF World Championships in Athletics, winning almost everything… Almost!  It is well known for the East African track and field powerhouse the male 3000m steeplechase is nearly a state matter. Kenya has not been beaten in the distance at the Olympic Games, ever since Amos Biwott got the first gold medal for his country back in Mexico-68 and this stunning winning streak is expected to be kept for many more years. On the other hand, Kenyan female steeplechasers are trying to emulate their decorated men counterparts in the path of victory. In the youngest of the events in the athletic calendar, the tiny champion from Bugaa village, Milcah Chemos Cheywa, was unanimously favoured to become the first Kenyan woman to clinch gold: the first one of another glorious dynasty. Chemos came to Daegu unbeaten in her pet event throughout the whole summer season, including five emphatic victories in the Diamond League and her gold medal was almost taken for granted. Her companions Lydia Rotich and Mercy Njoroge also reflected her optimism about a possible sweep of the medals for Kenya in the event. However, when it mattered most, European champion Yuliya Zaripova took command of the final from gun to tape, imposing a devastating pace which destroyed the whole field, including an unusually struggling one Milcah Chemos, who scarcely could grab the bronze medal, also beaten by Tunisian Habiba Ghribi. Kenyans finished 3rd, 4th and 5th in a disappointing evening. It was just another big upset in a full of surprise Championships. What happened? 

                   Leaving behind the obvious different backgrounds of a Kenyan girl coming from a farming community (1) and a Russian kid grown-up in a small town of the region of Volvograd from a father coach and a bookkeeper mother (2), the two standout steeplechasers of the moment, Milcah Chemos Cheywa and Yuliya Zaripova, have followed almost parallel sportive careers with striking coincidences. Both women were born the same year of 1986, Milcah in February, Yuliya in April. Both entered initially the 800m event, having moderate success. In 2005 Zaripova clocked 2:05.44 to grab the bronze medal at the national junior championships and was selected for the Europeans not getting through her heat. She quickly understood she had not the level to shine in the full of stars sky of Russian middle distances and disappointed almost quit sport. On the other hand, Chemos was convinced by friends she had future in running and decided to have it a go that same 2005, enrolled in the Kenyan Police. However she wed workmate Alex Sang and soon got pregnant, having to stop her incipient athletic career. She was blessed with a daughter, which was precisely what happened to Yuliya as well, fruit of her first marriage. Milcah reappeared just in time to run the trials for Beijing Olympics. She ended up seventh in the 800m final, nearly 12 seconds after Pamela Jelimo. Chemos realised too she was not talented enough for an international career at the 800m but then training mate Olympian Richard Mateelong suggested her to try the steeplechase which she did with immediate success. (1) She was already 23 when she ran her first race in the event in Kakamega in April 2009. Forced by circumstances, Yuliya Zaripova also abandoned her favourite event, after the sudden death of her coaches: first Gennadiy Naumov, then his successor Yelena Romanova. (2) Besides she needed to keep the national federation’s financial support to make a living of athletics and it was not possible anymore for her running the 800m. Mikhail Kuznetsov discovered Zaripova for the steeplechase and took her under his wing since 2008 for another belated and dazzling career over barriers and water jumps.        

Zaripova leads Milcah Chemos, Birtukan Adamu and Gesa-Felicitas Krause over the water jump in Daegu
Photo: Stu Forster/ Getty Images Asia Pac
              In spite of their lack of experience at the steeplechase, both Yuliya Zaripova and Milcah Chemos fared amazingly well on occasion of Berlin World Championships, getting to surprisingly climb to the podium, along with elated winner Marta Domínguez. Zaripova had had a successful winter, grabbing the bronze medal at the European Cross U-23 and reaching the final at the continental championship indoors at the 3000m flat. During the summer, she focused in the steeplechase, becoming the national revelation of the year in the event, when she won the Team Championships in Sochi and especially the National Champs in a world class 9:13.18. (3) However she was not the leading Russian in Berlin, in a team which included no less than defending world champion Yekaterina Volkova and the woman who had broken the 9min barrier in Beijing Olympic Games, Gulnara Samitova-Galkina. Nor was Milcah Chemos the number one Kenyan. That responsibility was borne by more fancied runners Ruth Bosibori and Gladys Kipkemboi, who had won the national trials. Out-of-shape Volkova failed to make the final. There, Galkina tried to repeat her demonstration of Beijing, yet unlike in the Olympic Games, the pack of challengers was able to hold her demanding pace. In the final rush, the Olympic champion was overcome and left out of the medals. Marta Domínguez proved to be the strongest of the field but rising athletes Yuliya Zaripova, then called Zarudneva, and Milcah Chemos Cheywa, also raised the eyebrows with her sensational second and third places, and respective times of 9:08.39 and 9:08.57.
The Russian argues she lost the mental battle to Domínguez, not believing in her victory over the tough Spaniard and even being afraid of her power. This mistake would not be repeated again the following year, when an increasingly self-confident Yuliya contributed with maximum points to the Russian triumph at the European Team Championships, then claimed the continental individual title over the reigning world champion, in Barcelona. On the other hand, Milcah Chemos rose to international stardom with her astounding 2010 summer season, in which she triumphed in 7 out of her 11 outings, including the African championships in Nairobi and the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. (4) Her solid campaign earned her the Diamond League title and to be shortlisted for the mention of IAAF athlete of the year. Talking about her rivalry with Zaripova there was a draw that season: the Kenyan got the better of the Russian at the Prefontaine and Aviva London Diamond League meetings, while Yuliya prevailed in Stockholm and at the Continental Cup. (5) Milcah’s momentum continued in 2011, where she raced to and fro, leaving an aureole of invincibility. Meanwhile, Zaripova kept a low profile, only competing twice during that season (once at the 1500m distance and once at the 3000m steeplechase), prior to Daegu.   

Things did not go though according to plan at last year World Championships for Milcah Chemos. First of all, her long campaign was excellent in order to win the Diamond for the second time but far from ideal to perform at her best in Daegu. In a season the most important date of the athletic calendar came later than usual, that is the last day of August, Chemos already peaked in May, when she achieved her best timings of the year: 9:16 in Doha and 9:12 in Rome. After such startling opening of the season, everybody expected the Kenyan to smash the national record and even try the universal best. However, Milcah was even unable to improve on her PB from 2009. Instead of progressing she went up in the two following months to the 9:20s, yet still kept winning meetings, due to her superiority over the challengers she had to contend against. It was a clear symptom Chemos was overcharged of competition but she did not take any break to recharge her batteries until August, keeping the same strenuous rhythm all over the summer in an especially gruelling event as the steeplechase is. When her rival Zaripova eventually entered the track for a race in the distance in late July, Chemos was already tired after her long campaign. On the other hand, the Russian did not care about Diamond League rewards but instead had only one target: the World Championships. She prepared herself meticulously for it without making much noise and only went out of her training place to compete in a 1500m race in order to sharpen her speed. Zaripova’s form in the day of the decisive contest was the best possible as it proves her excellent performance in the final.
Another problem for Milcah Chemos was of very different kind. The Kenyan’s poor technique over barriers and water jumps was evident went she had to face a rival of her same level. Besides the handicap of her small height for the standards in the event (1.63m), Chemos do not normally have a driving leg when negotiating an obstacle so she attacks it almost with both legs at the same time and bent-knees, losing her timing when she lands for a moment. In front of a woman with excellent jumping technique as Zaripova is, it was pitiful to see the Kenyan standout losing ground in every barrier and then struggling to recover that distance. That technical gap between the two steeplechase stars was still more obvious while facing the water jump. Like most men athletes do Zaripova steps on top of the barrier with one of her feet to propel herself further and out, while Chemos, jumping with both legs at the same time, just sinks into the middle of the water each time.    

After her shocking failure, Milcah Chemos had much to work in, especially psychologically speaking, but now she seems to be in the right way to face her black beast at the Olympic Games as we witnessed at the Diamond League meetings of Shanghai, New York and Oslo, especially in the latter, where she achieved the much expected African record, stopping the clock in 9:07.14 and eventually erasing Beijing silver medallist Eunice Jepkorir from the record books. Chemos seems hyper motivated and determined to avenge her defeat at the upcoming Olympic Games, making up for her bad technique with her powerful core. On the other hand, Yuliya Zaripova is still to make her debut on the track this year. Her only international appearance was a 10km road race last month. Nevertheless, when she will no one doubts she is going to be ready for the best again. Her exceptional combination of speed (4:04 PB at the 1500m), endurance, strength and excellent technique will make her again the favourite for London and we must also think about her willingness and confidence, on a high after her groundbreaking demonstration in Daegu. In the rest of the field, we have to consider what old veterans Gulnara Galkina and Marta Domínguez can still give to athletics. In only seven years since the event is being held in major championships, we have assist to a complete generational renewal in the 3000m steeplechase field. Athletes like Inzikuru, Volkova, Turava, Cassandra or Janowska have disappeared from the elite or are not anymore a factor. Kenya which has kept the unbeatable Ezekiel Kemboi, Brimin Kipruto, Richard Mateelong and Paul Koech for a decade in the male side, has however lost in a couple of years great female specialists like Cheruto Kiptum, Salome Chepchumba, Eunice Jepkorir, Ruth Bosibori or Gladys Kipkemboi, which proves the event is more fearsome than we believe. Rather talking about athletes able to upset the prohibitive favourites we must look at fresh faces as Ethiopians Sofia Assefa and Hiwot Ayalew, who escorted Chemos in her way to a new area record, also accomplishing huge personal best, Tunisian Habiba Ghribi, who achieved in Daegu the first medal ever for her country at the IAAF World championships or Binnaz Uslu and Gulcan Mingir from a country quickly making its way to the top as it is Turkey. Do not miss another thrilling final in just one month and a half time.