sábado, 2 de abril de 2011

High Jump: Need to Worry about the Future?

Mariya Kuchina, the inaugural High Jump Youth Olympic champion.
Photo: Aleksandr Mantsevich
         Blanka Vlasic has been the reference of the women's high jump event ever since she won her first senior gold medal of note at 2007 Osaka World Championships.  She is the current World and European titleholder and besides she can claim such astounding statistics as a record 34 competitions winning streak and about one hundred jumps over 2 meters. She has cleared the historical barrier almost in every contest she has participated in the last four years, feat only comparable with world record holder Stefka Kostadinova’s performances in the eighties and the nineties. Indeed, Vlasic is the overwhelming favourite to win at London Olympic Games the only title she still does not have.  Yet, lately things seem easier than they used to be.   

         Sara Simeoni was the first woman who was beaten in a major championship (at 1984 Olympic Games by Ulrike Meyfarth), despite clearing 2 meters.  Blanka Vlasic, precisely, was (at 2006 European Championships) the first one left out of the medals in the same situation, but not the late:  no less than five jumpers went over 2 meters in Osaka and four at Beijing Olympics.  As evidence of the excellent level of the field, a total of sixteen jumpers got to qualify for the 2007 World Champs final, after clearing the 1.94 standard.  These happy days for the high jump event are now gone.

Svetlana Shkolina, one of the biggest hopes of the new generation of Russian jumpers.
Photo: Lukk2008   http://www.flickr.com/

         Some of the top names of the discipline as Kajsa Bergqvist, Vita Palamar, Amy Acuff or current Olympic champion, Tia Hellebaut, had retired.  Others are struggling with injuries as Yelena Slesarenko, whose return to top form seems every time more unlikely, or Ariane Friederich, who will not be back until next year, after her Achilles tendon operation. Anna Chicherova, finally, is out for maternity leave. 
       Among the athletes right now on the field, American Chaunté Lowe is the only one who seems to have the capacity to upset Vlasic in a major final, after her strong comeback , improving the 20 year-old Louise Ritter's national record.  Besides, there are discouraging symptoms about the lack of relay in the discipline: Only two of the finalists in the 2009 World championships, Svetlana Shkolina and Meike Kröger were younger than 25 years.  More recently, the recent European indoors results were lacklustre, as all the winter season was.  Still more if we consider the gold and silver medallist of the championships age: although their performances are yet respectable, we can not forget Di Martino will be 34 in the Olympics and Beitia 33.  Vita Styopina or Venelina Veneva are even older.
        Blanka Vlasic, winner of back-to-back world junior titles in 2000 and 2002, was the flag bearer of an extremely talented generation. As an indication, she was present, along with Chicherova and Slesarenko, at the 2001 European junior championship, where no less than seven jumpers cleared 1.88 or higher.  The latter, became Olympic champion in Athens at age 22.  The following year, still younger, Chaunté Howard-Lowe (21) and Emma Green (20) grabbed a medal in Osaka.  The last but not the least member of this generation in making an impression in senior competition was Ariane Frederich, with her big breakthrough in 2008.  

2010 Asiad high jump medallists. From L to R: Nadia Dusanova, Svetlana Radzivil, Anna Ustinova and Zheng Xinjuan.
Photo: Getty Images
       Amazingly, most of the successive junior hopes of the following years have not lived up to the expectations, once arrived to senior competition.  First of all, Ukrainian Iryna Kovalenko, world youth champion in 2003 and junior in 2004 with an excellent 1.93, was supposed to take over from the likes of Styopina, Palamar or Mikhalchenko, but she has not progressed over her teen records.  Two other classic countries in high jumping as Germany and Russia have also seen much talent wasted lately. Annett Engel, medallist in both youth and junior contests or Kimberly Jeb, the 2008 world junior champion, have not followed on Ariane Friedrich steps.  Meike Kröger too, who had cleared 2 meters two winters ago, is experiencing a big crisis of results lately. 
         On the other hand, Natalya Mamlina and Alexandra Shamsutdinova, current European junior and under-23 champions respectively, are nowhere to be seen. In a country with such tradition of high jumping as Russia is, absentees apart, only two athletes could claim a place for last year's European Championships: Svetlana Shkolina and Iryna Gordeyeva.  They have both reached 2 metres, but their results when it matters most can not be compared yet to Slesarenko's or Chicherova's. (1)
After Hestrie Cloete's retirement, there were some hope Anika Smit could continue her exploits. However, after winning the Commonwealth Games in 2006, she is having difficulties now to do 1.90.  Nigerian Doreen Amata is not close either to her promising 2008 performances. 

The 2010 Commonwealth Games podium. From L to R: Levern Spencer,
Nicole Forrester and Sheree Francis.
Photo: Michael Steele/ Getty Images AsiaPac    http://www.zimbio.com/

Nevertheless, the Asian high jumpers who won no less than three medals at Beijing 2006 World juniors have steadily improved. Zheng Xingjuan, who had already jumped 1.92 as a sixteen year-old in 2005, made at last her breakthrough four years afterwards, flying to 1.95 on occasion of the National Games and reaching the final of Doha’s world indoors  the following winter.  The young Central Asian jumpers from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, who started to be known internationally because of their “collective” and highly doubtful 1.98 Area Record in the Olympic year (broken in 2009 by the more experienced Marina Aitova), have found lately some confidence and consistency, as well. 
 Yekaterina Yevseyeva was the first of them in making an impact, clearing a valid 1.95 in 2008, but she missed most of 2010 season.  Dusanova, as Zheng did, qualified for Doha’s final.  Last year she went over 1.93 or higher in no less than four occasions.  This solidity makes her the most likely candidate of the group for reaching Daegu’s final. Svetlana Radzivil, finally, after several years of not progressing, cleared, when it mattered most, a massive 1.95 new PB in Guagzhou, beating her compatriot Dusanova and local hot favourite Zheng Xingjuan, as she had done in the World Juniors, four years before. The Asian Games were one of the most thrilling high jump competitions of the season, showing the nice improvement in the discipline in that continent.     
Alessia Trost, the 2009 world youth champion
 Central America is also trying to achieve big things soon, after almost 20 years of no significative succes.  Saint Lucia's Levern Spencer, now 26, is in her best moment ever.  With seven jumps over 1.94 or higher to her credit during last season, including an extraordinary 1.98 national record, she should feel able of shining in something more than domestic contests.  Spencer won the last editions of Central American and Caribbean Games and Championships, but was beating in the Commonwealth by veteran Canadian Nicole Forrester and Jamaican Sheree Francis, another rising athlete in the area.  Watch out also for youngster Lesyanís Mayor of Cuba, who would like to emulate her illustrious compatriots Ioamnet Quintero and Silvia Costa. 
Elena Vallortigara, the new Italian junior record holder.
            Fortunately for the future of the event, the young high jumpers who participated in the global contests of Bressanone, Moncton and Singapore seem talented and ambitious enough to stop this dreadful succession of failed generations.  The biggest hope is of course Mariya Kuchina.  The young Russian, finished second at 2009 Bressanone world youth championships, climbed one step on the podium to win the inaugural youth Olympic Games the following year, and this season has already improved her PB to 1.97 at age 18, the best record ever indoor for a junior athlete.  Not a senior until 2013, she has plenty of time to improve the more than 20 years old junior record, shared by Olga Turtchak and Heike Balck.  Doing so, she would make good her first coach predictions about her talent, before sending her to the one who helped Slearenko become Olympic champion. (2)  Kuchina was already selected for last month European indoors and could claim a spot for London Olympic team, which should be a fearsome one again, once Chicherova, a medallist in the last three global championship, will be back.
       However, the country with highest expectations about its teenage jumpers is not Russia but Italy. In 2007, Antonietta Di Martino became only the second Italian women over 2 metres, 29 years after Sara Simeoni’s world record.  Yet, a nation who had endured an almost three decades drought in a favourite event, might have four elite representatives soon.  Di Martino seems stronger than ever after beating her own indoor record and winning her first international title in Paris this winter.  Raffaella Lamera improved to 1.95 last year, and there are too youngsters Elena Vallortigara and Alessia Trost.  The former has won back-to-back bronze medals in both youth and junior global contests, while the latter won in Bressanone, ahead of Mariya Kuchina, and finished second in Singapore, after the same Russian athlete.
Danielle Frenkel of Israel, from dancer to future high jump star.
Photo: Getty Images

      Vallortigara shared Moncton’s podium with Marija Vukovic and Airine Palsyté.  The former gave her country, Montenegro, its first global gold medal ever in any sport. It was a grateful surprise for her and everybody, though she had already obtained a silver medal the precedent year at the European juniors. Undoubtedly, much more is on the way.  Lithuanian Palsyté, is another rising star, quite solid in every junior contest she has been competing and already over 1.92.

Marija Vukovic, the current world junior champion.
Photo: Getty Images/  http://www.iaaf.org/
     We have said before 2011 winter season was a lacklustre one.  Indeed it was: before the Indoor Championships only six women had jumped more than 1.92 and, in Paris final, only three did it; not even Shkolina.  However, if we analyze the season from the point of view of the performances of the new kids in town, the conclusions can not be more optimistic.  No less than nine jumpers born in the 1990s cleared 1.90 or higher. Some of them and some just a bit older got to jump over 1.92 in Paris, where it mattered, trying to make the final, achieving new PBs. (Ebba Jungmark, Danielle Frenkel, Oksana Okuneva, Grete Udras and Tonje Angelsen).  Jungmark and Frenkel big breakthroughs in the European indoors could be noted as importants for the future of the event as the 1.97 world junior best, achieved by Kuchina a couple of weeks before.   
         Ebba Jungmark made in Paris the competition of her life, improving her best in both qualifying round and the final.  With good results as a junior, despite no significant victories, she was once pointed as the successor of ex-world champion Kajsa Bergqvist.  Yet, after some disappointing seasons in the senior field, that idea had been long forgotten. Her stage in the United States had proved wrong and she returned home to start anew.  Now, things are working out again and with the boost of confidence of her bronze medal and her 1.96 P.B., she will try to be ready for new challenges, in this rebirth of Swedish high jumping, which started with the silver medal and 2.01 PB achieved by Emma Green at Barcelona European championships last year. (3)  
         Danielle Frenkel case is an amazing and intriguing one. (4) The Israeli new sensation, wanted to become a professional dancer but, after many efforts, her coach convinced her to practice high jumping in full time.  He must spotted true talent in her.  For instance, in her first serious year in athletics, she already reached the final in Barcelona.  This winter season, coming with just a 1.92 best, she jumped in Paris, first over her PB, then over the qualification standard of 1.94, making the final, where she finished in an excellent fourth place.  From now on she can only improve.

Grete Udras, one of the best high jumpers from Baltic Sea.
Photo: Getty Images
         Oksana Okuneva was the third girl in Paris final, thanks to complete her best competition ever.  Maybe, Ukraine has finally found the top high jumper they needed, to follow on their rich tradition.  Also Romania hopes Esthera Petre will become a star of the discipline.  Even Croatia has found someone to emulate Blanka Vlasic: the young Ana Simic.
          However, the deepest field among the new generations seems to come now not from Central and Eastern European regions but from Baltic and Scandinavian lands.  Norway, which once had a world champion like Hanne Haugland, came to Paris with a full team: Tonje Angelsen, Stine Kufaas and Oyunn Grindem.  Estonia counts with Grete Udras and Anna Iljustsenko. Sweden with Emma Green and Ebba Jungmark. Lithuania with Airine Palsyté...
The United States have many new names too for the years to come.  Their main hope, Destinee Hooker, the NCAA record holder, was lost to volleyball, but they now expect a lot from some other new findings. Interestingly, the last two NCAA indoor champions, Liz Patterson and Brigetta Barrett, belong both to the same Arizona University. The current collegian outdoor titleholder is Amber Kaufman.  Barrett has a similar profile to Danielle Frenkel’s, because she is also a dancing amateur… and a singer, an actress and a poet!  She is studying Theatre Arts and hopes her athletics victories will help to promote her future career as entertainer. (5)   

       Therefore we are living a transitional phase in the history of high jumping, which follows some of the best years ever in the discipline.  Although the standards have gone down, many encouraging performances among the rising athletes suggest we just need to wait a couple of seasons, so they can close the gap with the current top jumpers, and be ready to bring a new golden era for the event.

Ebba Jungmark, the new hope of Swedish high jumping.