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By David Monti
March 8, 2009
(c) 2009 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

TORINO (08-Mar) -- In front of a packed house on the final day of the 30th European Indoor Championships here at the Oval Lingotto, Portugal's Rui Silva offered a glimpse of his past greatness.  It's been three and one-half years since the 2004 Olympic and 2005 World Championships bronze medalist has felt the weight of an international medal around his neck, and Silva came to this meet to contend.

"I was very confident because in the last four years I did nothing in any championships in track," said Silva. "I tried to push hard and get some medal here."

Instead of staying all the way back and coming from behind as he did when he won his Olympic medal, Silva took control of the pace after just two laps.  He had a plan.

"I tried to put the pace a little bit high," said Silva.  "Not so high, but to slow the guys in the last 200m because the Spanish are very strong."

Silva was on the front through 800m in 2:05.3, but then he melted back into the pack.  He was worried about the three Spaniards in the race, particularly Arturo Casado a powerful kicker who finished fourth at last year's IAAF World Indoor Championships.  Silva stayed in the pack until about 120 meters to go when he suddenly accelerated and began to shoot through the field.  His rivals simply couldn't cover such an explosive move.

"I tried to go behind him and surprise him in the last 50 meters," Silva explained, referring to Casado.

Silva rolled to victory in a time which doesn't impress (3:44.38), but in a style which did.  Casado faded in the final sprint to only finish fifth, but his teammate Diego Ruiz just beat Frenchman Yoann Kowal for the silver, 3:44.70 to 3:44.75.

Silva was happy, and looking forward to the outdoor season, but was realistic about the stiffer competition he would face on the 400m ovals.  "It was my start again and I did it and I'm very happy," he said.  "The summer is very different.  Outdoor is another thing.  There are very strong Africans, the American guys.  It is very more difficult."

Russia's Yuriy Borzakovskiy, the 2004 Olympic champion, also showed the mastery of both tactics and power in the men's 800m final befitting an Olympic champion.  Allowing the first 400m to pass in a painfully slow 56.8 seconds --slower than the women's final-- "Borza" then dropped down to 27.0 seconds for his third lap, then crushed the field with a 25-flat clocking for his final circuit.  He beat Spain's Luis Alberto Marco by more than half a second, 1:48.55 to 1:49.14.  Mattias Claesson of Sweden, who said yesterday that he planned to take the race to Borzakovskiy, finished third.

"This is my second medal in the European Indoor Championships and it came after nine long years," Borzakovskiy said looking relieved.  "Everything is different now, especially the runners. This was very good training for me for the summer season."

In the women's four-lap event, a Russian was once again the champion, but it was not the 2007 gold medalist, Oksana Zbrozhek (she had to settle for silver), but her lesser-known teammate Mariya Savinova.  Off of a blistering opening lap of 27.7 seconds, Zbrozhek pulled the field through half-way in 56.1 seconds.  She had a solid lead, but Savinova was determined to stay close.

"I did not expect such a fast race," said Savinova.  "I just tried to keep in touch with the others from the beginning."

Savinova caught her teammate by the 600m mark, then pulled away to win by more than one second in a world-leading 1:58.10.  Zbrozhek, despite nursing a bad left Achilles tendon, passed a fading Marilyn Okoro of Britain to nab second in 1:59.20, but that was not what the Italian crowd was watching.  In the trailing pack, Elisa Cusma Piccione had mounted a mighty final 150m stretch run, in the last ten meters she passed Okoro, who fell face first to the track just two meters before the line.  To the delight of the crowd, Cusma got the bronze in 2:00.23.

"I wanted to win a medal at all costs," said Cusma.  "The crowd helped me a lot in the final straight pushing until the finish line.  I desperately wanted this medal."

While established stars like Silva and Borzakovskiy showed they still have what it takes to be champions, a new star was born in the women's 3000m.  Almitu Bekele Degfa, an Ethiopian-born Turk, led six laps in the middle of the race, before a strong move by Ireland's Mary Cullen with four laps to go put her on the defensive.  Cullen's surge quickly cut the field of 12 down to six contenders, including Portugal's Sara Moreira, Spain's Nuria Fern├índez and Russia's Anna Alminova, the 1500m gold medalist.

"I wanted to make it tough for the others," said Cullen.

Cullen's plan was a good one, and almost brought her a silver medal, but Moreira passed her in the final 20 meters to relegate her to third. Ahead of them, Bekele overwhelmed the rest of the field, sprinting away in the second turn of the final lap, and ran unchallenged to the finish.  She ran a national record 8:46.50 ahead of Moreira's personal best 8:48.18 and Cullen's 8:48.47.

"This is great," said Bekele.  "I am rejoicing.  I have been doing athletics for 15 years, but I made a pause when my little son, Eosyas, who is now five years-old was born.  So, I came back to athletics only three years ago."

     *   *   *   *   *

Perhaps more gritty than pretty, Torino made an excellent host for these championships.  The crowds were robust, especially on Saturday and Sunday, and the volunteers were friendly and helpful.  The home country fans were able to see their team win a total of six medals, tying them with France.  Their 4 x 400m relay team ended the meet on a high note by winning their second gold medal thanks to a 45.82 split by Claudio Licciardello, who also won the individual 400m silver medal.

The 31st European Indoor Championships will be held in Paris in 2011.



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