domingo, 29 de abril de 2012

Brittney Reese, when it Matters most

Brittney Reese, the current dominator of the female long jump event
            She does not get as many highlights in the specialized press as her compatriots Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross, maybe because she belongs to a field event. However she is like Felix and Richards a highly successful athlete targeting an elusive first Olympic gold medal. She lacks the sex appeal of her competitor Darya Klishina and does not have either the knack of the Russian to exploit her nice looks; yet her performances on the athletic track are for the moment far more consistent. She became only the second long jumper in defending her summer world title, after her idol and friend Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and for instance the first one to achieve it indoors. Nevertheless her sensational accomplishment in Daegu was eventually overshadowed by Nastassia Mironchyk’s ponytail, which prevented the young Belarusian from getting a medal in the final. She obtained with 7.23m the longest jump indoors in 23 years, breaking Joyner’s long standing national record, but Brittney Reese still keeps a low-profile as athlete.

Reese was born in Inglewood, California, the 9th September 1986. The place they were living was a rough neighbourhood so mum, great-grandma and two-year-old daughter moved south to Gulfport, Mississippi, looking for a better environment for Brittney to grow up. (1)  Reese was gifted for sports but her first love was not long jumping but basketball, maybe from watching her amazing uncles. Leaping was anyway almost an instinct for her: as easy was climbing an oak tree as dunking with a ball. However, one day, when Brittney was in her high school junior year in 2003, she was discovered as an amazing long jumper, winning a coke in the process. Track and field coach Chris Jones came upon the Gulfport female basket ball team looking for a new member in the long jump event, offering a drink to the one able to leap the furthest. Every girl gave it a go with modest results, with the exception of Brittney, who was not considered because, besides practising basket ball, she was already enrolled in athletics, in the 400m distance. Reese insisted in trying too and, when she was eventually allowed, she surprised everybody producing without any previous knowledge of the discipline a bound of 18 feet (5 metres and a half). In disbelief the coach told her to do it again and she did, winning the coke and the offered spot.
Jones did a nice job showing the basics of long jumping to the rookie, who would progress with him to 6.31. Brittney also contributed in triple jump, high jump and the relays for her school during the year. The upcoming athlete was in the radar of Ole Miss University but she lost her chance for a scholarship, because she had goofed-off and obtained low grades in English. Therefore, she had to attend Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College for two years. That establishment did not have a track and field program and instead Brittney embraced basket ball again. Then she led the Lady Bulldogs with an average 18 points and 9 rebounds per game. She made the all-star team and later on was inducted into the school’s hall of fame. (2)  Brittney received several basket ball offers to transfer to small four-year schools, but Ole Miss wanted her for track and field. At this point, her mother was decisive in the eventual decision. Brittney could be a good basket ball player but her talent for long jump was superior. Besides for the latter option she relied exclusively on her own individual talent instead of depending on team issues. In her teen years, Reese had started many things, as piano lessons and swimming, which she had given up later half-way. Carla Young was a healthy influence for her daughter in order to bring her track and field vocation to the end. (3) And if it illustrates something, Brittney Reese eventually achieved also a degree in her formerly weakest subject, English.      

Once in College Brittney Reese focused in track and field and gave up basketball, which she recognises to miss a lot. However, the practise of her former sport was ideal for her long jump development. “In the long jump, you want to lift one knee upward, toward your chest, to help drive your body upward during a jump. I have always done this quite well, and it is probably because basketball players make the same move — lifting one knee upward — when driving for a layup.” (3) Since her days in Mississippi College, Brittney had the chance of being guided by one of the most respected long jump coaches in the country, Joe Walker, who has had an athlete in every US Olympic team since Montreal 1976, with the only exception of the 2004 edition. Yet, as Walker remembers, his best option, the then World indoor champion Savanté Stringfellow was injured for the Games. For Reese, Joe Walker is someone really special, more a paternal figure than a coach. She has grown as an elite athlete with him and it is remarkable how close they are: they have been through a lot together. As a coach, Brittney points out Joe’s ability to automatically detect what is wrong in the execution of her jumps and find the means to correct it. (4) On the other hand, Walker states how amazing to work with her most talented athlete is for him. He says Brittney Reese has rejuvenated him: he feels now the same as when he was in his twenties, the same excitement he had when he produced his first world class jumper Larry Myricks back in the 1970s. Brittney is a humble, fun, nice, easy to talk person, but yet a very fierce competitor, who was fittingly nicknamed “the Beast.” (5)   
                It was quite impressive the quick rise to the world elite of Brittney Reese in her freshman and sophomore years with the Rebels, in an event she had scarcely practised previously. During that period she proved to be an especially solid competitor, winning 23 out of 31 finals, including Collegian victories at SEC, Drake Relays and two NCAA titles. In 2008 she got to perform consistently in the 6.75-6.80 range throughout the year. (6) With those credentials she went beyond NCAA level to climb to national and international stardom. She qualified for the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, where she achieved a good 8th place in her major debut. Then won the national Olympic trials, confronting successfully a tricky wind and the pressure of the outing. In Beijing the new US number one in the discipline led the qualifiers with a jump of 6.87m. However in the final she could only accomplish a 5th place, with a 6.76m best. As Brittney pointed out she paid the toll of a long NCAA campaign, competing in uncountable outings in long jump, high jump, 4x100m relays and also sporadically in the triple jump and speed events to score maximum points for the Mississippi Rebels. In the most important moment of her track and field career she was just tired. (4) Reese was devastated because of her failure to clinch a medal in Beijing and burst in tears, alone in the back of the bus which brought the athletes to the Olympic village.        

Janay Deloach, the darkhorse for London Olympic Games final

After the Olympic year, Joe Walker advised Reese to become professional in order to avoid the strenuous NCAA calendar and also to meet contenders all over the year according with her level. (7) The athlete found quickly a sponsorship through Nike. The decision proved right and the 24th May in Belem, Brazil, she overcame for the first time the 7m barrier. Coming into her second World Championships as the favourite, she delivered to the expectations, winning the most important title of her young career. After Heike Drechsler, who won at the inaugural edition of the contest with her maiden name Daute still being a junior and shooting star Tianna Madison who clinched gold aged 20, Brittney was the youngest winner of the Championship with 22 years. (8) And it was only the beginning… In Berlin, the US long jumper showed again to the world her competitiveness when put under pressure by a stunning performance of one of her rivals: Multi-champion Tatyana Lebedeva had leaped to 6.97m to overcome the 6.93m Reese’s initial effort. Then the American immediately responded with an excellent 7.10m, only one centimetre short of the championship record which set Drechsler when she won her second title in Stuttgart 1993. In the same fashion, Reese would produce her massive leap of 7.23m in this year’s world indoors in Istanbul, in answer to Janay Deloach’s 6.98m. Also had not her inopportune ponytail ruined the 6.90m+ jump of Mironchyk-Ivanova, Brittney would have arguably risen to the challenge with another 7.00m effort. Not feeling the danger, the current number one had enough with her first attempt of 6.82m and fouled each one of her other five jumps for an unbelievable victory just like Dwight Phillips in Helsinki 2005. (9)   
There was plenty of talk about Brittney Reese’s victory in Berlin Worlds with her far from perfect technique, widening her stride instead of shortening it in the last two steps of her running approach and making a standing landing in her winning jump. If she got to jump 7.10m this way, what could had she done with a fine technique? (10) Reese seems another athlete basing her triumphs in her awesome speed and power: she has run the 100m in a valid 11.66 and an 11.2 windy and has a high jump PB of 1.88 from her school years. However the athlete herself is conscious of her weakness in the last stages of her approach and landing and has been working hard in the last couple of seasons with visible improvement and it is also worth to say in 2009 she was still very new in the event. Besides she acknowledged precisely lack of speed, an excessive deceleration, in the last two strides of her approach. Today Brittney’s technique looks much better, simple but rather effective, especially her great take-off and fly, which starts with a powerful right knee drive, and follows with both her arms going symmetrically backwards then forwards, while the bent-legs get stretched simultaneously to the action of the arms.         

 Since her victory at the 2009 Berlin World Championships, Brittney Reese has been the overwhelming dominator of the long jump event, grabbing every major title at stake. She has also achieved seven of the twelve jumps beyond the 7m barrier in this four-year Olympic cycle, coming the other five from Russians Klishina (two), Kolchanova, Zaytseva and Kucherenko (one a piece). The American is amazingly consistent and has been rarely beaten in the circuit. For the Olympic Games in London she is clearly the favourite to grab the only title she has not got yet. Her rivals will be as always the members of the Russian school, especially Olga Kucherenko, medallist at both last European and World Championships and Darya Klishina if she gets stability in big challenges. Not to be forgotten are veteran Latvian Ineta Radevica, in her best moment ever, upcoming Brit Shara Proctor, and ponytail-girl Mironchyk-Ivanova, while reigning champion Higa-Maggi will get ready to defend her title. However, if we look to head to head matches, the most fearsome rival for Reese can be her compatriot Janay Deloach. This one is another intriguing jumper who grew up in far away Alaska. In her high school years she only had the opportunity of 2-6 meetings a year and her lack of competition brought to a shock when she moved to Colorado State University. Janay used to jump just for the scholarship money but a competition in Berkeley, in which she almost beat the then American number one Grace Upshaw, awoke her passion for the sport and she has quickly risen since. (11) Her upset victory over Reese at the national indoor championship last year in Albuquerque, where she delivered a huge 6.99 PB, meant her breakthrough into the elite when she was already 25. Then she finished 6th in Daegu and, after repeating victory over the world number one at the US indoor champs, she pushed the pressure on her to eventually end runner-up in Istanbul. Since her triumph in Berlin Worlds, Brittney Reese rarely loses a long jump competition. Some athletes has got to beat her once but Janay Deloach has done it no less than five times in the last two seasons for a narrow head-to-head lose 5-6 against the four times world champion since they clash last year in Albuquerque. (12) If someone is to produce a huge surprise at the Olympics it might be the girl from Ben Eielson, Alaska        

Out of the track, Brittney Reese is a girl who likes a quiet life at home surrounded by her close family. She is also known by her philanthropic activities. Last Thanks Giving Day she donated 100 turkeys to various homeless and religious organizations in her community of Gulfport, Mississippi as her way of "giving back" to the community that has supported her throughout her athletic career. Brittney is also really fond of tattoos. “I have tons of tattoos. I have on my right wrist, 'Philippians 4:13,' basically that says I can do all things through Christ. That is my favourite tattoo. On my other wrist, I have the word, 'Believe' with a moon and a star on it. The reason I have that tattoo is my mom gave me a necklace, and it had the word 'Believe' on it, and it had the moon and star, but the necklace I had broke. I just never got it fixed. I like the necklace, so I just got it tattooed. I have the Olympic rings on my chest with the word 'Beast.' My nickname for track and field, I got it in college, is B-Reese the Beast. I have track shoes and some footprints on my back left shoulder from when my great grandma died. She is the reason why we moved to Gulfport (Miss.). She passed away a few years ago, and I got that because her favourite song was 'Order My Steps.' Now I have a cross with a dove under it, and that symbolizes everyone that I have known that has passed away, on my right arm. On the inside of my arm, I have 'Born a Champion.' I got that because I feel that I have been successful all my life. I just got that because I like those words. On my stomach, I have 'Live Life Love Family.' That is just mainly because I am a family person. I base my life around my family. (4) 

Brittney Reese achieved in Istanbul the best long jump indoors in 23 years

domingo, 27 de noviembre de 2011

SEA Games: a Bunch of Unknown Heroes

Long jump Tagaloh star Marestella Torres and her dolphin Katherine Kay Santos
Photo: Vic Adornado
Do you think in the last IAAF athlete of the year award ceremony the highest prizes were given to the most marketable runners instead of to the ones who really deserved them, as it happens every time in the cinema with the Oscars? Do you believe the international press is focusing in just a few names as Usain Bolt, Yelena Isinbayeva, Allyson Felix, Christophe Lemaître and now Sally Pearson, forgetting many others also author of remarkable deeds? Are you tired of watching how the Diamond League meetings are just becoming an empty show around records, money and sponsorship interests? Do you simply like track and field and thus try to find the essence of the sport in competitions where the main actors are young upcoming runners whose whole dreams are still on the making? Then, maybe this is for you. 
The South East Asian area is known as a tropical paradise, a privileged touristic destination, but it is sadly famous as well for periodical catastrophes as floods and tsunamis. ThailandIndonesiaMalaysiaSingapore or Vietnam are also newly industrialised countries with emerging economies trying to reach the global market. We had the chance of being in contact with this fashionable culture, their attractive people, their personal universe, on occasion of the recent South East Asian Games, a biannual sportive event, the largest in the area, which celebrated its XXVI edition at the Indonesian towns of Jakarta and Palembang. In the latter town, which is the capital of South Sumatra,  were held the Athletic competitions, which opened those populous Games.
Track and field in the region is still a world apart from European or American elite. Only a few privileged ones can practise sport as a full profession. Most must share their athletic passion with their studies or a complementary job. Humble are their athletes achievements and modest the training facilities they enjoy. Yet they persevere in search of their dreams and their government manages to make some international contacts and put at their disposal some foreign reputed coaches to help develop track and field in those countries. To reach the Olympic standard and get a ticket for the London Games is already a big triumph for the foremost South East Asian runners, jumpers and throwers.    
Franklin Ramses Burumi, all smiles after his victory at the 100 metres event in Palembang
Photo: AP/ Achmad Ibrahim
Thailand has traditionally been the overwhelming dominator of the contest. This edition, they accomplished again the biggest tally (14) of golden medals. Yet the performance of the host of the Games, Indonesia, can be considered this time equal to the country of the white elephant’s: 13 victories but 36 medals overall against to the 32 Thais. Vietnam also improved considerably, finishing a good third (9 gold medals for a total of 32). Individually, in a competition restricted to just 11 countries, faces are familiar from edition to edition and also are winners. Many champions in Palembang are carrying a remarkable streak of victories as it is the case of the two Filipino golden medallists, steeplechaser Rene Herrera (five) and long jumper Marestella Torres (four). Also four consecutive triumphs has achieved Thai Theerayut Philakong at the triple jump; while her compatriot Wassana Winatho owns 10 titles, the same than the discus thrower from Singapore James Wong Tuck Yi.  Wong, now 42, first started winning in 1993.  Finally, Vietnamese Truong Thanh Hang and local athlete Triyaningsih have achieved a three peat, grabbing in every occasion at least two titles (1) (2)

Interestingly, all Indonesian victories were accomplished in running events. Their men won every single dash race final with the sole exception of the 800 metres. Sprinter Franklin Ramses Burumi and long distance star Triyaningsih triumphed in no less than three events.  “Si Anak Ajaib” (the wonder girl), as she is known by their countrymen, won previously the 5000 and 10.000 metres in 2007 and 2009 and now have succesfully defended at home, completing a hat trick after winning the marathon too. Three praiseworthy victories in only five days, helped it is true by the lack of any challenging rivalry in the region. The men were as dominant in the distances with Ridwan, Agus Prayogo, Jauhari Johan and Yahuza. And there is also the returned Rini Budiarti, who established a new CR at the steeplechase. Nonetheless the athlete with the biggest progression and more chances to qualify for the Olympics is Triyaningsih.
What could have happened in the hypothetical case the seven times SEA champion, as she ran the Nairobi marathon in 2008 in her only appearance out of the Asia-Pacific area to the date, would have decided to stay in Kenya to be trained by let us say Renato Canova? Would she be right now a potential winner for London or New York majors? Yet her coach is Alwi Mugiyanto and she can just feel proud of that because he has taught her “discipline, piety, humbleness and respect to everybody” (3). Triyaningsih, now 24, comes from Semarang in Central Sumatra as so does Agus Prayogo. It was there where Mugiyanto spotted her as she was 16. In spite of being the younger sister of legendary champion Ruwiyati, Triyaningsih was initially reluctant to embrace a running career. She wanted instead to become a dancer. After talking to her and her parents for long time, Mugiyanto finally convinced the talented younster to move to Java to join Lokomotiv Salatiga athletic club, which is financed by the Railways.
 Triyaningsih is a specially diminutive girl (1,46 and 37 kg), and it is amazing to see how such small frame owns such powerful core. (4) Yet she has been gifted by genetics, trains tirelessly (210 km/ week) and follows a strict diet of vegetables, fish and rice. (5) The Semarang girl gets better as the distance grows. Her track performances out of her SEA paradise have been nothing special, although she showed her talent as she won her semi-final at the last Universiade in Shenzhen. Yet on the roads she can match the very best. Triyaningsih was last year the first Indonesian in winning the Hong Kong marathon; followed this up with a third place at the Jakarta 10 km international race, against a high-class field; and ended the year with a fourth place at the Asian Games marathon, beating among others the Japanese duo Kiyoko Shimahara and Yuri Kano, both of them top-8 finishers at World championship level. In Guangzhou she clocked 2:31:48, a stunning new national record. Despite being the only Indonesian athlete with the A standard, she was not send to Daegu Worlds to concentrate in her triple challenge at the SEA Games. Yet next year nothing is going to interfere between her and her Olympic dream. 

Lee Hup Wei, the standout high jumper from Malaysia
Photo: Liu Jin/ AFP/ Getty Images

Indonesia also topped the sprint events in both men and female categories, thanks to new kids in town Franklin Ramses Burumi and Serafi Anelies Unani.  Suryo Agung Wibowo had been the fastest man at the last two editions of the championships, achieving an excellent 10.17 in Vientiane-09. However he was absent in Palembang, due to his pilgrimage to Mecca. Amazingly, Indonesia has quickly found a sensational replacement for Suryo in the 20 year old Franklin Burumi, who went on to win three titles at the 100, 200 metres and eventually in the relay, along with Fernando Lumain, Mohd Fadlin and Farrel Octaviandi, where the latter, in an incredible homestretch leg, pipped at the line Gary Yeo from Singapore team, the silver medallist at the single event. Despite not being an outstanding starter, Franklin won every final in the last decisive strides. His winning time at the 100 metres was a windy 10.37 and his legal PB is for the moment just 10.50. However the new Indonesian star states he feels capable of matching Suryo’s national record in 1 or 2 years. He also talks about running under 10 seconds at the 100 metres event and under 20 at the 200.   
Franklin has proved a charismatic and also rather controversial man. He had been enrolled in every program of development for young athletes but was ultimately dropped because of lack of commitment and discipline. This year he was downgraded again after running a horrible heat at the Asian championships in Kobe, probably due to living the night full time. (6) Yet this time around remembered how he had convinced his parents to leave his native Papua in order to start a serious professional running career. He stopped his bad boy rebel attitude and asked coach Henny Maspaitella to join his training camp in Surabaya. After three months with Maspaitella, Franklin learned self-discipline and reappeared in Palembang as the hero of the Games. Now his humorous, outgoing and energetic personality is highly appreciated. (7) Franklin is always smiling, ready for a joke and as every Papuan he always has a story to tell. His extravagant looks for the Games are also well remembered: his dreadlocks at the 100, transformed in a sort of pigtails for the 200 meter event. “I think my Thai rival fell mentally because of my hair look and lost the race. With this haircut, I feel highly confident and I do not fear anybody” (8)
Also coming from nothing, another Papuan born, Serafi Unani, a law student in Ubaya University, won surprisingly the girl’s 100 metres, beating narrowly well-known sprinters Thai Nongnuch Saenrat and twice defending champion from Vietnam Vu Thi Huong. However her 10.69 clocking is the worst winning time in many editions of the Games, in spite of having a generous tailwind. Because of her youth she should be smashing it soon to try to become one of the top all-Asia sprint specialists. Serafi also pushed her team Indonesia to a excellent silver medal at the 4x100 meter relay, in 45.00, a new national record.  Both Burumi and Unani have curiously become national icons in a moment Papua is being troubled for weeks by violence and unrest, following the killing of four demonstrators in a strike, by the Indonesian police. (9) The victories have been seen for some as a way to solve ethnic and political differences in the country. Franklin said “we will only want peace and security in Papua so let us talk about in an amicable way”, to conclude “we have shown what we can achieve so, please, never underestimate the Papuan people” (10)

Nguyen Thi Thanh Phuc, the new South East Asian champion in Race Walking, in company of silver medallist Kay Khaing Myo Tun from Myanmar and bronze medallist Darwati from indonesia
Photo: Hoài Thu
 Vietnam is the South East Asian country which is experiencing the biggest economic boom in the last couple of years. Accordingly, sports standards are also rising in spectacular fashion, being the foremost exponent gymnast Phan Thi Hà Thanh, who achieved the first medal ever in the speciality for her country at World Championship level, last October in Tokyo. For the Olympics the largest Vietnamese representation in history is expected. To the date, the country has only obtained two silver medals at the Games. Maybe it is the time for the first gold.
In Track and Field the authorities are also investing good money. A long term partnership with Germany has been signed. Vietnam had always had talented youngsters who after some promising results had been lost due to injuries, burn-out or just lack of resources for keeping them in the elite for a long time career. Such are the cases of quarter miler Nguyen Thi Tinh, who ran the distance in a marvellous 51.83 back in 2003, high jumper Bui Thi Nhung, who in 2005 set the existing SEA record with a world class 1.94, her counterpart Nguyen Duy Bang, middle distance specialists Le Van Duong, Nguyen Lan Anh and Do Thi Bong and many others, most belonging to the generation who astonished at the 2003 SEA Games. All of them are sadly gone or in decadence. There were years the coaches trained mostly by intuition and were also improvised masseurs, when the athletes were not giving each other massages.
Since 2009 former decathlon star Uwe Freimuth and Gunther Lange have been invited to work with Vietnamese athletes as technical advisors. (11) Lange had been the first foreign coach in China back in 1987 and was also in charge of Indonesian and Thai runners. Working together with national coaches, Freimuth and Lange have brought expertise and modern methods to the daily training. The first measure adopted was just focusing in one goal: Guangzhou Asian Games, instead of requiring the athletes to win every competition at stake as it had been done in the past. Besides, some Vietnamese coaches were invited for a stage in Germany in order to be formed. Also two doctors from this European nation were assisting the athletes during last year Asian Games. As national coach Ho Thi Tu Tuam admitted, Freimuth and Lange taught marvellous physical and technical lessons and obtained immediate results: two silver and three bronze medals at the Asiad won by Vu Thi Huong, Truong Thanh Hang and Vu Van Huyen. Tuam stated had the two girls been training entirely in Germany for the season they would have surely brought the gold medal from Guangzhou 
   Further success in the 2010 season was accomplished by the younger generation at the 14th Asian junior championships, where the venue was Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital. Five more medals were grabbed, all of them by the girls: Tran Hue Hoa at the high jump and the 4x400 relay won the silver, and Do Thi Thao at the 800 metres, Nguyen Thi Puong at the steeplechase and Bu Thi Thao at the heptatlon struck bronze. (12)

Supanara Sukhavasti competing in Bressanone at the 2009 World Youth Champs
Photo: Michael Steel/ Getty Images Europe

Indeed Vu Thi Huong and Truong Thanh Hang were based in Germany for the 2011 year but things did not work out exactly as expected. Huong, the Asian indoor title holder and twice defending champion at the SEA Games, awoke her muscle recurring injury while training in Europe and had to sit out the Asian and World Championships. In her first race athletic competition since June we saw a below par Vu Thi Huong in Palembang, just third at the sprint finals well over the 11.34 NR she had set in Vientiane, in a race which was won with 11.69. The Vietnamese federation and Uwe Freimuth blamed each other for the injury: Coach Nguyen Dinh Minh said he was awared before starting it that the training schedule established by Freimuth was likely to injure the athlete.  On the other hand, the former decathlete said he could not finish his job, because he was not allowed to be present at the workouts. The federation said $ 44.000 had been thrown out of the window. (13) Hopefully, Huong will be fully fitted next year to try to reach the 11.28 Olympic standard.
          Truong Thanh Hang was also training for five months in Germany, where the emphasis was made in endurance and tactics. Then, she won the gold medal at the Asian championships in Kobe, yet narrowly missing the London Games standard. Prior to the World championships she moved to Yunnan in China to train in altitude under the supervision of Lange and Lutz Meissner. They stated the preparation had been almost perfect and expected Hang to smash her 2:00.91 national record from Guangzhou, thus qualifying for London, and break into the world top-10. (14)  Eventually, the middle distance specialist, not coping with the pressure, ran arguably her worst 800 metres race in years, finishing dead last in 2:03.52, in heat 4. Curiously, Indian Tintu Luka, who she had beaten easily in both Guangzhou and Kobe, finished ahead in the same heat and booked her Olympic ticket in the semi-final; and her other archrival in the continent, the gold medallist in Guangzhou Margarita Matsko, had reached the standard as well previously in an Asian Grand Prix meeting. Hang defended her 800 and 1500 meter titles in Palembang but she has no match in the SEA area so she was just half-happy, because she still must qualify for London  
After Vu Thi Huong and Beijing Olympian Nguyen Dinh Cuong, after an injury-plagued campaign, failed to defend their titles, the talented new generation took the spotlight in the second day of the 26th South East Asian Games. (15) Country girl Nguyen Thi Thanh Phuc from the mountainous Hoa Son brought the first enjoyable news of the day, when she surprised soon in the morning reigning champion and hot favourite Kay Khine Myo Thin of Myanmar to win the 20 km race walk. As she crossed the line, Phuc was embraced by her younger brother, Nguyen Thanh Ngung, who was waiting for her after having grabbed the bronze medal at the men’s event in a race won by Malaysian Lo Choon Sieng. The siblings come from a very poor family and had to endure every day a 4 km path through hills and sand to reach school, then to complete hard workouts in hungry days, in an odyssey which remembers many Ethiopian and Kenyan illustrious champions. (16) The tiny Phuc, bearing the Vietnamese flag with her humble riveting smile, was the image of the day and perhaps of the Games for her nation.  
Another hopeful country girl, Duong Thi Viet Anh, followed with a new upset as she defeated the only SEA athlete who had achieved the Olympic standard prior to Palembang, Thai Wanida Boonwan and her compatriot and defending champion Noengrothai Chaiptech, bringing back the title to Vietnam. Precisely, the former two times winner in the event at the SEA Games Bui Thi Nhung prepared Anh and gave her valuable advice to compete. (17) Chaipetch had equalled 1.94 Nhung area record the previous edition in Vientiane with a formidable leap about 4 centimetres over the barrier (which is not bad for a girl whose height is just 1,65) and went on the following winter to win a praiseworthy silver medal at the Asian indoors. Yet this year she has only been able of jumping 1.85. Wanida, who competed at the World championships, could not come close either to her 1.92 vault in Palembang and had to be content with the runner-up position, splitting young Vietnamese Duong Thi Viet Anh and Pham Thi Diem. On the other hand, Anh equalled her 1.90 PB to carry the gold and accomplished again this height two days afterwards at the heptathlon, where she won a second medal, the bronze. She is in the right way to improve just 2 centimetres and book her ticket to the Olympics. Truong Thanh Hang, followed by Asian junior bronze medallist Do Thi Thao did her job and so did decathlete Vu Van Huyen, who is getting better with the years, preceding hopeful Nguyen Van Hue, to complete an awesome session for their country.
More youngsters kept giving a sensational impression in the successive days, showing how bright the future can be for Vietnamese track and field. Another Asian junior medallist, Tran Hue Hoa, now at the triple jump, won the gold with an astounding 13.76 national record in her first senior year, and she has chances too of going to London provided she keeps improving in 2012. Nineteen-year-old Duong Van Thai triumphed at the male 800 metres race and Dao Xan Cuong at the 400 meter hurdles. Steeplechasers Nguyen Thi Puong and Nguyen Dan Duc Bao and long distance girl Pham Thi Binh, all of them born in 1989 or later, also won medals in Palembang             

Nongnuch Saenrat, Laphassaporn Thavoncharoen, Neeranuch Klomdee and Phatsorn Jaksunikorn, after winning the 4x100 relay final at the 2010 Asian Games

    If Wanida Boonwan failed to deliver the expected gold medal for Thailand, it did not at the long jump the biggest hope of his country for the years to come; the teen who achieved for Thailand for the first time ever at global level a place of finalist, a medal of any colour and a spot at the top of the podium, on occasion of the World Youth Championships, held in Bressanone, South Tirol. In fact, Supanara Sukhavasti na Ayuthaya accomplished it twice during the contest, winning the long jump event with ease, then grabbing as well the silver medal at the triple jump. Besides, Supanara enjoyed his chance of meeting IAAF ambassador Mike Powell, the man who achieved the longest jump in history, who was in Bressanone for a conference. Supanara, who is reported to watch Powell´s world record every day, stated: “one day I will be like him.” (18) Thailand has not won to the date an Olympic gold medal in athletics either but who knows if this man who is the fifth generation of King Rama IV is predestined to accomplished it one day.
  A native of Chiang Mai, he was brought by his teacher at 15 to the capital to be trained by Ekkawit Sawangphol and is the first product that comes to notoriety from the youth development program launched by Thailand Athletics Association in partnership with the IAAF. (18) (19) Supanara already jumped 7.96 in his breakthrough year of 2009, which was a national record in all categories. Besides the World Youth Champs, he would also win that season at the SEA Games both senior and junior (ASEAN). In the following year, because of an injury at the World Junior championship in Moncton, he was not as astounding, finishing only fifth at the Asiad and losing the Asian junior championships to Taiwanese Lin Ching-Hsuan, the man who represented his country last September in Daegu. In 2011 he is back again to full fitness: only Su Xiongfen, the best long jumper in the continent, could beat him at the Asian Championships in Kobe, where he landed at his for the moment PB of 8.05. After a praiseworthy 6th place at the Universiade, Supanara defended his South East Asian title, beating again former champion Henry Dagmil of PhilippinesThailand seems now unbreakable at the male horizontal jumps in the region, with also Theerayut Philakong dominating the triple jump since 2005. A pity, Thitima Muangjan is not at the same level she reached two years ago when she was the victor with 14.08.

Still younger than Supanara Sukhavsti is the new champion at the discus throw Subenrat Insaeng, born in 1994. She disappointed at last World Youths in Lille but last year finished in a remarkable fifth place at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games and second at the Asian Junior championship, aged sixteen. Somewhat, Insaeng covers the emptiness created by the untimely retirement of javelin thrower Buoban Phamang, who has sustained for more than two years a shoulder injury. Phamang, another teen prodigy, winner of four SEA Games, the first one in 2001, when she was only 17, obtained her biggest triumphs at the 2006 Asian Games and at the Universiade, held in Bangkok one year later, with a world class 61.40. She represented Thailand at Beijing Olympic Games.
If Subenrat Insaeng was the youngest winner in Palembang, her male counterpart, James Wong Tuck Yim was the oldest of the competitors. The first of his ten titles (nine at the discus throw and one at the shot put) was won one year before Subenrat was born. Notwithstanding, the fact the Singaporean great and her compatriot Guirong Zhang are not matched yet, in spite they are far from their younger years level, only proves the poor standards at the SEA area in throwing events. 

Duong Thi Viet Anh from Vietnam wins the High Jump final at the SEA Games,
after leaping 1.90, a new personal best
 For years, the event Thailand can feel proud about its results at international level is the 4x100 relay in both male and female categories. Amazingly, the region powerhouse does not obtain many individual victories at the dash sprints, not even at SEA Games level. It is true Laphassaporn Thavoncharoen won the gold at the 200 metres in Palembang but for the closest in time single victory we have to return back to 2003, when Thailand completed a 1-2 at the 100 metres, thanks to Neeranut Klomdee and the same Thavonchroen. The last occasion the men achieved it was in 2005 in Manila when Wachara Sondee and Sittichai Suwonprateep clinched the 100 and 200 titles respectively. It is surprising a country which never has been able of ranking one of its athletes into the top-100 at the world yearly lists got to qualify both teams for Beijing Olympics, but the relay result is not necessarily the addition of the marks of its four team members. The US male 4x100 has much to say about it, after dropping the baton at three consecutive major competitions, and ultimately dropping also their man on the ground in Daegu.
Thailand works carefully the changeovers and every aspect of the race to reach levels of technical perfection. Also the members of the teams do not change too much and it helps. Actually in the girl’s case they do not change at all: Phatsorn Jaksunikorn, Neeranut Klomdee, Laphassaporn Thavoncharoen and Nongnuch Saenrat met for the first time at the 2003 Asian championships in Manila, which they won, and have performed together almost in every important competition since 2005. You can guess they know each other pretty well and can deliver the baton to their mate eyes close. Maybe the achievement they can feel more proud was last year when they beat the strong Chinese and Japanese quartets at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, after the drama of being disqualified in the precedent edition. (20) (21) Yet, experience can be a double-edged sword. The awesome foursome girls are entering their thirties and hopefuls Jinthara Seangdee and Tassaporn Wannakit are not progressing enough. Despite winning their 15th straight title at the SEA Games the Thai squad seems unlikely to replicate their 43.38 national record, which bound them to Beijing, in order to qualify again for the Olympics.
For their men counterparts the crisis has already arrived. The current combination of veteran Wachara Sondee and Sompote Suwanangsri with youngster Jirapong Meenapra and Supachai Chimdee does not seem to work out enough. After having beaten the powerhouse Japan at two straight Asian Games in 2002 and 2006, they have only been able lately of medalling at one of the last three Area major competitions. It is true the 4x100 standards in the continent are now really amazing with no less than 8 national teams under 39.50 in the last three seasons and 4 more below 40.00, but this is not an excuse. Even their 13th finals winning streak at the SEA Games came to an end in Palembang, although with the hindrance of Chimdee’s hamstring injury during the race, which made the team decelerate.  

  Thailand wins scarcely at single flat sprint events but does not have much trouble in clinching hurdle titles. Jumrut Rittidet is the individual with the best chances for going to the Olympics, besides Supanara. Still 22, he is improving every year. Already in the final last year at the Asiad, in 2011 he lost narrowly the bronze medal in Kobe.  He has ended the season defending successfully his SEA title, beating former champions from Malaysia Rayzamshah Wan Sofian and Mohd Robani Hassan in a new national record 13.77. Still further improvement is needed to reach the London standard. 
Wassana Winatho (L) and Wallapa Pungsoongneun (R) elated after
their awesome performance at the 100 meter hurdles
at the 2011 SEA Games
Photo: Achmad Ibrahim

  At the women’s high hurdles, Wallapa Pungsoongneun got the better of reigning champion, and Indonesian representative in Daegu, Dedeh Erawati. Her compatriot Wassana Winatho, grabbed a second medal for Thailand: the bronze. Wassana, which is also called Amornrat, also struck the silver medal at the intermediate hurdles, after evergreen Malaysian Noraseela Mohd Khalid, and the gold at the heptathlon.    
 Wassanee Winatho is the most decorated active athlete at the SEA Games with a total of 10 gold, 4 silvers and 2 bronzes. Besides she has climbed at the top of the podium in four different events: 400 metres400 meter hurdles, the heptathlon and the 4x400 meter relay. Wassanee has been part of the continent elite ever since her senior debut at the 1998 Asian Games, where she narrowly missed a medal at the heptathlon. Overcoming her economically humble background, a string of injuries and bad lack, she has enjoyed a long and successful career.  Indeed, as she said, the best thing to do is keep studying and practising athletics in order to get to help one day your family (22) Her best season was 2007 when she clinched a hat trick of victories at the SEA Games in Nakhon Ratchasima at the intermediate hurdles, long relay and heptathlon, where she set four PBs for an overall score of 5889, a new national record, which qualified her for Beijing Olympics.  Currently she is the reigning Asian champion in combined events, both indoors and outdoors and as such was present at the World Championships in Daegu.

If ThailandIndonesia and Vietnam lived up to the expectations at the 26th SEA Games and even went beyond of them, not the same can be said about Philippines and Malaysia’s performances. However, while Indonesia’s government, because of being the host country, made a great effort to help their athletes arrive in the best condition to the Games and Vietnam’s economical optimism is bringing to healthy transformations in sport, Filipino and Malaysian athletes training facilities and management attitude were far from ideal and that influenced decisively the final results.
Philippines, who had won seven gold medals in the precedent edition in Laos, and up to eleven during their golden age in the 80s, went down to two: Veteran Rene Herrera at the steeplechase and Marestella Torres at the long jump. Some blamed on an inferiority complex (“pwede na”) which is increasingly dominant in a Filipino society used to lag behind their Asian neighbours in culture, economy or sports, in recent years. (23) For instance, Philippines is well known as the nation with most medals (exactly nine), which has never won an Olympic gold. No less than nine were also the runner-up positions in Palembang.
Other opinions are less idiosyncratic: Field athletes were forced to do a true pilgrimage in search of a place to train, once they were removed from Rizal stadium and Philsports Arena, now converted into football venues. Marestella and company shifted to Baguio, then Dugamete, finally La Laguna. It was the same kind of situation the long jumper champion had pointed out the year before, stating her failure at the Asian Games had to do with the shabby conditions in which she had completed at home her sharpening for Guangzhou, after returning from her first phase of training abroad. (23) Other athletes as throwers Danilo Fresnido and Arniel Ferrera denounced the lack of basic supplies as shoes and vitamins, which they had to afford with their own means. (24)  

Serafi Anelies Unani, enjoys her victory
 at the South East Asian Games 100 metres final

      Marestella Torres, who had won brilliantly at  the Asian Championships and established a sensational national record of 6.68 at the SEA Games the year before, fouled five out of her six attempts at the Asiad, to end up a disappointing fourth. She spoke about too much sacrifice for nothing and announced her retirement from sport. Fortunately, the national federation convinced her to continue. Overcoming the obstacles she brought her best version to Palembang: Marestella secured her fourth title in her very first try, landing 6.65 metres beyond the board, before sealing her ticket to London Olympics with a scintillating fly of 6.71, a new championship record and by far the best performance of the whole 2011 SEA Games (25). Two promising jumpers, Indonesian Maria Natalia Londa and Marestella´s compatriot Katherine Kay Santos struck the minor medals.
          The Philippines continue with its stunning dominance at the long jump event, which they have won at the South East Asian Games since 1983, with the only exception of the 2003 edition.  Marestella Torres is keeping on the tradition of legends Elma Muros (8 long jump titles and 15 overall), Lydia de Vega (8 victories at 4 different events and SEA Games 100 metres record holder, since 1987) and Lerma Gabito.  Now the champion in Palembang sees her 21-year-old protégée Katherine Santos as the one with the talent to become her heir in the years to come.  Katherine recognised she was too nervous in her debut but at least achieved a new PB, jumping 6.25 (26)  She will have new chances to prove her abilities.        

  No matter their officials were content with the 6 gold medals harvest in Palembang, it is fair to recognise Malaysia athletics had known better years. There is nothing really to compare with the promising generational relay among the Vietnamese fields, except the coincidence Malaysian athletes are also based in Germany for some months of the year. National track and field main names remain the same: Lee Hup Wei, Roslinda Samsu and 32-year-old Noraseela Mohd Khalid.
The high jumper alternates ups and downs, while the pole vaulter reached her peak in 2006 and has not progressed further since. Both circumstances have sometimes been linked to their experience with their coaches. Lee Hup Wei grew up as a jumper with Cuban Antonio Yznaga Ibar but his results dropped dramatically when the coach had to return to his country early in 2008 due to illness. Then another man from the same nation, Jorge Luis Alfaro was chosen as a replacement and soon Lee set a 2.27 new national record. Roslinda Samsu was discovered as she was sixteen by Mohd Mansahar Abdul Jalil but later joined more fancied Gennady Potapovich. Being pupil of the Russian she jumped a remarkable 4.40 as she was 24, raising high hopes but she would not repeat the feat again so the Malaysian federation decided to stop Potapovich’s collaboration and Roslinda returned to her former coach Jalil.     
They represented Malaysia at Beijing Olympic Games. Both were unchallenged at the SEA area and reigning Asian champions but neither Lee nor Roslinda could make the final. With the pole vaulter in crisis of results and the high jumper injured, hurdler Rayzhamshah Wan Sofian and sprinters Norjanna Hafiszah Jamaludin and Hadi Mohd Nor Imran have replaced them at World championships, without special impact.   
 Notwithstanding, for the SEA Games in Indonesia the old warriors were back.  Roslinda Samsu, who had been more focused in her studies during the year, surprised herself jumping 4.20 to get the better of her challenging long-time rival Le Thi Puong.  She dedicated the victory to her coach Jalil, who had survived a heart attack and had just had the time to come to support her. (27) Also Lee Hup Wei, in his first outing of the year after a complicated foot ligament surgery, (28) Noraseela, coming as well from injury and a weak season, and hammer throw defending champion Tan Song Hwa, who competed with a slipped disc, (27) they all proved they know how to win when it matters most, despite not being fully fitted.  Meanwhile, Rayzhamshah was easily beaten by Thai Rittidet, Jamaludin, member of the 4x100 female relay which last year beat the old national record and SEA season leader with 11.60, was far from her best, and Nor Imran ended in a poor sixth place...                 

Triyaningsih celebrates with teammates her gold medal  at the 10.000 metres at the 2009 SEA Games, Vientiane
Photo: Antara/ Andika Wahyu
  Nevertheless the only upcoming athletes able to provide a breath of fresh air to Malaysian track and field were left at home. It was not, as some outsiders thought, that no individual quarter miler was entered for the 400 metres in order to focus in the relay performance. What really happened was they were never considered to make the trip to Palembang and they were included in the last moment only because of the insistence of their coach Jayabalan. (27)  Maybe it was not asking too much when the SEA leader of the year was a Malaysian athlete, Panerselvam Yuvaaraj; the reigning individual champion, Mohd Zafril Zuslaini, though not available, was also born in the country; and the 4x400 relay had been SEA victor in 2007 and silver medallist two years later. Anyway, the four aspiring quarter milers were required to undergo a trial two weeks before in order to test their capacities. Eventually the MAAU (Malaysian Athletics Federation) put them in a flight on the eve of their event, on 13th November, without their coach. The single 400 metres event had been won that same day by Indonesian Heru Astriyanto in 47.53, a clocking inferior to Yuvaaraj seasonal best (47.37) but this one and his mates Subramaniam Kannathassan, Schzuan Ahmad Rosely and Muhamad Yunus Lasaleh were still up for a challenge in the relay.
In a groundbreaking demonstration of power the Malaysians won the race from gun to tape in 3:10.49, leaving Philippine, Indonesian and Thai teams well behind. Yet this victory came as a big surprise for the MAAU, who had already booked their return tickets for the same day of the event. The athletes had to come back home before the medal presentation ceremony in the most absolute lack of sensitivity and respect towards them. (27) This injustice raised the anger of mates as Noraseela Mohd Khalid: “This is shameful. It breaks my heart to see the relay boys flying home without collecting their medals. How do you think they must feel? Is this the way to treat those who bring the glory for the nation? How is athletics in Malaysia ever going to improve if those in power only care about themselves and not for the athletes? ” Noraseela also talked about internal power struggles inside MAAU, missing dope tests, irresponsible coaches, athletes quitting sport in disgust, favouritism, lack of planning, athletes abandoned when they are injured…  
The four 4x400 meter champions felt frustrated because of the unfair treatment, but at the same time were glad to prove some people wrong. They had come to Palembang with an extra motivation, with no nerves in spite there were three rookies in the team. They just ran like men possessed to show what they were capable of... 

       Next stop in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, in two years time. 
               See you then!!!
   Video courtesy of Sha
            Most 26th SEA Games FINALS are available  HERE