TORINO (07-Mar) -- Ireland's Mary Cullen led all qualifiers in the women's 3000m as the morning session of the second day of the 30th European Indoor Championships concluded at the Oval Lingotto here.
Running in the second heat, Cullen followed the strong opening pace set by Portugal's Jessica Augusto who led the field single file through 1000m in 2:58.1. Cullen stayed behind Augusto, until taking the lead at 2000m (5:59.5) to break the race open. Only Russia's Yulia Zarudneva was able to stay close.
"The last 'K' I started moving," said Cullen who lives and trains in the United States in Providence, R.I. She added: "I felt pretty within myself; I just wanted to be sure."
Cullen scampered to an easy win, slowing markedly in the final 100m to save energy. She crossed the line in 8:55.01, with the Russian Zarudneva about half a second behind. Italy's Silvia Weissteiner and Augusto, who joined Cullen in her break at 2000m, finished third, and fourth, respectively. They locked up the final two guaranteed qualifying spots for Sunday's Final.
Is Cullen already thinking about a medal? No Irish woman has won a gold or silver medal in the history of these championships in any discipline. "I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't," said Cullen. "Ray (Treacy, her coach) and myself have talked about it. That's what we came here to do, so I'm going to give it a go tomorrow."
To get to the top of the medal stand, Cullen will have to beat Europe's fastest 3000m runner this indoor season, Russia's Anna Alminova, who finished third in the first heat. Alminova, who has to run the 1500m final this afternoon, did her best to conserve energy and was never in the lead throughout her race. When Portugal's Sara Moreira picked up the pace at 1800m, Alminova simply followed and allowed Moreira, Turkey's Almitu Bekele, and Spain's Nuria Fernández to clear the path for her. In a last lap surge, Bekele won the heat in 8:57.94, with Fernández second in 8:58.02, and Alminova just 1/100th of a second behind. Moreira finished fourth.
"I am tired a little bit, of course," said Alminova who is the favorite to win this afternoon's 1500m. "But, I hope I have enough power to compete (in the 1500m)."
Poland's Lidia Chojecka, who won both the 1500m and 3000m at the last edition of these championships, the only woman to ever achieve that, ended multiple title defense when she stepped off of the track in the second heat after just one lap.
These championships continue this afternoon with the first round of the men's 1500m, the men's and women's 800m semi-finals, the men's 3000m final, and the women's 1500m final.