By Bob Ramsak
NOTE: Assistant Editor Bob Ramsak sends his final report from an athletics meeting this year, after criss-crossing Europe since May from his home base in Slovenia. If you liked Bob's work this summer, e-mail him at email@example.com and let him know --Ed.
THESSALONIKI, Greece (13-Sep) -- Meseret Defar took her ninth overall World Athletics Final title as the traditional season-capping two-day meet ended its run after it's seventh edition in this sprawling northern Mediterranean city.
Unlike her victory in a tactical 5000m contest over long-time arch rival Tirunesh Dibaba yesterday, Defar controlled much of this evening's 3000, ensuring that the pace would be honest before she kicked to her sixth straight (and seventh overall) WAF victory in the event to successfully defend her title in both events.
The 2004 Olympic 5000m champion took control of the race early on, bringing the pack through the first 1000 meters in just over 2:50. Hoping to run the kick out of Defar's legs, Kenyan Vivian Cheruiyot, who defeated the Ethiopian in the world championships 5000m last month, took her turn at the lead some five minutes into the race. But she had no response when Defar took over for good off the final turn. It was a close battle until about 40 meters remained, but Cheruiyot was finished, and the victory was Defar's who crossed the line in 8:30.15, a surprising world leader, which was less than 30 seconds slower than Kenenisa Bekele's winning time in the men's 3-K yesterday.
"I expected a faster race," said Defar, something in the range of 8:25, "but I tied my shoe tighter than usual and that caused problems with my stride." Defar also won three 5000m titles over the course of the WAF era, a record which added an aggregate $270,000 in prize money to her bank account.
Cheruiyot reached the line in 8:30.61, a season's best with Ethiopian Wude Ayalew third in 8:30.93. A little further back, Kenyan Iness Chenonge, who was still in contention with 800 meters remaining, was fourth, her 8:37.17 also a career best. Likewise for Ethiopian Lakidan Gezahegne who was fifth in 8:38.61.
Anna Willard's late season momentum continued today with a confident victory in the women's 800m. The 25-year-old, who began the season as the No. 2 American steeplechaser, capped her breakout middle distance season with a strong 2:00.20. But the time didn't quite reflect how well the Michigan alum executed the race. Rather, it showed how comfortable the versatile Willard has become over the shorter distances.
200 meters into the race, Willard tucked in behind early leader Elisa Cusma of Italy and remained in second until taking the lead off the final turn. Striding on confidently, she was never really challenged to add yet another impressive victory to her 800m resume.
"I started well and ran fast for the first 200 meters to avoid getting pushed," said Willard, who also collected victories over the distance in New York, Paris, and Brussels. After a season in which she also joined the sub-four minute club in the 1500m with her 3:59.38 in Zurich two weeks ago and finished a solid fifth at the World Championships over the distance, Willard has admitted to taking a liking to the shorter distances.
"I prefer the 800," Willard said, "but I also like the steeplechase." For now, her plans are to continue competing in both along with the 1500m. Some more off-season reflection may change her mind.
Willard gets married in two weeks to steeplechaser Jonathan Pierce.
Until tonight, no American woman has ever won a middle distance title at the World Athletics Final. Here, along with Maggie Vessey, Willard led a U.S. 1-2 sweep.
Vessey, the Prefontaine Classic and Monaco winner this season, moved from seventh to second over the final 80 meters, reaching the line in 2:00.31 to edge Briton Jenny Meadows, the Berlin bronze medalist, by 0.10. Russian Mariya Savinova (2:00.72), the European indoor champion, also overtook Cusma (2:00.84) to finish fourth.
There were surprises elsewhere. In the men's 1500m, after leading all but the final 50 meters of the race, world leader and pre-race favorite Augustine Choge finished a well-beaten third, outkicked by his Kenyan compatriot William Biwott. The 19-year-old, who missed the world championships and arrived in Greece with fresher legs, followed up last Sunday's upset victory in Rieti with a 3:35.04 run. In the homestretch scramble behind him, American Leo Manzano also sneaked by Choge to take second, 3:35.40 to 3:35.46.
Kicking to the front for good, world champion Ezekiel Kemboi ended Paul Kipsiele Koech's WAF win streak at four with an 8:04.38 win, with Koech a few steps back in second, stopping the clock in 8:05.47. Frenchman and European record holder Bob Tahri, the only man to run with the Kenyan pair from the outset, faded over the final lap but still finished third in 8:09.14 to repeat his Berlin position.
The weekend's longest race on the program was also the closest. After running a modest pace for 11-and-a-half of the 12-and-a-half laps, it took a photo to separate the top three. After he sneaked by Kenyan Micah Kogo on the inside, Ethiopian Imane Merga was given the nod by just 0.01 seconds in 13:29.75. Fast-finishing Edwin Soi, who like Kogo was credited with 13:29.76, finished third.
With the inception of the IAAF Diamond League next year, there will be no more room for the World Athletics Final, which replaced the IAAF Grand Prix Final in 2003. In the Diamond League set-up, the series final will be contested over two consecutive weekends, with half the events taking place in Zurich, and the other half in Brussels.