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Posted: December 9, 2009  : Add to Mixx! Subscribe to stories like this

Athletics: SPAR European Cross Country Championships: Junior women's and men's previews

The SPAR European Cross Country Championships seems to be the stage on which European Athletics Rising Star of the Year award winners want to shine.

Stephanie Twell, the 2008 Rising Star, took her third successive gold medal last year in Brussels and this year's award winner, Norway's Karoline Bjerkeli Grøvdal, is the overwhelming favourite to follow in the British runner's footsteps in this respect as well on Sunday in Dublin.

Grøvdal achieved an outstanding 3000m steeplechase and 5000m double triumph at the European Athletics Junior Championships in Novi Sad, Serbia, in July and has carried on running superbly this winter.

She won the Norwegian championships senior women's Cross Country title in October, finishing 22 seconds ahead of the 2008 world and European orienteering champion Anne Margrethe Hausken, who herself is an accomplished runner.

Grøvdal followed up that triumph by again testing herself against senior opposition and finishing second in the Nordic Cross Country Championships last month.

"I want to add a gold medal from this event to add to the two European golds I got in Novi Sad this summer. I don't want anything else, I already have a silver from 2006," she said recently.

She will be spurred on by the fact that there has never been a Norwegian winner at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships and Dublin's 4039m junior women's circuit should be the perfect distance for her, taking into account her track preferences.

For Grøvdal, it is a return to the SPAR European Cross Country Championships after missing the last two years following her second place finish in the Italian town of San Giorgio su Legnano, when she became the first Norwegian runner of any age to get on the medal podium.

She quite happily admits that in the past she has had some mixed feelings about running Cross Country and has never competed in the World Cross Country Championships but has clearly, at some point during the year, now revised her opinion.

Her closest challengers could be a pair of British runners.

Great Britain last year swept the top six places in the SPAR European Cross Country Championships, an unprecedented event in any category. Lauren Howarth, who finished third in Brussels and was the leading European finisher at this year's World Cross Country Championships, is back and running well after missing the entire track season due to a stress fracture.

Kate Avery, who got the European Athletics Junior Championships 3000m silver medal, is also in the strong Great Britain team.

Sadly, Charlotte Purdue, who was second to Twell last year in Brussels and also second to Grøvdal in Novi Sad over 5000m, withdrew last week from the British team on the eve of entries closing after having suffered injury problems since winning at the Gateshead Cross Country meeting on 14 November.

Italy's Veronica Inglese, third behind Grøvdal and Purdue in Novi Sad, got a confidence-boosting win on home soil in the Cross Valle del Chiese on 30 November and could also be considered a medal contender.

Belgium's Jana van Wabeke and the Ukraine's Olha Skrypak finished fourth and fifth respectively in the European Athletics Junior Championships 5000m and are also among the entries.

Van Wabeke was 29th last year in front of her own friends and family but has improved enormously in the last 12 months. By contrast, Skrypak, after finishing fifth in 2007 as a 17-year-old, never got to grips with the heavy conditions in Brussels and finished 16th. She may not necessarily find the conditions to her liking in Dublin either.

Local interest will focus on Ciara Mageean, the 2009 World Youth Championships 800m silver medallist who set Irish junior records over that distance and also 1500m during the summer.

Mageean, as a 16-year-old, finished 17th last year and the runner from Portaferry in Northern Ireland will doubtlessly be looking to make a big improvement in front of an enthusiastic audience.

For the team title, with 11 countries having entered teams, it would be a surprise if any country other than Great Britain took the gold medals for the fifth successive year, even though they are probably not as overwhelming favourites as on previous occasions.

Russia should get one of the other two places on the podium after finishing in the top three for the last eight years, and being the runners-up in 2006 and 2007.

Ukraine took the silver medals in Brussels last year and may have enough strength in depth to be in contention for another set of medals.

Spain and Italy also appear to have good teams and have potential top 10 individual finishers among their squads. Both countries' medal chances will depend on whether the third and fourth scoring members of their teams can rise to the occasion.

JUNIOR MEN'S PREVIEW

Like his compatriot Grøvdal, Norway's Sondre Nordstad Moen is hotly tipped to strike gold in Dublin on Sunday - meaning a nation that has yet to savour victory at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships is now in the enviable position of having two race favourites.

Moen won the silver medal in Brussels 12 months ago and has already shown that he is in great shape this winter by winning the Nordic Cross Country Championships junior men's title by 40 seconds last month.

"I've been training well and also finished second in the Norwegian championships senior race. I don't want to say that I will definitely win (in Dublin) but I think I have a very good chance and the conditions don't worry me," said Moen, who also finished sixth in 2007 and is still only 18 so has another year in the junior ranks.

If Grøvdal and Moen do live up to expectations, then it will also be a unique feat in the history of the SPAR European Cross Country Championships as no country has ever won both junior individual titles on the same day.

Moen also wants to erase the memory of a below-par 5000m outing at the European Athletics Junior Championships in Novi Sad, Serbia, in July, when he could only finish fifth.

However, in August he went on to set a Norwegian junior 10000m record and he also won the Nordic Championships 5000m title in a time that would have got him the bronze medal in Novi Sad.

If Moen returned from Novi Sad with a feeling of disappointment, the same can't be said for Spain's Antonio Abadia, who was an impressive winner in the 3000m steeplechase.

Abadia, who should definitely pose a threat to Moen, heads up a very strong Spanish junior men's team and is looking to improve on his eighth place in Brussels last year.

The two are the only top 10 finishers from 2008 who are still juniors this year.

"Last year I went to Brussels thinking I could finish around 30th and I ended up finishing eighth. This year I'm much more ambitious," said the 19-year-old from Zaragoza.

Also in the Spanish team are David Bustos and Aitor Fernández, the 2009 European Athletics Junior Championships 1500m gold medallist and 5000m bronze medallist respectively.

Bustos, from the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, has been piling on the miles in recent months and will not be too daunted by the Dublin race being over 6039m.

His improving ability over longer distances was shown by him winning the Under 23 race at the XXVI Cross Internacional Valle de Llodio, a European Athletics Cross Country Permit meeting, on 22 November.

Turkey's Resul Çevik won the silver medal behind Bustos over 1500m in Novi Sad and is another talented middle distance exponent who has decided to extend his range this winter.

He won the junior men's race over 6.6km at the 54th Omer Besim Memorial Cross Country event in Istanbul on 21 November, his country's top Cross Country meeting.

Two other men to look out for are Belarus' Siarhei Platonau and the Czech Republic's Jakub Zivec, who were the 10000m bronze medallist and 5000m silver medallist in Novi Sad.

Zivec missed last year's event because he was on a three-month study trip to the United States, living in Minnesota. If he was to get on the podium in Dublin, it would be a groundbreaking result as no Czech runner has ever before got a medal at the championships.

Team medals are often difficult to predict in junior races at the championships because few athletes compete against each other internationally in the months before the event, and a host of new talent is always emerging, which is difficult to assess outside of championship conditions.

The Spanish team on paper looks to be the strongest but race day conditions in Dublin are expected to be very different from what most of Spain's runners will have experienced this winter.

France will be aiming for a hat-trick of wins after triumphs in 2007 and 2008 and have talented runners in the shape of Abdelatif Hadjam and the Peopiot twins, Tanguy and Valentin.

However, France only beat Norway by one point last year and, helped by Moen, the Scandanavians might be in contention again as Lars Erik Malde and Henrik Ingerbrigtsen - like Moen, members of last year's scoring quartet - are also in this year's team.

Great Britain, who last won the junior men's team title in 2001, finished third last year, just one point further back but was the only team to get all four of its runners into the top 20 and appear to have a similar depth of talent which could lead to them getting on the podium again.

The dark horses for a place on the podium could be Turkey, who have finished fourth in the junior men's team standings in the last two years.

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