Winning one gold medal is hard. Successfully defending a title during arguably the strongest era in an event is even tougher.
On Monday night at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019, Karsten Warholm won his second consecutive world title over 400m hurdles. The Norwegian dug deep in the closing stages to take the gold medal in 47.42, defeating USA’s Rai Benjamin by 0.24 seconds, while Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba finished third.
In doing so, he becomes the fourth man to retain a world title over 400m hurdles after Edwin Moses, Felix Sanchez and Kerron Clement. He also becomes the first ever athlete from Norway to win back-to-back gold medals at the IAAF World Championships.
“It was a painful race,” said Warholm. “I had to dig very very deep to hold on at the end. I’m happy I won.”
Ability to control his nerves
Two years ago on a cold and wet night in London, Warholm surprised many including himself when taking the world title. However, having run 46.92 in Zurich in August to go second on the world all-time list, the Norwegian admitted to feeling a much greater deal of expectation on this occasion and says that winning in such circumstances is something he considers particularly satisfying.
“The two titles have two very different feelings. Both are important but in different ways. This one is feeling even better because I managed to handle the expectation. I had a lot more pressure coming into this because I had a title to defend, I managed to keep calm, focus on the right things and I’m world champion again.
“I am very good at controlling my nerves and at handling these situations. That is what defines champions; you are ready to handle the pressure and you know how to do the right things when you need to.”
The 400m hurdles currently has a level of depth never seen before in the event. Of the four men in history who have broken 47 seconds, three of them lined up in Monday’s final: Warholm (46.92), Benjamin (46.98) and Samba (46.98). While the event has never been so strong, the European record holder prefers not to get caught up in the hype surrounding it at present, and prefers to simply focus on himself.
“I have huge respect for my opponents. Samba beat me all last year and I’m very humbled to be in his company. I know that I’ll have to work very hard if I want to keep this going because these guys are going to come after me. At the same time I always focus on my own journey. For me I don’t get stressed out by what other people do.”
Given the recent performances of Warholm and Benjamin in Zurich, where two men broke 47 seconds in the same race for the first time in history, there were expectations that Kevin Young’s 27 year old world record of 46.78 would fall in Doha. However, Warholm is not concerned about the record and admits to not giving it much thought.
“To be honest, I don’t care that I didn’t break the record tonight. It was only about the gold medal. If I won the gold medal in one minute I’d still be very happy. The world record doesn’t concern me. I never go out there with the intention of breaking it. I go out there with the intention of having fun and trying to win the race and tonight was all about that.”
Warholm’s coach, Leif Olav Alnes, echoes these sentiments.
“Everyone has problems in life. If you look for problems you will find more. When the problems get big they will find you, so don’t worry about it. Don’t look for them. I think it’s a great thing he’s close to the world record.”
Alnes has been Warholm’s coach since his switch from decathlon to 400m hurdles four years ago. In that time they have developed a very special athlete-coach relationship and despite the big age gap, the 62-year-old considers Warholm a very close friend and somebody he feels extremely privileged to work with.
“He’s an unbelievable guy and he’s really fun to work with. I think a lot of his talent is in the brain. He never says anything in advance because ‘well done’ is so much better than ‘well said’. It’s so easy to tell people what you are going to do. Focus on what you’re going to do, not on what you say you’re going to do.”
A huge part of their success together is down to their attitude towards athletics. While striving to be the best they can be, they are able to keep perspective in the grand scheme of things in life, a mindset which Alnes says helps to take much of the pressure off leading into competition.
The luxury of not being afraid to lose
“We have the privilege of being interested in something that is not so really important on the world scale. We are not curing cancer. We are racing around the track with obstacles, so we have the luxury of not being afraid to lose. I don’t think there is anything to be afraid of and I love the way he approaches it; by hammering it out and seeing how long he can hang on.”
With the gold medal secured, one might expect Warholm to celebrate his success long into the early hours of the morning. However, the 23-year-old has no intention of having a big party.
“The best celebration is when you cross the finish line and the feeling you get there. Nothing beats that.
“I’m going to share this with the few people who have invested a lot in me.”
James Sullivan for the IAAF