At the 1997 IAAF World Championships in Athens Slovakia was delighted. Igor Kovac was third at 110 m Hurdles and won the first ever medal for the country since independence in 1993. He became a national hero, followed by the press but also by a public which is more orientated in the country towards soccer and ice-hockey.
He became an excellent example that a Slovakian boy from the Eastern part of the country (born in Krompachy, but living in Spisska Nova Ves before he went to Praha) is able to be one of the best in the world.
But 1998 nothing similar happened. Firstly, due to flu he missed the European Indoors in Valencia, but to be frank, he was not in shape to run sub 7.65, which was his aim as a World champs medallist. The summer season also did not go as expected, injuries claimed him.
After the national championships in Nitra in July he decided to stop with racing. "My left Achilles’ tendon is the great worry. I feel it harder and harder. I need to rest. Since 1991, I’m there training and running. My body wants to get healthier. For continuing in my career it is the only chance."
So he enjoyed the rest. Free of the pressure, seeing friends, playing games. Of course, consulting with doctors and watching the European Champs on TV.
Summer ended and he began with training. The first part in Sierra Nevada went excellently: no pain no injuries. The second part, at Lanzarote in the Gran Canaria Island, the same.
After Christmas Kovac went to South Africa and still no problems. There he also ran three hurdle races with two wins, improving his time with every competition, clocking a best of a very respectable 13.48, considering the early part of the season.
Just two days after returning to Europe, he competed in Tampere, Finland. Again at 110 m hurdles, but indoors and in much colder weather than in South Africa. Dutchman Robin Korving beat him.
The following weekend came his first indoors 60m races in Dortmund, Germany. In heats things went smoothly. Without giving much energy, 7.72, the standard for Maebashi was achieved. "I expected for the finals for sure sub 7.70. But then life is life. I collided with Crews and the race was lost, only 7.80."
His next meeting in Gent confirmed his shape. He came second in the heats with 7.67 and seventh in the finals, but again sub-7.70. "I was happy with the times, because every race I felt better."
On the night after the meeting, he did not sleep well: only some 5 hours. He woke up at 7 and went to Brussels Airport. In Praha, fortunately Ludmila Formanova´s friend drove him to take his car. At 1 p.m. he was in the Stromovka hall for first day of the Czech Championships.
As a Slovak he was entitled to run only heats, but it started well with a personal best at 60 m flat of 6.81.
Then came the hurdles heat - nobody expected something similar like a new Slovak record of 7.55! The 11th best national record at this distance ever. "Sometimes you are tired after meetings, sometimes the feeling is going on. I felt something special in my legs: they were rolling as we say. The scoreboard showed 7.52, but even 7.55 has been satisfying after all the problems last year. The plan is working.
"Now after running on Wednesday in Athens I will fly on Saturday to Japan with expectations for a place in the finals. I think the medal will be at around 7.50 and that is not impossible for me, " said Kovac.
He has good memories of the World Indoors in Bercy I 1997, where he came 5th in the 6-man final. In Maebashi with 8 lanes the chance to repeat is greater.
Kovac is back, that’s for sure.
His 1999 hurdles races
Bloemfontein, Jan 22, 110 mH: 2. 13.78
Pretoria, Jan 29, 110mH: 1. 13.69
Potchesftroom, Feb 5, 110mH: 1. 13.48
Tampere, Feb 9, 110mH: 2. 13.58
Dortmund, Feb 13, 60mH: 3h2. 7.70, 6. finals 7.80
Gent, Feb 19, 60mH: 2h1. 7.67, 7. finals 7.69
Praha, Feb 20, 60mH: 1h1. 7.55 national record
Alfons Juck for IAAF