Poland's 4x400m team - Karol Zalewski, Rafal Omelko, Lukasz Krawczuk and Jakub Krzewina - after setting a world indoor record at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Birmingham 2018 (© Getty Images)
Note: A look at the Polish men’s 4x400m relay squad that broke the world record at the World Indoor Championships in March, a record that was ratified earlier this week.
It was all over, or so it seemed.
On the final night of the IAAF World Indoor Championships Birmingham 2018 last March, there was one lap to run in the men’s 4x400m, and USA’s Vernon Norwood, a man who’d clocked 45.58 for 400m indoors this year, held an eight-metre lead over Poland’s Jakub Krzewina, a man who had never broken 46 seconds indoors.
The United States were on their way to yet another 4x400m gold, most likely a world record to go with it, while the Poles, Belgians and Trinidad and Tobago were left scrapping for silver.
But then, with about 100 metres to run, the unthinkable began to happen.
As he ripped down the back straight for the final time, Norwood showed the first signs of fatigue – a tightening of the shoulders, a puff of his cheeks – and as he turned for home the American took a panicked glance over his right shoulder, beginning to fear the worst.
A few metres behind, Krzewina had noticed as much and was moving faster than ever, the scent of a kill now hanging in the air.
As Krzewina’s mother, Magdalena, put it a few days later: “He runs like a lion released from a cage. There is something about it. He can even be in sixth position, but when he has strength and is healthy, he will always do his best.”
Smells like team spirit
Athletics is, by and large, an individual sport, but occasionally there are moments when athletes who’ve given their lives for solo success come to understand that old adage about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
On paper, Poland had no right to beat the Americans in Birmingham, and any bookie would have attested to that by offering outlandish odds on such an upset.
Even for the team themselves – Karol Zalewski, Rafal Omelko, Lukasz Krawczuk and Jakub Krzewina – winning gold and setting a world record existed only in the realm of the imaginary. After all, none of them had ever broken 46 seconds indoors, while all of the US team had smashed it, with Fred Kerley even dipping below 45 this year.
“We were targeting the European record,” said Omelko. “We thought we’d compete with the Belgians for second, but to compete with the Americans was amazing.”
After the opening leg, where Kerley gave USA an eight-metre advantage over Poland, clocking 44.84 to Zalewski’s 45.85, it appeared the height of their ambition would be a silver medal.
But then the US team made its first mistake – Michael Cherry ripped through the first 200m to extend the advantage to 12 metres, only to falter on the second lap, his 45.27 leg allowing Omelko to close in slightly after the Pole ran a more even-paced 45.10.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, three of the four Poles in Birmingham had been part of the 4x400m team, and though they hoped to contend for a medal in the final, the wheels fell off and they finished seventh, a disappointment which had lingered ever since.
“We were not that good at the Olympic Games,” said Omelko. “But we have great team spirit and we can fight. It was important to come to Birmingham and do something, not just for us but for Polish people.”
Powered by patriotism
A fiercely proud athletics nation, Poland is one of the few countries able to produce champions across the entire spectrum of the sport – from sprints to shot put, race-walking to middle distances.
Much of that is down to a superb youth development system, which exposes children to a variety of sports in school. There is daily physical education in primary school – where the skills of athleticism are honed by practising gymnastics and the fundamentals of athletics – and in their teenage years, talented youngsters are often funnelled into institutes of sport to ensure their athleticism develops alongside academics.
It’s a huge reason a nation of fewer than 40 million so often out-performs those several times its size.
But sometimes, of course, success in sport can come down to something more simplistic – the bloody-minded will to carry your nation’s colours across the line in front.
On the third leg in Birmingham, Lukasz Krawczuk clawed back another fraction on Aldrich Bailey of the US – not a whole lot, just another two metres or so, enough to hand the baton to the proud, patriotic anchor, Jakub Krzewina, with their team in the running for gold.
It’s hard to look at Krzewina and not notice the tattoos across his left arm and chest, and both of his lower legs. An avid reader of Polish history, his tattoos tell many of the same stories, most of them in some way linked to his deep affection for the country.
His journey to Birmingham had not been an easy one. In recent years Krzewina battled serious injuries in his spine, while he underwent a hernia operation in March 2015 and later that year had surgery on his plantar tendon, which left him on crutches for more than a month.
Last year he changed coaches from Jozef Lisowski to Marek Rozej after disagreeing with Lisowski about his training, and since then he has been based in Poznan where, with his health restored, he has since flourished.
Although all four of the Polish team train in separate groups, they came together two weeks before Birmingham to practise baton exchanges and instil a sense of team spirit before they took on the world.
“We don’t train together but we have been in the team for a very long time,” said Krzewina. “When we come here every one of us tries to get the best out of each other. We fight together for a medal.”
But while few gave them a chance of gold, even in the closing stages of the final, Krzewina thought otherwise.
“I saw with 100 metres to go [Norwood] was running slower,” he said. “Then I was sure we would win the gold.”
Only with 20 metres to run did Krzewina eventually claw his way back to Norwood’s shoulder, and by then the lion was out of its cage, the Pole roaring to the finish in 3:01.77, a world indoor record. His time on the final leg: a blistering 44.93 seconds.
“Two years ago a Belgian team took our European record, so we were coming to get that back,” said Zalewski. “But to get the world record is unbelievable.”
In the aftermath, shock was the overwhelming emotion for all four, and the fact they’d beaten sprint superpower USA into second made their success all the sweeter.
“I am sure the Americans don’t know how we came back,” said Omelko. “It seems impossible.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF