Saga Vanninen celebrates her heptathlon win at the World U20 Championships in Nairobi (© Dan Vernon)
The European U20 champion becomes the world U20 champion. Saga Vanninen had been the dominant force during two days of heptathlon competition at the World Athletics U20 Championships and she remained unfazed during a stormy afternoon in Nairobi to claim her second major title this season.
After six events – four of which she won – the 18-year-old had a 373-point lead with just the 800m to go on Thursday (19).
Running her own race, Vanninen finished seventh in 2:31.79, confident in the knowledge that she had already done more than enough to claim the crown. With a total of 5997 points she finished 251 points ahead of Estonia’s Pippi Lotta Enok, with Hungary’s Szabina Szucs winning the battle for bronze – her 5674-point PB performance securing her a podium place ahead of Austria’s Sophie Kreiner, who also had the competition of her life to finish fourth with 5652 points.
“I am so happy,” said Vanninen. “I hoped that I would win.”
The Finnish teenager had added more than 400 points to her personal best to win the European U20 title in Tallinn in July, scoring 6271 to surpass 6000 points for the first time and break her own national U20 record. That performance put her ninth on the world U20 all-time list, ahead of athletes such as reigning world champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson.
Back in action just over a month later, Vanninen opened her global title campaign with a 100m hurdles win (13.60), before also topping the high jump (1.78m) and shot put (13.30m).
She then placed second to Enok in the 200m, running an equal personal best of 24.83 as Enok clocked a 24.59 PB, to end the first day in the lead on 3638 points.
She started day two with a third place in the long jump as she leapt 5.98m, and then came the javelin. Launching the spear 49.22m, it was more than five metres further than the rest of the field could manage and improved on her previous best of 48.88m.
It proved that her decision to focus on the discipline in training with a specialist coach has paid off.
An already long two days of competition was made that bit longer when the afternoon programme was delayed due to a storm, but the conditions did not concern Vanninen, who became the first Finnish heptathlete to win world U20 gold.
“It is normal for me because in Finland it is raining all the time,” she smiled. “I knew that I just had to finish (the 800m) and that I could win.”
She will still be an U20 next year, but has her eye on the World Athletics Championships in Eugene.
For Enok, her performance in Nairobi was a more than 100-point PB, building on the 5634 score she set to finish fifth at the European U20 Championships, while Szucs added 275 points to her previous best.
“I am a big fighter and I showed it here in this field,” said Enok. “I arrived just a day before the competition and I am glad that the two-day competition went flawlessly.”
Javelin gold for Vilagos
As Vanninen did in the heptathlon javelin, Serbia’s Adriana Vilagos also had the throw of her life in Nairobi and that gained her gold in an individual javelin contest which was paused mid competition because of the weather.
The rain had already started to fall but European U20 silver medallist Vilagos got her national U20 record-breaking throw in before the worst of the storm, throwing a world U20 lead of 61.46m in the first round of the competition. That added more than half a metre to her previous best with the senior weight javelin which she had set in June.
The 17-year-old had one more throw, of 58.95m, before the competition was paused, and when it resumed she continued with marks of 58.25m, 59.51m, 58.18m and 56.28m.
Vilagos had claimed silver at the European U20 Championships one month earlier in a competition won by Elina Tzengko of Greece. Here the podium places were switched as Tzengko threw 59.60m for silver, while Cuba’s Yiselena Ballar Rojas secured bronze on her first international trip, throwing 55.48m.
“I am incredibly happy,” said Vilagos, who had broken her own world U18 javelin best with the 500g implement just five days earlier, throwing 70.10m on home soil at the Balkan U18 Championships in Kraljevo.
“I was not thinking that I would be first. It is so fantastic. The javelin flew so nicely and it was an incredible feeling.”
On how she managed in the conditions, she added: “I mostly like it when it is raining, but not like that today! I am happy that the competition finally finished like that.
“I am happy that I achieved my goal in the 500g javelin and also this, so this season has been great.”
Tzengko, who threw 63.96m in August 2020 to better the world U20 record mark although it could not be ratified as an official record, said: “I take the silver proudly.”
Vazquez Gomez gains last-gasp win
In a shot put contest which was reminiscent of the close senior world title battle in Doha in 2019, Cuba's Juan Carley Vazquez Gomez gained the gold with a last-gasp effort which put him ahead by just three centimetres.
Yauheni Bryhi of Belarus had launched his shot 19.70m in the first round, adding 40cm to his personal best to take an early clear lead. He was unable to build on that in the following rounds, with three fouls, and then threw 18.98m in the fifth round before a final foul.
Meanwhile, 2019 Pan American U20 bronze medallist Vazquez Gomez saved his best until last, throwing 19.73m in the final round to take the title. He had earlier thrown 19.68m in the second round to trail Bryhi by just two centimetres.
“I was a bit nervous but then I relaxed and felt better as the competition went on,” said Vazquez Gomez, the sole 20 metre-plus thrower in the field thanks to his national U20 record-equalling 20.32m achieved last year.
“During the last few months, I haven’t been able to train properly in Cuba due to the pandemic, but luckily I managed to stay in good shape by doing some stuff at home and eventually I managed to get a few good training sessions in to be able to get here in a good shape.”
With a throw of 19.16m, Switzerland’s Jephte Vogel secured himself a place on the podium alongside Vazquez Gomez and Bryhi, while Arsalan Ghashghaei of Iran finished fourth with a PB of 19.00m.
The other two finals due to be held on Thursday – the women's discus and the men's pole vault – were moved to Friday morning's session due to the weather.
Over in women's triple jump qualifying, Sweden's Maja Askag and Spain’s Tessy Ebosele were the two automatic qualifiers as they leapt 13.48m and 13.47m respectively. They will be joined in the final by athletes including Sohane Aucagos of France and Saly Sarr, who jumped a Senegal U20 record of 13.06m.
Jess Whittington for World Athletics