Olympic Odyssey: Comeback Queen
Former World Number one Chris Hill takes us to Beijing through the athletes eyes
She won the womens triathlon in Athens with a come-from-behind win that left all watching speechless. Now, with bike crash injuries and qualification dilemmas, Kate Allen will need all of that Athens heart just to get to the Beijing start line.
Kate Allen doesnt mind a challenge. Or thats the way she made it look at the Athens Olympics, where the Austrian gave race leader and clear favourite Loretta Harrop of Australia a 2-minute and 48-second lead going into the run.
Allen had to run 16.8 seconds quicker for each of the ten Athenian kilometres to tie at the finish with Harrop. In the end, she ran 18 seconds quicker for each kilometre and won by 30 metres. Gold was hers.
It had been an amazing race and the type of surprise finish a Hollywood director would spend months trying to get just right. It was a mammoth task just to catch Harrop and when she did, with less than 200 meters to run and the line in sight, Allen had wound up enough momentum to blow past like a fan forced sirocco.
When Loretta looked behind and didnt react 200 meters before the line I knew I had her, Allen said of her golden Athenian day. If she was going to win the race when she turned and saw me, she was going to have to react then. It was an amazing feeling. It was incredible. And must have been heartbreaking for her.
Harrop said after the race she was not heartbroken, just exhausted. She had raced with the only tactic open to her as a poorer runner; she had to breakaway in the swim and bike legs. Allen is the opposite racing athlete, her strength is her run. The fact both met on the blue finish carpet of Olympic triathlon meant one thing for Allen, victory was assured.
But her Athens Olympic fate had not always been that certain. With an almost three minute deficit and 27 athletes strung along the road linking her with Harrop at the start of the run, Allen did not really fancy her chances of a medal, let alone the gold.
At the beginning, I was running just to catch the next person. Just seeing how many I could pick off, Allen said of her Pac-Man-esque frame of mind. It wasnt until the last lap that I saw that I may run into a medal. And I wasnt thinking of the gold medal even then.
When you think of an Olympic champion and how they got there, you think of an unmistakeable destiny felt well before the race, an, I just knew Id win today mentality. But for Allen it was different. It was not until the last ten minutes that she considered a medal. And only with four minutes to go that she fixated on gold.
Basically, it wasnt until the last two kilometres before the finish, Allen recalled, where Marcel [Diechtler, her husband and coach] was standing, that I actually knew what position I was in because I could see the other girls running the opposite way. And Marcel said, Youve got to go now because shes [Loretta] finished. You can still win.
So much of Allens racing relies on what others do around her. A career counter-puncher, she never makes the race. The best thing she can hope to do is to contain, react and run. In Athens, internal politicking for positions by the lead girls and a brilliant run meant this was enough.
It just depended on what the front girls did, Allen said, walking through her Athens Games win. In the race it worked out that the big pack, who had all the runners in it, just sat. And, of course, there were a few girls off the front who always went off the front. They had to because they were not runners, they didnt have an option. It was just a matter, for them, of catch me if you can.
While Allen caught them all that Olympic day, the sport has changed vastly in the four years since. In todays three-dimensional triathlon, even a blazing run from behind the front pack is certain to leave an athlete vulnerable. More girls are consistently swimming quicker which enhances the size, and therefore pace, of the lead bike pack.
Whats more disturbing for Allen, now 38, is that the lead swimmers and bikers in the womens side of the sport are also the best runners: Emma Snowsill, Vanessa Fernandes and Laura Bennett.
All this talk of Beijing scenarios is all academic though, if Allen fails to qualify and toe the line to defend her Olympic title. This qualification problem reality was at the forefront of Allens mind before the New Plymouth World Cup. She was there primarily to build her Olympic selection case.
It shouldnt be a difficult qualification, she explained. If it was going to be a difficult qualification Im not going to have a chance. If the qualification goes smoothly then the race should go okay in Beijing. If I dont qualify I dont deserve to be there. Its that simple.
New Plymouth would not provide a golden path to the Olympics for Allen; it only compounded her qualification dilemma. During the bike leg she crashed heavily, reportedly breaking a thumb, losing three teeth and suffering multiple injuries to her face, legs, arms and chest. It was a nightmare for her Games dream.
The main goal [the Olympics] remains the same but the stages to reach there are unfortunately put back, Allen told an Austrian newspaper in April. The doctors fear that the deep cuts on my left knee could be infected.
Despite this prognosis she remains upbeat, the more Im patient, the earlier Ill be able to go full tilt. To resume training too quickly would be to reduce to nothing the months of preparation, she said. Im recovering relatively well. My ribs arent broken and theyre not bruised, Ive got pain in my chest and my knee but I dont think its going to be a problem. I think Ill come out of it all right.
This type of resolute attitude leaves the world of triathlon little doubt; Allen is still up for defending her Olympic title in Beijing. The ill-timed New Plymouth bike crash will present a further challenge to her preparation and bid for qualification. But for added mental challenges Allen doesnt seem to mind. Her inordinately gutsy Athens victory when the chips were down will attest to that.
Former World Number one Chris Hill brings his unique elite athlete perspective in weekly Olympic columns to ITUs website, triathlon.org. He competed on the ITU World Cup circuit, winning three titles and ten medals in total. He was crowned the overall World Cup series champion in 2001. That same year he was silver medalist at the ITU World Championships in Edmonton, Canada. Watch for Chris Hills column, Olympic Odyssey every week on triathlon.org.
Related Event: Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
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