David Hunter outdid himself last week on his suggestions for the female athlete of the year. Hunter is right, how does one pick the most extraordinary women in an extraordinary year? I would have added Tirunesh Dibaba into this group as well, but I understand why our columnist stuck to his guns.
Female Athlete Of The Year: Making The Case
Which Extraordinary Athlete Will Gain Annual Honor?
As was the case last week when 5 exceptional athletes in the running for the 2012 Male Athlete Of The Year were fully vetted, the task of evaluating and ultimately selecting the most worthy recipient of this year’s Female Athlete Of The Year is no less daunting. To embark on the subjective journey of comparing and contrasting the 2012 competitive records of the world’s pinnacle women track & field performers, it is helpful to be reminded once again of the trio of respected Track & Field News criteria: (i) honors won; (ii) won-loss record in head-to-head competition; and (iii) progression of marks. These three beacons — subjective in part and not evenly-weighted — can light the way as we examine the sport’s most accomplished female athletes of the past year.
For a track & field athlete to gain entry into the serious conversation about this annual award, one’s performance over the year must be near- perfect. So high is the standard here that even the slightest performance blemish can be sufficient to knock an athlete out of consideration. In this Olympic year, quite a few women won Olympic gold medals and posted world-leading marks in their specialty. Look who accomplished this incredible feat in 2012: Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce (100m); Sally Pearson (100m hurdles); Allyson Felix (200m); Mariya Savinova (800m); Yuliya Zaripova (3000 Steeple) Anna Chicherova (HJ); Jen Suhr (PV); Barbora Spotakova (Jav); and Jessica Ennis (Heptathlon). For many in this exclusive club, 2012 will stand as their career year — the zenith of their athletic achievements. Amazingly, even this type of event domination — while likely sufficient to allow nearly all of these athletes to capture the #1 world ranking in their event — is just simply too commonplace, without more, to place the athlete in serious contention for the AOY prize. For that to occur, a thorough review of the 2012 record of the track & field performer must reveal “something more.”
Let’s take a look at the 2012 seasons of 5 women track & field athletes who, indeed, produced “something more.” They are:
Sanya Richards-Ross: Shortly after the first of the year, it was clear that SRR was on a mission — a year of “all business.” Having forsaken running under cover since 2005, Richards-Ross took the indoor season seriously this year — getting ready to reach for the big prize outdoors. Winning the national indoor 400 title on her wedding anniversary and her birthday was fine, but her post-race expression said that she really wanted McCorory’s American indoor record. It was an early-season driven focus that never ebbed. She drove it all the way through Pre, the Trials, and on to London where her individual gold in the 400m took care of unfinished business and her winning anchor on the 4 x 400 was the icing on the cake. Along the way she picked up impressive Diamond League wins in Stockholm and Zurich. Oh, and she displayed range and versatility by making the Olympic 200m final. An early season loss on Cinco de Mayo in Jamaica to Novelene Williams Mills was really the only tarnish to an otherwise sparkling season. It is true that Richards-Ross did not have the year’s world leading mark in the 400m, but her two Olympic gold medals — her “something else” — more than made up for it. Years later, looking back, 2012 may prove to be a year of zenith performance for one of history’s greatest quarter-milers.
Jessica Ennis: As we all know, timing in life is everything. And British Heptathlete Jessica Ennis couldn’t have timed it better. Her winning effort in 800 meter run — the 7th and final event of the Heptathlon — sealed her Olympic triumph and — coming as it did on the same day as Greg Rutherford’s unexpected win in the long jump and Mo Farah’s dramatic victory in the 10,000 — capped off what many have proclaimed to be the “the greatest day in the history of British track & field.” Undefeated this year in her multi-event specialty, Ennis notched the top two heptathlon scores in the world in 2012. Her winning Olympic tally of 6955, posted in front of her countrymen under conditions of intense pressure, and the three PR’s [in the 100H, the 200m, and the Javelin] she rang up on route to the gold medal constitute her “something more” and justify her candidacy for AOY. The enormity of this accomplishment has been lauded from several corners. Ennis has already been named “British Olympic Athlete of the Year” — besting double gold-medalist Mo Farah — and “European Female Athlete of the Year” by the European Athletic Association. Could this be a precursor to the bestowal of other similar awards upon Ennis before the close of the year?
Anna Chicherova: In London, the Russian high jumper struck Olympic gold by clearing the world-leading height of 2.05 (6’8Â½”). Her “something more”? Chicherova captured the year’s biggest honor, beat the best when it counted most, and leaped higher than all others in 2012 — thus earning high marks on all of the evaluation criteria. A late-season, post-Olympic loss in Rieti to Olympic bronze medalist Svetlana Shkolina is the only tarnish on what may prove to be Chicherova’s career year.
Sally Pearson: Pearson needed every inch of the world-leading 12.35 she ran in the Olympic 100H final to wrest the gold away from the hard-charging Dawn Harper. But like a true champion, when it was all on the line, she came up big with her top performance against the best in the world in the year’s biggest race. An exquisite technician, Pearson’s slashing style also powered her to impressive wins in Paris and Oslo. Total event domination throughout the year — she posted 5 of the year’s top 10 marks — was her “something more.” A pre-Olympic loss in London to eventual Olympic bronze medalist Kellie Wells was the only blotch on a near perfect year for last year’s IAAF Female World Athlete of the Year.
Allyson Felix: All the others had years they will savor, years that may prove to be their best ever. But none of the 2012 performers had a year that can compare to the season produced by Allyson Felix. Not unlike SSR, Felix began the year with one goal in mind: to capture that individual Olympic gold medal that had earlier eluded her. Always the poised and cheerful performer, Felix kept her inner fires under wraps. But those who know her knew better: she had a singular focus. Taking a page out of the successful play book that Alberto Salazar used so effectively with Galen Rupp, Coach Bobby Kersee exposed Felix to helpful and challenging under-distance racing that not only fueled Felix’s competitive spirit, but also caused her to hone her speed and work on her suspect start, perhaps the only lingering chink in her otherwise bullet-proof armor. Not even the improbable and much-ballyhooed Trials dead heat with her training partner Jeneba Tarmoh for the final Olympic 100m spot could rattle her. Her performance on London’s big Olympic stage could hardly have been better. After just missing the 100m podium, Felix ran the table with the long-awaited gold medal in the 200m to complete an undefeated season in her specialty and then added two more golds in the relays — which included the stunning new world record by Team USA in the 4 x 100. No other women can come close to matching Felix’s 2012 accomplishments: three Olympic gold medals, a world-leading mark in the 200m, an undefeated season in her specialty, and a sparkling second leg on the USA’s gold medal-winning and world-record setting 4 x 100 relay team.
A review of the year’s performances by Richards-Ross, Ennis, Chicherova, and Pearson show that these exceptional athletes did produce “something more” in 2012. But Felix’s accomplishments this past year can only be categorized as “something much more.” And that “much more” is why Allyson Felix should be recognized as the 2012 Female Athlete Of the Year.