Maheidine Mekhissi-Benabbad has won two silver Olympic medals in the steeplechase, two bronze medals at World Champs and can run 3:33.12 for 1,500 meters. He also is built like a rugby player and was in a rather notorious disagreement after a 1,500 meter race in Monaco where his boxing skills were proven.
MEKHISSI-BENABBAD BEGINS QUEST FOR EUROPEAN DOUBLE GOLD
By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2014 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
ZÃœRICH (12-Aug) — In this morning’s preliminary round of the men’s steeplechase at the 21st European Championships in Athletics here, France’s Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad wore a special bib with a gold background, signifying his status as reigning champion. Indeed, he won gold at these championships in both 2010 in Barcelona and 2012 in Helsinki, and after the latter victory scored a silver medal at the London Olympics.
But speaking to reporters today at the Letzigrund after finishing fifth in the second of two heats in 8:33.44 –a race in which he was clearly running easily– the 29 year-old was careful not to appear overconfident.
“Many people pick me for the title, but it is a mistake to assume that I will win,” he said in French.
During his heat this morning, Mekhissi-Benabbad stayed behind the leaders to avoid trouble. With three laps to go in the seven and one-half lap race, he was back in seventh place. Moreover, he didn’t respond immediately when Germany’s Martin Grau, Turkey’s Tarik Langat Akdag, and Italy’s Yuri Floriani upped the pace. Instead, he gently increased his speed, got into the top-5 automatic positions for advancement, and simply held his place to the finish line. For good measure, he looked behind several times in the homestretch just to be sure.
“Today, I tried to conserve my energy,” he said. He added: “With experience, it is not important to win the heat. It was a race just for qualifying.”
Conserving energy is particularly important for Mekhissi-Benabbad. In addition to running in Thursday’s steeplechase final, the Frenchman is also competing in the 1500m prelims on Friday morning. He has the 9th-fastest time at 1500m this year of any European (3:35.34), and has a much faster personal best of 3:33.12. In the “metric mile” he’ll face top contenders Henrik Ingebrigtsen of Norway, the European leader with a seasonal best of 3:31.46, and Homiyu Tesfaye of Germany, who has run 3:31.98 this season.
“It was easy,” he said when asked to rate his effort this morning.
Also advancing to Thursday’s final was the 2006 European champion, Jukka Keskisalo of Finland; the #2 European this year based on time, Krystian Zalewski of Poland; and national record holder, Mitko Tsenov of Bulgaria. Spain’s VÃctor GarcÃa, who was ranked #3 in Europe this season on time, crashed over the final barrier, landed hard on his chest and face, and was unable to finish. He had to be helped off of the track by medical personnel.
HASSAN, AREGAWI LEAD IN WOMEN’S 1500M QUALIFYING
Europe’s top two middle distance runners this season, Sweden’s Abeba Aregawi and the Netherlands’ Sifan Hassan, easily won their individual heats in the first round of the women’s 1500m. Aregawi beat back a nominal challenge from Serbia’s Amela Terzic, to win the first heat in a pedestrian 4:11.64 to Terzic’s 4:11.75.
“The race was nice, I hope to win the final and I don’t mind about the time,” Aregawi gold European Athletics interviewers. “It will be a good battle with Hassan.”
Hassan won the second heat comfortably in 4:09.55, helped along by the decent pace set by Poland’s Renata Plis, who finished second (4:10.33). Like Aregawi, Hassan formerly competed for Ethiopia.
“It’s very nice,” Hassan told Race Results Weekl
y in English while a Dutch federation official sought to hurry her through the mixed zone. “I feel confident going into the final.”
Also advancing (with medal hopes) were Norway’s Ingvill Ingvill MÃ¥kestad Bovim, Britain’s Hannah England and Laura Weightman, and Russia’s Svetlana Karamasheva. MÃ¥kestad Bovim, who is making a comeback from both maternity leave and an injury, looked strong in the final sprint to take fourth in the first heat.
“It felt like I was running a 3-K in the beginning,” MÃ¥kestad Bovim said of the slow early pace. “But I was strong in the finish.”
Not advancing was Britain’s Laura Muir. The runner-up at the British Championships this year, who later ran a sizzling 4:00.07 in Paris, got her feet tangled with the Netherlands’ Maureen Koster at the bell, nearly falling. She finished sixth in the first heat in 4:14.69.
“I’m disappointed, especially because I’m ranked #3,” the soft-spoken Muir told reporters. She continued: “I almost fell a couple of times as I was trying to get past people.”
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The first distance medals of these championships will be handed out tonight when the women’s 10,000m is contested. Medal favorites include Portugal’s Ana Dulce FÃ©lix (the defending champion) and Sara Moreira, France’s Sophie Duarte and ClÃ©mence Calvin (the 2014 European Cup Champion), Britain’s Jo Pavey (the Commonwealth Games 5000m bronze medalist at 40 years-old), Germany’s Sabrina Mockenhaupt, and Ireland’s Fionnuala Britton. Two-time TCS New York City Marathon champion, Jelena Prokopcuka of Latvia, has the fastest personal best in the field, 30:38.78, set in 2006.