Take yourselves back to the world championships of 2013 and the women’s heptathlon. Just one year on from the sensational performance of Jessica Ennis-Hill at London 2012, the competition was ripped down to the thinest bone of unpredictability by the absences of the Olympic champion and her biggest rival Tatyana Chernova through injury. An event that had been dominated by the pair since 2009 was now without an obvious favourite, instead it was packed with unfulfilled talent given their first chance to become number one.
Battling with the unproven yet potentially brilliant young stars Dafne Schippers, Katarina Jonson-Thompson (KJT) and Brianne Theison-Eaton, Hanna Melnychenko an athlete with almost a decade of international top ten finishes rose to the top of the pile almost from nowhere.
Bringing her best performance when it really mattered, Melnychenko showed the key to consistency as she held onto to her lead from round of two to take Ukraine’s first world heptathlon gold medal by the finest of margins. While her winning total and new personal best of 6586 points may have been the lowest ever top score in the championship’s history it came after finishing at the top of the deepest, topsy turvy, competition ever. A leaderboard that was more unstable than a child learning to ride a bike saw six athletes have at least one hand on a medal during the process and the silver medal swap hands four times.
While others like Johnson-Thompson and Schippers were taking almost as many backwards steps as they were forward, the Ukrainian stayed strong, posting six top seven finishes to win the title from Brianne Theison-Eaton by just 56 points, the second lowest winning margin ever.
Although she had not won a single event over the course of the two days she was the champion of the world.
Reminiscing on her victory that day Melynecko relays: “I was overwhelmed with the victory, it was something I have always dreamed of. I had been preparing for it for many years, it was a tiresome turmoil, finally I was rewarded with this victory, I was so happy!”
Hannah Melnychenko, Moscow 2013, photo by PhotoRun.net
The timing of the win, at 30 years-old, made it even sweeter she says: “It’s very personal for someone of 30 years, it was a huge barrier to step through when I took my title.”
As for her main rivals that week, it could have been argued that they too performed far above expectation, especially when you consider that Schippers and Johnson-Thompson were still only 20, while Theison-Eaton finished just 11th at the Olympics in 2012. Yet it proved to be a stepping stone for far greater things in 2014. All three athletes made huge in roads on the world scene once more, picking up various pieces of silverware and accolades between them; with Schippers striking gold in the European sprints, Canadian, Thesion-Eaton becoming Commonwealth champion and Johnson-Thompson building on world indoor silver in March to win the highly esteemed Gotzis multi-event in May.
It wasn’t such a vintage season for the Ukrainian however, as her break from the intense training of heptathlon took it’s toll: “Last year the results weren’t that great, not because of the pressure I experienced in 2013, but because I decided to take a little break and I didn’t put very much effort into the practise. A heptathlete cannot achieve good results without hard work” She said “This break is very necessary when you want to get to the next Olympics, that’s why you’ve got to just give and take, it’s very hard to keep to the same level every year.”
Despite the added intensity such improvement brings to competition, Melnychenko says she is happy to see the recent progression of her rivals, but she insists it’s her personal improvement that matters most: “It’s just the nature of athletics that new stars and new athletes are appearing and it’s very promising to see these young athletes coming through, it’s very great and I feel very optimistic about this.”
“I’m doing my best to catch up with my weaker results in javelin and the shot put, if I manage to reach progress in these events I’ll be able to compete at a serious level” she says.
Look a little closer at Melnychenko’s resumÃ© and you will see an appearance at the Bird’s Nest stadium from the 2008 Olympics. While it may have only finished in 14th place finish on that occasion, the 31 year old believes that her prior knowledge of the venue could prove the difference when she tries to retain her title there this summer: “It will be very helpful having already competed in this stadium, I know the peculiarities of the track and of the coverage we will receive from the fans, so I’ll consider this when I prepare for the championships. The atmosphere was great and very inspiring, [In 2008] it’s great for competing in.” “I am 31 now and in heptathlon right now experience helps a lot because not many athletes have it.”
Whatever the result may turn out to be next August, it will provide the perfect dress rehearsal of her multi-eventing swan song at Rio 2016, after which she is dreaming of a crack at the triple jump. Although she admits she is scared by the idea just now, Melnychenko hopes that one day she can compete alongside compatriot and former world champion Olga Saladukha.
Even if such dreams do occur they still remain a long way in the distance, nonetheless one thing will undoubtedly remain the same between now and when that day does come, a new found desire to win: “I loved the feeling of being victor and being the leader of the competition while accomplishing my best performances and I want to accomplish this again in 2015… I’m not going to stop.”