Events & Meetings

Christensen and FitzGerald take the U20 honours in Brussels

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  • Christensen and FitzGerald take the U20 honours in Brussels

An incredible finish saw Axel Vang Christensen overhaul pre-race favourite Niels Laros in a sprint finish to win the men’s U20 title while Great Britain’s Innes FitzGerald produced a dominant display to win the women’s U20 title at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Brussels on Sunday (10).

Having missed last year’s race, 2021 champion Christensen was eager to make up for lost time and he made all of the early running. The Dane’s tactics looked sound, and he stretched the field in an attempt to make life as uncomfortable as possible for Laros, a proven winner on track. 

The Dutch athlete enjoyed an outstanding summer, claiming a 1500m/5000m double at the European Athletics U20 Championships then going on to reach the 1500m final at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, placing a brilliant 10th in a national record of 3:31.25.  

But Laros was taking a step outside of his comfort zone in making his debut at the European Cross Country Championships.

By the halfway point on the 5km course, the race’s main contenders Christensen, Laros and last year’s silver medallist Nicholas Griggs of Ireland had established daylight between them and the chasing pack.  

Perhaps mindful that his spluttering finish that cost him gold 12 months ago, Griggs clearly began to settle for bronze as they made their way through the final lap.  

And with around 800 metres to go, Laros made what looked a decisive break for gold and as Christensen took a backward glance to check on Griggs, the medallists looked set. But as the finish straight neared, Laros had not managed to gallop into the distance as many expected.  

Suddenly, Christensen had renewed hope and he attacked. He drew alongside Laros and the Dutch athlete could not respond, leaving the jubilant Dane to regain his title, crossing the line in 16:09, one second clear of the exhausted Laros who lay prostate in the Laeken Park mud after the finish line.

"The result was exactly what I hoped for. It was a hard race. I struggled to find my ryhtm all the way, my only hope for the final lap, was that Niels was tiring and I could tell that he was struggling a bit over the final hill and that really gave me hope. Then I was slowly able to catch up in the last 100 meters, where I made my kick," said the delaighted Danish winner.

Griggs was a deserved bronze in 16:24, also leading Ireland to the team title ahead of Great Britain, reversing their positions from a year ago. 

Niall Murphy and Jonas Stafford in ninth and 10th played superb supporting roles to Griggs to clinch gold for the Irish. Sam Mills was the leading British athlete in fifth. Spain’s Ruben Leonardo helped Spain to team bronze, finishing eighth.

In the women’s U20 event, Innes FitzGerald produced a brilliant front-running performance to win her first international title. 

The 17-year-old British athlete set out her stall early, leading the charge right from the gun. Twelve months ago, she paid for a fast start in Piemonte-La Mandria Park and faded to fourth but it was a different story this time around and she ran a much more measured race, gradually pouring on the pace on the 5km course. 

France’s Jade Le Corre, 12th last year, courageously went with the leader. She clung to FitzGerald until just beyond the halfway point. But as they reached 3km, the Briton’s strength began to tell. She stretched out to a 50-metre lead, and noone could live with her. 

Le Corre was left to fight out silver and bronze with Denmark’s Sofia Thøgersen and Germany’s Kira Weis, both of whom had taken a more conservative approach. Thøgersen was sixth after the first lap and Weis was 13th.   

The three ran abreast into the last lap as FitzGerald moved into an unassailable 100-metre lead. Thøgersen and Weis had the greater pedigree having both won medals on the track at the European Athletics U20 Championships this summer, the Dane took 1500m silver and 5000m bronze and the German 5000m silver. 

In the closing stages, Thøgersen eased away to land silver, but it was Le Corre who was rewarded for her bravery by holding off Weis for bronze by four seconds. FitzGerald reached the finishing tape in 18:19, 19 seconds clear of Thøgersen, with Le Corre another 11 seconds adrift. 

"Last year I messed up in the start and I wanted to avoid that this time by pushing from the start on. When I saw that I was alone at front, I just kept going and kept pushing myself." said FitGerald, who will be eligable to defend her title in Turkiye next year.

FitzGerald’s individual victory spearheaded yet another team gold for Great Britain in the U20 women’s race, a remarkable 17th time they have topped the podium at the European Cross Country Championships.

Jess Bailey in eighth and Lizzie Wellsted in 13th provided solid support to the imperious FitzGerald. Weis gained some consolation in German’s team silver and Sweden took bronze led by fifth-placed Elsa Lundqvist. 

Chris Broadbent for European Athletics 

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