Sandra Perkovic was pursuing an unprecedented and historic fifth successive title in the discus at the Berlin 2018 European Athletics Championships but her reign as the self-styled discus queen - at least on the European stage - looked to be nearing a surprising end midway through the final.
Perkovic was also the reigning world and Olympic champion in the discus and her world lead of 71.38m - just three centimetres shy of her lifetime best - made her one of the most resounding and red-hot favourites of the entire championships.
But on a still and slightly cooler evening in the Olympic Stadium, Perkovic struggled to find her best form in front of a crowd of 60,000 who were already buoyed after witnessing Mateusz Przybylko and Malaika Mihambo winning the high jump and long jump respectively for the hosts on the same evening.
Would there be a third German field event winner of the night in the discus? Germany has an undeniably rich and distinguished tradition in the event on both the men’s and women’s side but a gold medal for any thrower other than the indomitable Perkovic - who hadn’t lost a significant competition since the 2015 World Championships - would have represented a wholly unforeseen outcome.
So many times second or third to Perkovic in big events, Nadine Muller - the veteran of the German triumvirate - set the standard in the opening half of the final. Dealing best with the conditions, Muller recorded the only two 60 metre-plus throws in the first three rounds: 62.00m in round two before extending her lead to 63.00m in round three. At halfway, Muller led the standings with her compatriots Claudine Vita and Shanice Craft in second and fourth respectively.
By contrast, Perkovic started with a no-throw before tentatively opening her account with back-to-back marks of 59.09m and 59.97m in the second and third round. With Perkovic looking increasingly quizzical in the direction of her coach and partner Edis Elkasevic on the sidelines, another no-throw was to follow in round four but then everything suddenly changed in the fifth round and order was restored.
This was not the first time Perkovic has found herself in a perilous position at a major championships during her long and illustrious international career but seldom has it taken Perkovic five throws to produce her winning effort.
With her penultimate effort, Perkovic cranked the discus high and powerfully into the darkening night sky and the 1.5 kilogram implemented glided down the right side of the sector with the crowd gasping at its resolute flight.
Willed on by an animated Perkovic from the throwing circle, the discus landed almost equidistantly between the 65 and 70-metre sector lines. The distance flashed up at 67.62m and a visibly relieved Perkovic had decisively gained the lead in the fifth round from Muller and was closing in on an historic fifth title.
Perkovic’s fifth round throw wasn’t surpassed by either Muller or by Perkovic herself who fouled her last throw before the celebrations began in earnest. On her lap of honour with Muller and Craft, Perkovic was swept off her feet by the popular championship mascot Berlino the Bear while wrapped in the Croatian national flag but that wasn’t her only surprise of the night.
“During the competition, I was thinking about my mum who is always very nervous watching me on TV. So I started to think about her and I imagined how nervous she must be at home seeing me not throwing so well. Then I managed to finally improve and I showed a smile to the camera. And suddenly, I saw her in the crowd. She came here to surprise me!” said Perkovic.
Perkovic has won an incredible nine major titles in her career thus far, including an unsurpassed tally of five gold medals on the European stage, although some of those victories were far from a formality.
Her first major title came at the Barcelona 2010 European Athletics Championships where the Croatian, who was only 20 at the time, supplanted Romania’s 38-year-old veteran Nicoleta Grasu in the sixth round with 64.67m.
Two years later in Helsinki, Perkovic came close to exiting without a valid mark to her credit before hurling the discus out to a winning mark of 67.62m in the third round. Six weeks later Perkovic added her first Olympic title to her expanding resume.
But the next two editions of the European Championships showed Perkovic at her most formidable. The Croatian won her third title in Zurich 2014 with 71.08m to win by almost six metres and she won her fourth title in Amsterdam with 69.97m to win gold by more than four metres.
Perkovic was especially disappointed by the cancellation of the Paris 2020 European Athletics Championships but at the age of 30, Perkovic should still have ample opportunities to add to her tally of five European gold medals starting from the Munich 2022 European Athletics Championships.
Perkovic’s historic gold medal in Berlin 2018 is our 50th moment in our 50 Golden Moments series to celebrate 50 years of European Athletics! Relive all 50 Golden Moments in short-form version on Facebook and watch them again in full on our YouTube channel.