Lane eight proves to be “just perfect” for Kambundji in Belgrade

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Seldom is a major sprint title won from lane eight but Switzerland’s Mujinga Kambundji defied the odds and an unfavourable lane draw to unexpectedly win the 60m title at the World Athletics Indoor Championships in Belgrade.

The focus of attention was rightfully on the likes of Poland’s Ewa Swoboda and Mikiah Brisco from the United States who were drawn in adjacent lanes in the final. Swoboda held the world lead with 6.99 and was unbeaten in 10 races going into the final while Brisco had impressed with a 7.03 clocking in both the heats and semifinals.

Away from the hurly burly of the inside lanes, Kambundji went almost unnoticed. That was until the last 10 metres when a strong surge took her away from a stacked field and to Switzerland’s first gold medal at the World Indoor Championships since 1993.

Her winning margin of 0.03 was not insignificant - particularly in the context to the men’s final the following day in which the gold and silver medalists were separated by a mere 0.003 - but it took a careful examination of the slow motion replay on the big screen for Kambundji to realise her achievements. But even then, it didn’t seem to fully sink in.

World Athletics Indoor Championships Belgrade 2022 - Day One

Kambundji’s reaction was one of incredulity and disbelief and even at the press conference which followed later in the evening, the Swiss sprinter was still in a state of shock.

“I wasn’t sure at all that I won. I was really so focused on myself and I saw the camera was focusing on me so I thought ‘OK, maybe!’ I was a bit confused; I was just really happy when I saw it was me who won,” recalled Kambundji.

Her winning time of 6.96 was the fastest this century and takes her ahead of Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Elaine Thompson-Herah on the world all-time 60m list. She is now equal with their Jamaican teammate Merlene Ottey, the most bemedalled sprinter in history, and only 0.04 away from the world record held by Russia’s Irina Privalova who clocked 6.92 in 1993.

With 7.05 and 7.06 clockings to her name this season, Kambundji was in the medal reckoning ahead of the championships but her form through the rounds didn’t necessarily point towards such a fast time despite the fast track in the Stark Arena.

Kambundji admitted she wasn’t “in a great race mood” in her heat and she also was beaten in the semifinal by eventual silver medallist Brisco. With the fifth fastest time across the three semifinals, Kambundji was drawn right on the periphery for the final but her 7.08 clocking boosted her confidence, the lane draw notwithstanding. However, that lane draw proved to be a blessing in disguise for the Swiss sprinter.

World Athletics Indoor Championships Belgrade 2022 - Day One

“I felt a lot better this evening [in the semifinal] - I knew the race was OK but it wasn’t great yet and I knew I could run faster. At first I was a bit disappointed I was in lane eight - usually I prefer to be next to the others just to feel them but I know I couldn’t change it so I just have to focus on myself and just do the best race.

“I think in that case it was just perfect. I was doing my own race, trying to run as possible and seeing nobody. That’s what I did,” said Kambundji.

Indeed she did. Kambundji was fast out of the blocks - she was even with Brisco and ahead of Swoboda whose start wasn’t at its most potent - and the Olympic 100m finalist made sure of the victory with an excellent last few strides which took her away from the field and to her first major title as well as one of the fastest times in history.  

“I was almost sure the gold medal would be won in sub-seven seconds. My PB was 7.03 from four years ago and I knew I could run faster. It’s hard to say how fast I could run - I just wanted to do a good race and see what time it is.

“I was really focused. I was not in a good race mood this morning, I was struggling and then I was really nervous because I knew the final was going to be so fast and I knew I had a good chance. I knew I had a really fast time in my legs but you still have to put it on the track,” she said.

With a global title in the 60m to accompany her world 200m bronze medal from Doha 2019, how fast does Kambundji think she can run outdoors in the 100m this summer?

“I don’t know. Fast!” she quipped. “Last year I didn’t really get a big PB; I didn’t take any big steps so I think I can run a lot faster this year. I don’t know what it’s going to be but this time gives me a lot of confidence.”

Kambundji shaved 0.01 from her lifetime best with a 10.94 clocking last year but she wasn’t even the fastest Swiss sprinter in 2021. That accolade went to European indoor champion Ajla Del Ponte who took the Swiss record from Kambundji, lowering the mark to 10.90. Both athletes reached the Olympic 100m final in Tokyo before they were part of a sprint relay team that finished fourth in the final.

With three Olympic appearances under her belt, Kambundji has seen the rise and rise of Swiss athletics over the last decade and the 29-year-old has been at the forefront of the Swiss sprinting revolution on the women’s side. 

Kambundji hopes her victory will have a ripple effect in the ranks ahead of a busy summer season with the World Athletics Championships in Oregon and the European Athletics Championships in Munich taking place in July and August respectively.

“I think it motivates the younger athletes to see we can win medals and we can win titles. We have a really strong team and I hope this wins shows everyone that we can win championships and even in the sprint disciplines,” said Kambundji.

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