Karoline Bjerkeli Grøvdal’s path to the senior title last year was far from a straightforward one but the Norwegian will be looking to extend her unparalleled record at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships when she defends her title in Piemonte-La Mandria Park on Sunday (11).
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After winning five successive silver and bronze medals between 2015 and 2019, Grøvdal discarded her perennial bridesmaid tag once and for all with a performance full of patience, experience and grit in Dublin last year.
Having been content to sit off a hot early pace, Grøvdal only took the lead just before the last lap. In an attritional slugfest of a last lap, Grøvdal leached the sprint finish out of Meraf Bahta’s legs for a triumphant and popular victory which also provided the second half of a Norwegian double after Jakob Ingebrigtsen’s win in the men’s race.
"That was a very big day for me. I tried so many times for a gold medal at especially cross country. To get the gold was a big day and I was so happy as you can see from the pictures on the day!
"I've been happy with all my medals because it's not easy to take a medal but when you take silver and bronze, you always want the gold as well. I was so focused in the race and I knew I was in good shape and I was so happy when I saw this was my time," said Grøvdal in an exclusive interview with European Athletics ahead of the championships.
In total, Grøvdal has won eight individual medals, an unsurpassed record by a female athlete in the history of the European Cross Country Championships which first took place in Alnwick in the north-east of England in 1994.
Her first medal dates all the way back to the 2006 edition when the championships were held on Italian soil for a second time in San Giorgio su Legnano. On that day, a 16-year-old Grøvdal won silver in the U20 race behind Great Britain’s Stephanie Twell.
Grøvdal was also a medal-winner on Italian soil again a decade later when the championships were held in Chia on the island of Sardinia in conditions which couldn’t be more contrasting to the near freezing temperatures which are forecast on Sunday.
Grøvdal stepped up to win bronze in the senior women’s race behind a certain Yasemin Can from Turkey, the Norwegian’s long-time nemesis who went on to win four successive titles at the European Cross Country Championships and will be looking to regain her crown in the shadow of La Mandria Castle on Sunday.
Having been so dominant between 2016 and 2019, Can’s title defence came to an ignominious end last year. She suddenly lost contact with the leaders with only 10 minutes on the race clock and faded back to 14th, losing more than two minutes on the leaders.
But a gold medal in the 10,000m at the European Athletics Championships in Munich this summer shows Can is still very capable of contending for continental accolades. By contrast, Grøvdal’s assault on medals in a track season which saw her break Ingrid Kristiansen’s legendary Norwegian 5000m record in Oslo was scuppered by an untimely back injury which forced her to miss the 10,000m in Munich and DNF in the 5000m.
While Grøvdal has been training at high altitude in Flagstaff, Arizona in the autumn months and hasn’t raced since October, Can tested her fitness with two cross country races in Spain and showed good form with a victory in Seville.
And a third reigning European champion will also be in action. Germany’s Konstanze Klosterhalfen is seeking to add more lustre to a season which was highlighted firstly by her gold medal in the 5000m in Munich and then by her sensational half marathon debut in Valencia, taking victory in 65:41 - one of the fastest debut performances in history.
However, the German challenge could be led by her contemporary Alina Reh, who overhauled her more illustrious compatriot on the last lap for bronze in Dublin last year - Klosterhalfen eventually faded to fifth - and recently won the German cross country title by a commanding distance.
Having struggled for form since the European Athletics Championships, Reh is downplaying her individual chances in La Mandria Park but despite this caveat, the Germans will still be strong contenders to win their first ever senior women’s team title. Their team brings together their finest talents from across the spectrum with 1500m specialist Hanna Klein and Miriam Dattke, who led Germany to team gold in the marathon at the European Athletics Championships, also in their ranks.
The British team narrowly won the team title last year ahead of the Germans with Jessica Warner-Judd leading the way courtesy of a fourth-place finish, her best ever finish in the senior race at these championships having won U20 and U23 medals, the latter in 2017 when she finished behind Reh and Klosterhalfen.
Having recently won the trial race in Liverpool, Warner-Judd represents Great Britain’s best chance of winning an individual medal. And a team full of depth and ability will challenge for team honours again. Other standout names on the team include reigning European indoor 3000m champion Amy-Eloise Markovc and Jess Gibbon and Abbie Donnelly who were both part of the gold medal-winning British team last year.
Also watch out for the Swedish team in the context of both the individual and team races, especially with only three counters to score.
Their team is headed by last year’s silver medallist Meraf Bahta and 2019 bronze medallist Samrawit Mengsteab who returned to finish sixth last year and helped Sweden to a team bronze.
But their team is undeniably strengthened this year by the addition of Sarah Lahti who has won World Athletics Cross Country Tour Silver events in Mol and Tilburg on the road to these championships.
Another medal aspirant is Israel’s Selamawit Teferi who finished seventh in last year’s race. She was fifth in the 10,000m at the European Athletics Championships.
Steven Mills for European Athletics