As Nadia Battocletti approached the finish line at the end of the 5,722m women’s U23 race at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in the winter wonderland of Piemonte-La Mandria Park today (11), the young queen of Italian distance running raised her right arm in triumph, savouring the significance of an historic victory on home ground.
On a day when Great Britain’s Charles Hicks proved a class apart in defence of the men’s U23 crown, the Italian holder of the women’s U23 title brought her winning pedigree to bear in ultimately decisive fashion, finishing 13 seconds clear in a champion-of-champions duel with the 2021 U20 winner Megan Keith of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The vocal home crowd already had an Italian victory in the mixed relay to celebrate and the brilliant Battocletti provided them with a solo success to acclaim.
For the 22-year-old student of construction engineering, who lives in the nearby Trentino region of northern Italy, it was a fourth consecutive continental cross country success.
Winner of the U20 title in Tilburg in 2018 and in Lisbon in 2019, before stepping up to U23 champion in Fingal-Dublin a year ago, Battocletti continued her winning run with a performance that was all the more stunning given the long battle for health and fitness that she has been fighting over the past four months.
Having missed the World Athletics Championships in Oregon with injury and hit by glandular fever at the Munich 2022 European Athletics Championships where she finished seventh in the 5000m, the reigning European U23 champion revealed at the pre-championships press conference on Saturday that she had been on antibiotics until ten days ago.
As if the hilly course and the icy conditions were not testing enough, the home favourite also had to battle against an obdurate rival in the shape of Keith, the 20-year-old Briton who won the U20 race a year ago.
The pair were joined at the front by Irish champion Sarah Healy on the first of four long (1440m) laps but her challenge faded on the next circuit, leaving Battocletti and Keith to battle it out from before halfway.
Enjoying huge home support, the Italian attempted to break clear on the penultimate circuit, opening a gap on the indoor section through the carriage museum of La Mandria Castle - only for her gritty British rival to close it on the steep downhill stretch.
At the start of the final lap, Battocletti discarded her gloves, then proceeded to deliver the telling blow.
At the foot of the final climb she had a 10-metre advantage. Driving hard with her arms, she built it into a winning lead up the hill. Through the museum and down the side of the hill, she maintained her momentum before crossing the line in 19:55, 13 seconds clear of Keith, whose British teammate Alex Millard took bronze ahead of Amina Maatoug of the Netherlands in fourth.
"To win a title at home has a special taste," Battocletti reflected. "I have won before in the Netherlands, in Portugal and in Ireland. Now I have done it in Italy. It is like a dream. My year has been uphill because of injury and illness but I really wanted this title. It was a tough race because the other girls were strong today."
"My father said to me to increase the pace on the third lap but I think Megan thought the same. She was very strong. It had to be on the last lap instead."
After crossing the line, Battocletti was hugged by her father and coach Giuliano, who knows what it is like to celebrate a home success, having led Italy to the senior men’s team prize with a seventh-placed finish when the championships were first held in Italy, in Ferrara in 1998.
His daughter led Italy to the women’s U23 team title in Fingal-Dublin last year but had to settle for silver yesterday, with fellow counters Aurora Bado in 14th and Giovanna Selva 16th respectively.
France took bronze but the Brits were clear winners with ten points, Keith and Millard being brilliantly backed up by Grace Carson in fifth place.
"I’m so happy," said Keith. "Nadia’s such a good runner, I’m buzzing to get second to her. That course was just brutal. Those hills were killers."
Battocletti became only the second runner to claim back-to-back U23 titles, emulating Denmark's Anna Emilie Moller’s double in 2018 and 2019, and Hicks did likewise in the men’s U23 race, following in the footsteps of France’s Jimmy Gressier, who prevailed in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
A month after claiming the coveted NCAA cross country title, the Stanford University student was to the fore from the off, joined at the front initially by the rival who pushed him the closest in Fingal-Dublin last year, Darragh McElhinney.
Hicks’ team mate Zak Mahamed and France’s Etienne Daguinos made it a lead quartet at the end of the first of four long laps but then McElhinney dropped off the pace, eventually fading to 27th place.
Daguinos also dropped back, leaving the British pair to slug it out on the last two circuits. The decisive move came on the final climb, Hicks forging ahead to win by three seconds, crossing the line in 22:12. Mahamed took silver, while the fast finishing Valentin Bresc snatched bronze from fellow Frenchman Daguinos, just a second separating the pair.
"It’s unreal, pulling out the NCAAs and then this in the same year," said Hicks. "It’s the perfect season for me."
With Matthew Stonier in eighth, Great Britain came out just on top in a tight tussle for the team title; their tally of 11 points was just three more than France mustered courtesy of Bresc, Daguinos and seventh-placed Antoine Senard.
If McElhinney’s run was a disappointment for Ireland, consolation came with the team bronze, with Efrem Gidey fifth, Keelan Kilrehill seventh and Shay McEvoy 15th.
Full results here.
Simon Turnbull for European Athletics