Flip the switch

A look at athletes who have dropped one event in favour of a completely different one

Posted on July 27, 2011 by
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Olga Zaytseva (Mark Shearman)

Last weekend at the Russian championships, Olga Zaytseva came away from Cheboksary with the national title under her belt. Nothing strange about that for such a quality athlete – only that it wasn’t in her specialist event, the 400m, the discipline in which she boasts a 49.49 PB and won the bronze medal at the 2006 European Championships. Instead, it was in the long jump.

But Zaytseva isn’t the only athlete to make a drastic event switch. While many distance runners have gradually moved up in distance over the years – marathon world record-holder Haile Gebrselassie, for example, is a former world indoor champion over 1500m – changing from, say, a track event to a throwing or jumping event is far more unusual.

Here’s a look at some athletes who have excelled in two completely different athletics events.

Olga Zaytseva

Although she has previous history in the event (she jumped 6.37m as a junior), her recent 7.01m victory at the Russian Championships was just her second long jump competition of the year, having focused exclusively on sprinting from 2004-2010.

Zaytseva showed much promise during her time as a sprinter and beat 2008 Olympic champion Christine Ohuruogu to the 2005 European under-23 title, but injuries ultimately led to her decision to return to her first love, and she could well be an underdog for this year’s World Championships.

She isn’t the first 400m runner to pick up the long jump however, as USA’s Anthuan Maybank – a 44.15 400m runner – turned his hand to the event in 1993 and leapt a very respectable 8.25m.

Jorge Balliengo

Picture a high jumper and you’ll think of a stick-insect type. Now imagine a thrower, and you get the mental image of a big, burly strongman. The two stereotypes just don’t mix, right? Wrong – and Jorge Balliengo is proof. The Argentian athlete won the national junior high jump title in 1997 with a leap of 2.09m, but a couple of years later he tried his hand at the discus and found even greater success. He progressed rapidly and in 2006 he broke the South American record with a throw of 66.32m.

He is not the only athlete to have focused on those two events, however. More than 70 years ago Kalevi Kotkas of Finland won the 1934 European high jump title and finished 10th in the discus at the same championships. Four years later Kotkas slipped to silver in the high jump, but improved to fourth in the discus.

A more recent example is current world indoor and European indoor high jump champion Ivan Ukhov, who started out as a discus thrower before he turned to the jumps as a 17-year-old.

Emma Green

Anyone who has ever had experience of grassroots athletics will know the feeling – you’re at a team or club competition and you need to make up the numbers in a random event just to get an extra point or two on the board. Swedish high jumper Emma Green was put in one such situation – albeit on a much grander scale – at the 2006 European Cup in Malaga.

Green, who one year prior had won a surprise bronze medal at the World Championships in her specialist event, did not compete in the high jump in Malaga (that honour went to the then reigning world champion Kajsa Bergqvist). Instead she was entered for the 200m, and she did surprisingly well, finishing fifth with a PB of 23.02 and beating many sprint specialists (and incidentally, the winner of that race was none other than the aforementioned Zaytseva!)

Nat Page

A slight variation on the 400m/jumps theme, USA’s Nat Page started out as a high jumper with a PB of 2.29m and winning the 1979 NCAA title. But he was also a talented 400m hurdler. For three consecutive years (1990-1992), Page was ranked in the world’s top 10 in the one-lap hurdles and boasted a PB of 48.75. His other lifetime bests include a 20.97 over 200m and 13.71 in the 110m hurdles.

Irina Privalova

Pick a track event, any track event – chances are that Irina Privalova has tried it. The Russian is best known for her 2000 Olympic title in the 400m hurdles, winning the gold medal in her first and only year of focusing on the event. For the best part of a decade before that, Privalova was a regular on the international sprint circuit, whose better successes had come at the shorter end of the spectrum, having set a 60m world record of 6.92 in 1993 and equaling it two years later. Privalova started out in the long jump (and before that, speed skating!) before focusing on the sprints, and her Russian 100m and 200m records of 10.77 and 21.87 still stand.

But following her victory at the Sydney Olympics, Privalova entered a bizarre stage of her career where she would disappear for a couple of seasons and then return in a new event. In 2003 she emerged as an 800m runner, but soon gave it up after running just 2:09.40. Five years later and aged 39, she announced her intentions of making the Russian team in the 200m for the 2008 Olympics and came close to achieving her goal after clocking 23.25, but ultimately missed out. Most recently in 2009 she made a few 60m appearances and ran a very respectable 7.40. Don’t be surprised if next year, aged 43, she announces a comeback for the London Olympics.

Peter Blank

Another jumper-turned-thrower, only this time it’s the high jump and javelin. Germany’s Peter Blank started out in the high jump and cleared a best of 2.23m as a 24-year-old. But he then started to show promise in the javelin and his instincts proved right.

Just two years after his high jump PB, Blank had already broken 80 metres in his new event. He went on to become a world, European and Olympic finalist and in 2001 at age 39 he set his lifetime best of 88.70m, some 15 years after his brief stint as a high jumper.

Denisa Rosolova

Perhaps only second to Privalova in the indecisive stakes, Denisa Rosolova of the Czech Republic appears to have finally found her event. Competing under her maiden name of Scerbova, she first emerged as ‘the next big thing’ in the long jump, winning world youth silver in 2003, world junior gold in 2004 and European junior gold in 2005. But as she moved into the senior ranks, her progression seemed to stall and her PB remained the 6.68m she leapt as a 17-year-old.

She took up the combined events and found immediate success, breaking the Czech indoor pentathlon record in 2006 with 4392 and improving on it two years later with 4632. She also scored 6104 in the heptathlon, but in her two championship outings in that event – the 2006 Europeans and the 2008 Olympics – Rosolova failed to finish.

2010 saw another change and Rosolova emerged as a 400m runner. After a few promising initial outings, she made a huge breakthrough at the Golden Spike meeting in Ostrava that year with a 50.85 PB and two months later she finished fifth at the European Championships. Earlier this year she won the European indoor title and has improved her outdoor PB to 50.84.

Christian Taylor

USA’s Christian Taylor is probably the most ridiculously talented athlete in the world right now. The 21-year-old is best known for his exploits in the horiztonal jumps, winning 2007 world youth gold in the triple jump and bronze in the long jump. More recently he won a memorable triple jump competition at this year’s NCAA Championships, where he jumped a marginally wind-assisted 17.80m, along with a wind-legal PB of 17.40m. His long jump PB of 8.19m was set last year.

But if the IAAF were to put an end to the horiztonal jumps tomorrow, Taylor wouldn’t mind as he could easily fall back on the 400m and be just as successful. He competes sparingly in the one-lap sprint, but in 2009 at the age of 18 Taylor clocked a PB of 45.34 – a performance that ranked him second on that year’s world junior lists, behind only Grenada’s Kirani James, the man widely regarded as the future of the event. In his only 200m appearance of this year, Taylor has shown promise in that event too, clocking a PB of 20.76.

Taylor’s repertoire of events is strikingly similar to that of Melvin Lister. The former US champion was primarily a jumper with PBs of 17.78m in the triple jump and 8.49m in the long jump, but he also boasted bests of 45.67 in the 400m and 20.51 in the 200m.

Lee McConnell

The Scottish sprinter has been such a consistent performer in the 400m over the years, it is difficult to imagine her doing any other event. But Lee McConnell first found success in the high jump, representing Great Britain at the 1999 European Under-23 Championships and leaping a PB of 1.88m one year later. After a few low-key outings over 400m – more for fitness purposes than anything else – McConnell began to realise that she had potential as a sprinter.

She was drafted into the GB relay team for the 2001 World Championships, but just 12 months later she was the star of the team in the individual event, winning Commonwealth silver and European bronze, and ending her year with a 50.82 PB at the World Cup. In 2005 McConnell then took up a new challenge and tried the 400m hurdles. A Commonwealth bronze in 2006 showed some initial promise, but the following year she dropped the event and went back to the 400m flat. Now aged 32 and in her 10th year of one-lap running, McConnell is still a regular sub-52 runner and has a season’s best of 51.56.

Mamo Wolde

Okay, so I said I wouldn’t include runners who simply moved up in distance over the years, but Wolde is an exception. The Ethiopian is of course best known for his 1968 Olympic marathon gold. Like many long-distance runners, he had moved up in distance over the years after starting out as an 800m and 1500m runner.

But 12 years before his major marathon triumph at the Mexico Games, Wolde competed in the 4x400m at the 1956 Games when making his Olympic debut in Melbourne! Needless to say, Ethiopia did not quite have the same strength in depth as the likes of the USA, and they finished dead last in their heat with a time of 3:29.93.

4 Responses to “Flip the switch”

  1. scotty2hotty says:

    didnt steve backley start out as a middle dsitance runneer also before turning to javelin when his club asked him to throw for some point s ????
    then he found out he could throw a bit , the rest is history !!!

  2. Sam Therapy says:

    Amadou Dia Ba of Senegal – a 2.16 high jumper before turning to the 400H, eventually winning Olympic silver in 47.23.

  3. TFulk22 says:

    USA Javelin thrower Mike Barnett (4x US Champ and 1992 Olympian) started out in college at Azusa Pacific as a pole vaulter. Legend has it that after one particularly frustrating failure at the fault, he got mad and threw the pole across the field. Head coach Terry Franson came over and said, "first off, we need to work on that temper. And second, you're a javelin thrower now."
    That's one way to discover your true event :)

  4. Guest says:

    Lisa O'Dea (probably better known as Lisa Martin or Lisa Ondieki) the 1988 Olympic marathon silver medallist started off as a 100m Hurdler, setting age records in South Australia and also sharing in a national U15 record for 4x100m in the 1970s. Aged 17/18 she moved up to 400H (60.5 PB) and was recruited to a US college. A year or so later she had abandoned the hurdles and began setting Australian records in distance events.

    When Flo Jo made those outrageous comments about moving up to the marathon after Seoul 1988, I joined the rest in scoffing. But I always kept thinking 'hmmmm….Lisa did it..'

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