Winning gold in Berlin is only just the beginning for Sprunger

Lea Sprunger
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Switzerland's Lea Sprunger won the 400m hurdles title at the Berlin 2018 European Athletics Championships

It was a fascinating insight into how a gold medallist works. “Being European champion is going to bring me more confidence,” said Lea Sprunger. “But I am still a beginner.”

She is chatting in the aftermath of her glory in Berlin, where, if the Swiss 400m hurdler is just a ‘beginner’, who knows what the outcome will be by the time she is a veteran?

In 54.33, Sprunger showed immense speed followed by brilliant staying power and control to hold off the challenge of Ukraine’s Hanna Ryzhykova. And it was there the impact of being so good on the flat kicked in as she had enough to make it home for the first major title of her career.

 

The bronze medallist from the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam in 2016 duly became the gold medallist in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin in 2018, yet she is still learning with every stride. Even though she has been hurdling since she was 13, she still thinks of herself as a newcomer to the event.

“I did the heptathlon before. I was quite fast but on the 200m, I was not able to do use all my skills, so I switched to 400m and I then chose the hurdles because they are more fun and more interesting,” she said.

“I just started - I am not like some other girls who do the hurdles for years. I knew I would be good in the 400m flat and 400m hurdles because of my speed and my stride.”

Prior to the IAAF World Championships in Beijing in 2015, Sprunger’s roll-call of international performances are in the 200m, 400m, 4x100m relay and the heptathlon.

Back in 2007, as a 17-year-old, she was 13th in the heptathlon at the World U18 Olympics in Ostrava in the same year as winning a 4x100m relay gold at the European Youth Olympic Festival in Belgrade. In 2009, she took a bronze medal at the European U20 Championships in Novi Sad, finishing ahead of Dafne Schippers and Katarina Johnson-Thompson for a place on the podium.

Now she has firmly established herself as a 400m hurdler, and Sprunger is only looking to take her career to greater levels.

Standing at 1.83m tall, she uses her height to good effect with her slick execution of the barriers and her win in Berlin in 54.33 put her sixth on world lists which are led by teenage phenomenon Sydney McLaughlin from the United States with a world U20 record of 52.75.

“I have to improve a little more to be the best in the world,” said Sprunger. “I need to [improve] a little bit everywhere. I need to be confident and I need to be able to start faster.

“The season is not over yet, I have two more Diamond Leagues [Sprunger has since won the Birmingham Diamond League in 54.86] and the main goal are the Olympics in Tokyo 2020 and before that the World Championships.”

How she thrilled in her success in Berlin, in a summer where prior to the European Championships she was Europe’s leading 400m runner with her national record of 50.52 from La Chaux-de-Fonds in July.

She is now third on that list behind Poland’s Justyna Swiety-Ersetic (50.41) and Greece’s Maria Belibasaki (50.45), the one-two from the European Championships. Sprunger almost doubled up but opted to focus on just the 400m hurdles.

"I was thinking about doing both but I wanted to focus on one event,” she said. “I achieved my goal and it is really good. It is not the first time I have come into a big championship with one of the best times but I was never able to compete and do my best. I did it - and it was just amazing.

“Sure there was pressure but I knew I was in good shape and that if I ran a good race, it would be difficult for the others to beat me. I was focusing on my lane and what I had to do.

“I felt my opponent getting closer and the last hurdle was not the best one I did, I knew that I had a good finish on the flat, I am quite fast compared to the others. I was focussing on my positive skills and I felt [Ryzhykova] but I was never really afraid.”

Sprunger lives in Lausanne where she is surrounded by greatness every day as she trains at Stade Olympique de la Pontaise, the home of the annual Athletissima. But when she is going through her drills, it is not a case of imagining there are 15,000 fans cheering for her.

“It is strange when the stadium is full,” she said smiling when comparing her day-to-day life at the stadium to the night of the big meeting.

But the difference next year is that she will be announced as Switzerland’s European champion, which is not bad for an athlete who is just beginning.