Finnish soil has been particularly kind over the years to veteran Bulgarian sprinter Ivet Lalova-Collio, who claimed her maiden senior outdoor title over 100m at the 2012 European Championships at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki.
“But before that, my first big success was in Tampere where I became double European U20 champion in 2003 so it was the beginning of my career fourteen years ago,” said Lalova-Collio at the pre-event press conference ahead of the European Athletics Team Championships First League.
Bulgaria gained promotion to the First League two years ago thanks in no small part to a sterling effort from Lalova-Collio on home soil. Now 33, Lalova-Collio claimed maximum points in the 100m and 200m and even a disqualification in the 4x100m did not damage their promotion charge in Stara Zagora.
Lalova-Collio will be contesting all three events again - a feat made more challenging by the tougher level of opposition in the First League along with the change in format. There will be 100m and 200m heats on the Friday afternoon with the top eight finishers progressing to the finals across the weekend.
“Well, it’s going to be hard for me because I’m covering the 100m, 200m and the 4x100m relay so I have to run five times in three days. I have to be really smart and use all of my experience,” said Lalova-Collio.
Less than a year after winning double gold at the 2003 European Athletics U20 Championships, Lalova-Collio - who had only just turned 20 - made a scintillating debut at the European Cup First League on home soil in Plovdiv, springing to international prominence in the process.
“I have great memories because it was at home and I ran my 100m PB - the famous 10.77 - so you always have great memories from home. Two years ago it was held in Stara Zagora and it was nice because we had full stadiums and a lot of people supporting us and I’m sure we will have the same thing here over the next two years but when it’s at home, it’s special.”
Thirteen years later, Lalova-Collio is still one of the Bulgaria’s preeminent athletes and the role of being the elder stateswoman on the team sits very comfortably on her shoulders.
“Actually, my role on the team has changed a lot - they look at me as a captain as I’m someone with big experience because I made it back after my broken femur, so many athletes are looking up me for advice,” said Lalova-Collio, whose presence on the team has been paramount in changing the dynamics.
“A few years ago, people were not talking to each other, people were not friendly and I really worked really hard to change that and I wanted everyone to know we are friends and my experience could help them. I’m really working hard on team spirit, it’s really motivating for young athletes.”
By contrast, Karsten Warholm is still a relatively new face on the Norwegian team at the age of 21 but there will be high hopes for him in the 400m hurdles after winning the Bislett Games in Oslo in a European-leading mark and national record of 48.25.
“When you start the season, you are always nervous - you have the results from training but nothing more than that so I think Bislett was a flying start for me - it’s been great and hopefully I can keep it going.”
Warholm’s performance in Oslo - backed up by a win in Stockholm - was certainly a flying start but he added it was still far from the perfect race.
“In Oslo, it was very good up until 300m and after that, I was struggling with my stride - I wanted to go to thirteen strides to the ninth hurdle but I didn’t manage it because I was tired and I switched.
“I also hit the last hurdle so there are things to change but it was still a personal best. Hopefully I can go under 48 seconds before the end of the season but no guarantees,” he said.
While the 400m hurdles will be his foremost focus this season, Warholm has not completely ruled out a move back to the multi-events. “I like training in various events and competing in various events but it’s kind of on ice now.”
Local favourite Karin Storbacka has also competed across a wide range of disciplines in her years as an international athlete. A decade ago, Storbacka was in the 4x400m team when she competed at the European Cup First League in Vaasa but she will be in long distance action this weekend over 3000m.
“It’s kind of of a new event for me so I’m really excited. Last time we had this competition, I was running in the 4x400m, then I was running 800m and 1500m, now it’s 3000m,” she said.
While Lalova-Collio admitted some warmer temperatures would be preferable this weekend, Storbacka expressed herself more than content with the cool conditions forecast in Vaasa over the next three days.
“I’m actually really happy with this because I’m allergic to grass so the colder, the better.”