Everyone will know Lea Sprunger by now but they might not know too much about her coach.
Though still only 44, Laurent Meuwly has been coaching since he was 18. He finished his coaching qualifications by the age of 20 and attended his first championships as a coach at aged just 24 - ironically at the European Athletics U23 Championships.
Meuwly has coached Sprunger for over a decade now and is responsible for taking her from a solid flat sprinter to an elite 400m hurdler, picking up a European title in the process - as well as a European indoor 400m title - and countless Swiss records over a gamut of distances, including the long-standing Swiss 400m hurdles record held by Anita Protti.
Sprunger, however, is not his only success story. As Swiss head coach for sprinting, hurdles and the relays, Meuwly transformed Swiss fortunes in the 4x100m relay with their women setting a remarkable 11 national records under his tutelage.
Now, intriguingly, he has taken the position of head of sprinting, hurdles and the relays in the Netherlands. Considering the Netherlands are one of Switzerland’s main rivals in the relays especially at continental level, how did the move come about?
“I was approached by Charles van Commenee after I attended a coaching clinic in 2018. The Dutch team were starting a ‘Close the Gap’ Project for the 400m/400m hurdles events. At that time, the Netherlands had mixed training groups with 100/200m sprinters, 400m sprinters, long jumpers and hurdlers, split between Bart Bennema and Rana Reider.
“With Reider having to move back to the US, it was an opportunity for them to split the short sprinters and hurdlers from the 400m sprinters and hurdlers,” he explained.
Meuwly has now taken charge of the long sprinters and hurdlers but he also has responsibility for all four relay teams too. He still coaches Sprunger who has moved across to Papendal in the Netherlands with Meuwly along with Ajla Del Ponte, a key component of Switzerland’s 4x100m relay team that finished fourth at the World Athletics Championships in Doha.
Meuwly immediately made some technical changes to the Dutch 4x100m team, changing the starting position from a three-point start to standing start. This allowed the outgoing runners to see the incoming runner more clearly, it allowed them to get to top speed more quickly, and most of all gave them greater consistency.
The changes paid off quickly. The men’s 4x100m relay team set a Dutch record - and ran under 38 seconds for the first time – with 37.99 in the London Diamond League and then went even faster in the heats of the World Athletics Championships in Doha with 37.91, their second national record in less than three months.
After persuading the federation to allow Meuwly to take a women’s 4x400m relay team to the World Relays in Yokohama last May, the Dutch team duly qualified for Doha – only the second time a Dutch team had qualified for a World Championships in that event. This time they went one better, reaching the final and thus qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics.
Part of that 4x400m relay squad were two young athletes fans may be less familiar with for now. Femke Bol, the reigning European U20 400m hurdles champion, and Lieke Klaver, who is a 200/400m specialist, are both coached by Meuwly, and are names to watch out for.
Bol began her career as a 400m runner and only started running over the hurdles last year. But she did something quite remarkable in her nascent career, qualifying for World Athletics Championships in the 400m hurdles in only her third ever 400m hurdles race with a 55.94 clocking in Geneva. She lived up to her role as favourite for the European Athletics U20 Championships in Boras, winning gold in that event in 56.25 before setting a European U20 record of 55.32 in the heats in Doha.
Bol has started 2020 where she left off, taking her indoor 400m lifetime best down to 52.47 and is expected to improve further now she has moved to the hi-tech Dutch National Training Centre in Papendal. So what can we expect from Bol in the summer?
“This year is about stabilisation, that is the most important thing. The goal is of course for her to run faster than her PB, but being consistent around the 55.0-55.5 level is what we are aiming for.
“We will work on her speed and technique. We worked hard on her start this winter, her first hurdle and up to the third, and already she is much faster. She has a more endurance-based profile, she needs time to unwind and find her rhythm in a race. But we are working at opening faster and will initially do 16 strides for the last two hurdles, and then, once she gets better in her opening 200m, try and finish in 15s,” said Meuwly.
With both the Tokyo Olympics and Paris 2020 European Athletics Championships taking place within a month this summer, there is a decision to be made on which events should be the priority, especially for younger athletes just starting to break into the elite ranks.
“Femke could possibly make the final in Tokyo but she is one of maybe six women battling for the podium in Paris, so that will be our focus. That and the 4x400m relays in both Tokyo and Paris.”
Her teammate Klaver was initially a 100/200m runner, reaching the final in the 200m at both the 2015 and 2017 European Athletics U20 Championships although her future seems destined to lie with the 200m and 400m.
“We will see how she develops over this next season,” said Meuwly. “The plan is ultimately to transition her to 400m, but as she is a speed-based athlete - we will need to improve her 200m for her 400m anyway. In terms of Tokyo, the standard in the 200m (22.80) is probably easier for her right now than the 400m (51.35) but I believe she can get down to 51.5 this summer. But like Bol she is still young, so the priority will be the relay.”
Inevitably, we cannot talk about Dutch sprinters without mentioning two-time world 200m champion and multiple European champion Dafne Schippers.
Schippers had to withdraw from the 4x100m relay in Doha due to an injury which also forced her out of the 100m final and the 200m, the event in which she was shooting for a third successive title. With Jamile Samuel also injured and sprint hurdler Nadine Visser unable to start because of the timetable, their chance of making the final was severely impaired.
He will continue to run Schippers on the long second leg this summer, and despite some jesting about drafting her into the 4x400m, she will run the 4x100m only to give them the best chance of a medal.
Meuwly believes they can run under 42 seconds in the 4x100m relay this year, which gives them a chance of getting on the podium in both Tokyo and winning the title in Paris although they will need all the best women available - and in form.
“If you can run under 42 seconds it means you can get on the podium. That is our aim. For the women’s 4x400m relay, we’re targeting the top five finish in Tokyo and the podium in Paris. “Our men’s 4x100m team can certainly make the final in Tokyo and again, we want to challenge for a medal in Paris,” he said.
With Meuwly’s track record in both Switzerland now in the Netherlands, who would bet against him?
Stephen Prior for European Athletics