Yasemin Can ran her way into athletics history by completing a hat-trick of gold medals in a gripping race at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Tilburg on Sunday (9).
Once more this title is the hands of the Turkish superstar, who becomes the first woman to win it on three occasions but unlike her dominance in Chia and Samorin, her victory here was not decided into the final few metres of this 8.3km race.
Under pressure, Can showed she had enough to eventually power home and shake off the challenge of Switzerland’s Fabienne Schlumpf and the exciting late charge of Norway’s Karoline Bjerkeli Grovdal.
Having won by 10 and 15 seconds respectively in her two previous victories, the results tell the story of how tough it was on a decidedly softer and more technical course compared to her previous two title triumphs.
This year Can won by just one second over 8.3km from Schlumpf - 26:05 to 26:06 - with Grovdal third, a further second behind. In fourth in 26:16, Susan Krumins made it a great day for the host nation as she spearheaded the Netherlands’ team gold.
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The big question was whether Can was going to be the force of the past two years, having had a summer in which she failed to defend her European 5,000m and 10,000m titles in Berlin.
Perhaps fearing more rain, she ran in a tracksuit top and after Portugal’s Sara Moreira had led them through the first 1000m with Can in fifth, it all changed.
The Turkish athlete gradually moved to the front from Grovdal, Schlumpf, Great Britain’s Melissa Courtney and Krumins and by the 2500m split, Can had taken over but on this occasion, it was not going to be business as usual. Krumins stayed close behind with Schlumpf and Grovdal not far away.
Can was trying to break this strong field as early as she could but Schlumpf had other ideas on a course where she had won the Warandecross only a few weeks earlier.
Never mind the undulations, the logs, the big mud patches, whatever Can did, Schlumpf went with her as this pair went head-to-head with Krumins and Grovdal seemingly racing for bronze.
It was impossible to guess who would win, with the pair trading places. At the bell - with the final lap of 1300m left - they hit it together at 21:55 with Grovdal and Krumins nine seconds behind but closing.
On the twisting course through the woods, Can edged ahead and then Grovdal launched a late attack, moving nearer to the leaders.
The finish line almost in view and Can found just that extra edge to create the smallest of gaps, but it was big enough to ensure the title would be hers again as Schlumpf stayed strong for second with Grovdal, going faster with every stride, having to settle for her fourth successive bronze.
It was a race to remember and Can, who turns 22 on Tuesday, said: “It was nice that I had a good battle with Fabienne. I wasn’t 100 percent this season but now I am coming back. And yes - I felt some kind of pressure as the defending champion.”
Schlumpf said: “I am super happy with second. The race was incredible and the crowd was amazing.”
A year ago Grovdal was 16 seconds behind Can. She was much closer twelve months later although the Norwegian did rue her tactics.
“I am very happy with my medal, it is now my fourth in the European Championships,” said Grovdal. “I had so much power in the end, I actually hoped that we would have one more lap. When the bell rang I was disappointed as I thought we would have two more laps to go.”
There was delight for the hosts as they won team gold with 20 points, as Krumins was joined in the scoring by Jip Vastenburg, who was fifth in 26:45 and Maureen Koster who was 11th in 27:08.
They won by four points from Great Britain, whose first runner home was Charlotte Arter in seventh in 26:57. Germany took team bronze, led by Elena Burkard in sixth in 26:53.