Jimmy Gressier has amassed a faultless record in this intermediate age-group and the Frenchman will be looking to win his third successive title in both the individual U23 and team races at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Lisbon on Sunday (8).
Not only has Gressier won four gold medals in this category at the European Cross Country Championships, the 22-year-old demonstrated this summer that his repertoire extends to the track, winning gold medals in both the 5000m and 10,000m at the Gavle 2019 European Athletics U23 Championships in July.
What makes Gressier such a redoubtable competitor is his versatility. The former footballer made his breakthrough in Samorin two years ago by winning in a sprint finish on a hard and flat course - outpacing pre-race favourite Yemaneberhan Crippa from Italy in the process - before raking through the mud in Tilburg in near gun-to-tape fashion last year to successfully defend his individual and team titles.
Gressier employed a different tactical approach altogether on his 10,000m debut at the European Athletics U23 Championships in Gavle, surging away from the pursuers in a slow race in the last mile, covering the four laps in 4:17.1 despite slowing in the home straight to showboat for the crowd.
Gressier has been the standout individual performer but the French team has also dominated the U23 category as a collective. France had four individual finishers placing inside the top seven in Samorin and four inside the top nine in Tilburg. The same quartet - Gressier, Hugo Hay, Fabien Palcau and Louis Gilavert - will join forces for one final hurrah in the U23 race in Lisbon.
Like Gressier, Hay will be aiming for his third successive medal after winning silver in 2017 and bronze in 2018. He also provided the second part of a French one-two in the 5000m behind Gressier at the European U23 Championships.
Gressier’s prospects of a hat-trick of titles have been further heightened as Spain’s 20-year-old Ouassim Oumaiz - who defeated four top-10 finishers from the World Cross Country Championships in Atapuerca last month - has opted to contest the senior men’s race instead. This leaves European U23 1500m champion Ignacio Fontes and European U23 5000m bronze medallist Abdessamad Oukhelfen as Spain’s leading individual medal hopes.
Serbia’s Elzan Bibic is moving through the ranks and the former European U18 3000m champion - who won bronze in the U20 race behind Jakob Ingebrigtsen and Oumaiz in Tilburg last year - will be challenging for individual medals on his debut in the U23 race while Tadesse Getahon, who won silver behind Gressier in the 10,000m in Gavle, will be in contention to win Israel’s first ever European Cross Country Championships medal.
Great Britain's Alex Yee is focusing on triathlon these days but the 21-year-old might feel as though he has some unfinished business with the European Cross Country Championships. Yee was one of the prospective favourites for the U20 title in Chia in 2016 but his race was scuppered by a heavy mid-race fall which limited him to a ninth-place finish.
Yee will be making his first appearance at the European Cross Country Championships since that fated race three years ago after finishing third overall at the British Trials in Liverpool, one place behind Mahamed Mahamed who fared rather better in that race in Chia, winning individual bronze.
Moller poised to progress into the senior ranks with another U23 title
While Gressier’s staunchest rival last year was the finishing tape which he got tangled up in after skidding through the line on his knees, Denmark’s Anna Emilie Moller’s principal rival in Lisbon could be the clock with Germany’s Alina Reh and Konstanze Klosterhalfen both missing from the championships.
Moller won gold in the U23 race Tilburg last December in a sprint finish before winning gold medals on back-to-back days in the 3000m steeplechase (9:27.51) and 5000m (15:07.70) at the Gavle 2019 European Athletics U23 Championships.
Moller’s performance at the World Athletics Championships might not have received the plaudits which it deserved but the Dane was one of the breakthrough performers in a European context, improving her national record - and her European U23 record - to 9:18.92 in the heats and then to 9:13.46 in the final of the 3000m steeplechase in Doha.
Moller has raced twice since the track season and the 22-year-old produced notable wins at the Nordic Cross Country Championships in Heinola, Finland on 10 November before winning the Warandecross in Tilburg a fortnight later by an unassailable margin of 31 seconds.
Four months before her 22nd birthday, Moller was also the top European finisher at the World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus in March, finishing 15th over a distance of 10km. Her form is such that Moller surely would have challenged for an individual medal had she opted to contest the senior race in Lisbon.
Behind Moller, four more top ten finishers from Tilburg will compete in the U23 race: Spain’s Celia Anton, Germany’s Miriam Dattke, Great Britain’s Poppy Tank and France’s Mathilde Senechal.
Out of this quartet, Dattke is arguably the best placed to challenge for a place on the podium alongside Moller. The German has improved significantly over the last twelve months, converting her sixth-place finish from Tilburg into a silver medal over 10,000m at the European U23 Championships.
One athlete who Dattke knows very well from recent age-group championships is Jasmijn Lau from the Netherlands. Lau just missed out on a place on the podium in the individual U20 race in Tilburg last December but she has made a comfortable transition into the U23 ranks, winning bronze behind Reh and Dattke over 10,000m in Gavle.
Anna Tropina might not have too much in the way of cross country form but the Russian, who is competing as an Authorised Neutral Athlete, could be a factor for individual medals based on the form she has displayed on the track this season. Tropina won the Russian 3000m steeplechase title this summer in 9:31.86.
Men's U23 race medallists (8000m) in 2018:
1. Jimmy Gressier (FRA) 23:37
2. Samuel Fitwi (GER) 23:45
3. Hugo Hay (FRA) 23:48
Team: 1. FRA, 2. GBR, 3. ESP
Women's U23 race medallists (6120m) in 2018:
1. Anna Emilie Moller (DEN) 20:34
2. Anna Gehring (GER) 20:36
3. Weronika Pyzik (POL) 20:46
Team: 1. GER, 2. ESP, 3. GBR