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Rudisha, Vlasic take honours for 2010

David Rudisha and Blanka Vlasic’s dominance in their respective events saw them deservedly being crowned World Athlete of the Year this week.

Both superb as juniors, the pair quickly assumed lead roles in the sport, fine tuning their precocious talent to take World Athlete of the Year honours for the first time, according to official reports on the IAAF website. And at just 21 and 27 respectively, the only question that remains is how much faster Kenya’s Rudisha can run and how much higher Croatia’s Vlasic can leap.

Even before he would embark on one of the finest 800m campaigns in history, Rudisha was already among the world’s finest over distance.

The World junior champion in 2006, Rudisha was still a teenager when taking the African title in May 2008, just a month before he joined the event’s sub-1:44 club with a promising 1:43.72 run in Oslo. After winning the 2009 Kenyan trials for the World Championships, he arrived in Berlin as a solid gold medal threat, but those ambitions would be slowed by illness on race day. But he quickly bounced back with four straight victories, the most significant his 1:42.01 run in Rieti which not only took down an African record which had stood for 25 years, but also left the young Rudisha as history’s fourth fastest man. By any measure, he produced a tough act to follow. But illustrating maturity beyond his 21 years, Rudisha managed to out-do even the highest of expectations.

Opening 2010 with a quick 1:43.15 victory in Melbourne in early March, he pieced together an impressive string of victories through the spring and early summer, the most significant of which was his unforgettable duel with arch rival Abubaker Kaki in Oslo where he prevailed with a jaw-dropping 1:42.04.

After taking the national title in Nairobi, he returned to Europe where victories in Lausanne and Heusden followed, the latter with a sizzling 1:41.51. That performance, coupled with his 1:42.84 successful African title defence at altitude in Nairobi, signalled that Wilson Kipketer’s 1:41.11 World record, which had stood for 13 years, was clearly under threat each time Rudisha stepped on the track. That would come in his very next outing, where he produced a sensational 1:41.09 at the ISTAF World Challenge meeting in Berlin. A legend-in-the-making was born. But he wasn’t quite done just yet.

After another victory in Brussels five days later, where he clinched the Samsung Diamond Race Trophy in the event, Rudisha returned to the track in Rieti where just one week after setting the World record, place it even further out of reach with a mind-numbing 1:41:01 run.

Beyond his World record heroics, Rudisha was unbeaten in 12 finals, successfully defended his African title before a home crowd in Nairobi and captured the season-capping IAAF/VTB Bank Continental Cup in Split, Croatia. He produced the season’s four fastest performances, five of the top six, and eight of the quickest 11, and will begin the 2011 season riding a 16-race win streak.

As for Vlasic, she like Rudisha, came to the fore after winning back-to-back World junior titles in 2000 and 2002. Her star rose consistently in the ensuing years; by 2006 she was already one of the premiere stars of her event. She took her first World title in Osaka in 2007, was narrowly beaten into second place at the 2008 Olympic Games, and followed up with a second straight World outdoor title in Berlin in 2009, a season in which assaults on Stefka Kostadinova’s 2.09m world record became commonplace. She ended the year as history’s second highest jumper after clearing 2.08m on home soil in Zagreb. Yet again, expectations were high for 2010.

She began the year with another busy and solid indoor campaign, with six victories in as many competitions, and capped it in Doha with her second straight World indoor title.

But as the focus turned to the outdoor season, Vlasic admittedly struggled, both physically and psychologically, to find her form. She nonetheless fought her demons throughout the summer, winning five of her seven competitions prior to arriving in Barcelona for the European Championships. Despite an extensive list of accomplishments, a medal of any sort at the continental level had eluded her. Vlasic would later admit that not having found her form by mid-summer, she seriously considered not competing in the Catalan capital. Off to a shaky start in the final, those self-doubts were clearly visible. But she battled on and took firm control with a second attempt clearance at 2.03 to equal her season’s best and secure the title.

Post-Barcelona proved to be vintage Vlasic. She won the rest of her six competitions, saving her best performance for her last competition of the year in Europe. Her hometown of Split was the setting for the IAAF/VTB Bank Continental Cup, with Vlasic clearly the centre of attention. The expectations were again exceedingly high — posters and billboards of Vlasic, this charming Dalmatian seaside city’s Citizen No1, were everywhere– and more than 30,000 vociferous fans turned out to share

Vlasic’s starring role. She didn’t disappoint, winning the competition with a season’s best 2.05m before bowing out with three attempts at the World record, one effort close enough to stir the enthralled crowd’s imagination. All things considered, her appearance before a home crowd at Poljud Stadium was among the most memorable moments of the 2010 season, and one of the finest in World Cup/Continental Cup history.

In all, Vlasic won all but two of her 20 competitions in 2010, and living up to her role as a Samsung Diamond League Ambassador, notched a perfect seven-for-seven record in the series’ inaugural season.