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Katarina Johnson-Thompson’s best first-day score gives her chance to dream

The Guardian logo The Guardian 10/08/2018 Sean IngleBerlin
Katarina Johnson-Thompson recorded her best distance in the shot put in the European Championship heptathlon in Berlin. © AFP/Getty Images Katarina Johnson-Thompson recorded her best distance in the shot put in the European Championship heptathlon in Berlin.

Katarina Johnson-Thompson went toe to toe with the best female athlete on the planet during a compelling first day of the heptathlon – and ended it on the front foot and gunning for European Championship gold.

On a night when Britain’s Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake and Holly Bradshaw won silver and bronze, Johnson-Thompson posted her best opening‑day score to lead the world and Olympic champion Nafi Thiam by 87 points. The brilliant Belgian was not expecting this. She has not been defeated for more than two years but admitted: “I have a massive battle on my hands.”

With three events remaining, Johnson-Thompson is on 4017 points, with Thiam second on 3930 and the German Carolin Schafter third on 3848. The Liverpudlian is still an outsider, given her javelin is a substantial work in progress. But for now, at least, she can dream of an unprecedented multisports treble of world indoor, Commonwealth and European championship gold in the same year.

“I’m definitely not going to give up easily,” she said, her voice hoarse with effort. “I’m here to win.”

BERLIN, GERMANY - AUGUST 9: British athlete Katarina Johnson Thompson competes in women's 200m heptathlon race during the fourth day of the 2018 European Athletics Championships in Berlin, Germany on August 9, 2018. (Photo by Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) © Getty BERLIN, GERMANY - AUGUST 9: British athlete Katarina Johnson Thompson competes in women's 200m heptathlon race during the fourth day of the 2018 European Athletics Championships in Berlin, Germany on August 9, 2018. (Photo by Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Johnson-Thompson needed a strong start and she got one in the 100m hurdles. And her time of 13.34sec – 0.04sec shy of her best – was even more impressive given she has barely hurdled after sustaining a calf injury in April. “I just wanted to attack,” she said. “I did and it paid off. I’m just trying to take that mentality into all the events.”

Her 1.91m in the high jump, the second event, was a little short of what she had wanted. But Thiam, whose personal best is 2.01m, could not exceed it. It meant Johnson-Thompson led by 51 points after two events, but there was a massive caveat: the shot put, her weakest event, was next.

Usually it sends her tumbling down the leaderboard and crushes her spirit. Not this time. From nowhere she threw 13.09m – her best in a hepathlon. Understandably, she did a jig of joy that was only curtailed when her coach, Bertrand Valcin, quietly gestured not to get carried away. “Sorry,” she whispered, smiling, realising that over seven events every ounce of energy must be saved.

Thiam’s response was that of a supreme champion. She stepped up to the circle and threw a personal best of 15.35m and suddenly she was back in the lead – and by 100 points.

2018 European Championships - Women's Heptathlon High Jump - Olympic Stadium, Berlin, Germany - August 9, 2018 - Katarina Johnson-Thompson of Britain reacts. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach © Reuters 2018 European Championships - Women's Heptathlon High Jump - Olympic Stadium, Berlin, Germany - August 9, 2018 - Katarina Johnson-Thompson of Britain reacts. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Yet the seesawing first day was not over. When the Belgian ran a moderate 24.81 in the 200m, scoring only 904 points, Johnson-Thompson regained the lead by running 22.88sec to earn 1091 points. “The turning point was when I finished the shot put and I was still second,” Johnson-Thompson said. “Because normally I go down to page two on the scoreboard.”

She knows her chances of gold will probably boil down to the long jump, the first event on day two. At her best she can soar to nearly seven metres – which is world class. But she has struggled with mental demons since fouling three times in the event while favourite for gold in the 2015 world championships.

Yet those demons will have to be exorcised given her personal best in the javelin, the sixth event, is nearly 20 metres and 374 points behind Thiam. A long jump of 6.75m or more, however, will make things very interesting indeed.

Mitchell-Blake added another British sprint medal at these championships with silver in the men’s 200m. With Turkey’s Ramil Guliyev steaming home in a championship record 19.76sec, Mitchell-Blake snatched second on the line, his time of 20.04 the same as Switzerland’s Alex Wilson, who won bronze, and just 0.01 ahead of Spain’s Bruno Hortelano. Adam Gemili ran a season’s best 20.10 but could only finish fifth.

BERLIN, GERMANY - AUGUST 09:  Katarina Johnson-Thompson of Great Britain and Carolin Schaefer of Germany compete in the Women's Heptathlon 100 metres hurdles during day three of the 24th European Athletics Championships at Olympiastadion on August 9, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. This event forms part of the first multi-sport European Championships.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images) © Getty BERLIN, GERMANY - AUGUST 09: Katarina Johnson-Thompson of Great Britain and Carolin Schaefer of Germany compete in the Women's Heptathlon 100 metres hurdles during day three of the 24th European Athletics Championships at Olympiastadion on August 9, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. This event forms part of the first multi-sport European Championships. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

“The last 40m were all mental and I was fortunate enough to push through for second by the skin of my teeth,” Mitchell-Blake said.

Bradshaw was also delighted after winning her first outdoor medal with a clearance of 4.75m to finish behind the Olympic champion Ekaterini Stefanidi from Greece.

“It’s the first time in four years that I’ve been able to put a full year of training together without an injury or surgery, so I am really happy.”

Briefly there looked as if there may be a third medal on the night for Britain but Zak Seddon faded to finish fifth behind France’s Mahiedine Mekhissi‑Benebbad in the 3,000m steeplechase.

Athletics - British Championships - Alexander Stadium, Birmingham, Britain - June 30, 2018  Katarina Johnson-Thompson reacts during the women's high jump final  Action Images via Reuters/Craig Brough © Reuters Athletics - British Championships - Alexander Stadium, Birmingham, Britain - June 30, 2018 Katarina Johnson-Thompson reacts during the women's high jump final Action Images via Reuters/Craig Brough

The men’s 400m steeplechase was surely the final of the night with the Norwegian Karsten Warholm taking gold in 47.64, just ahead of the Turk Yasmani Copello.

Thomas Barr finished like a train in lane eight to became the first Irishman in the 84-year history of the European championships to claim a sprint medal. Warholm, who celebrated in a Viking hat, goes for a unique 400m hurdle/400m on Friday night.

His celebration was mild compared with Germany’s Thomas Rohler, who jumped into the steeplechase pool after throwing 89.47m to win javelin gold – a gesture that was greeted with wild applause by a crowd of close to 50,000.

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