‘Golden Girl’ aims for third straight world title

by Ed Odeven

In a sport of specialists, Carolina Kluft is the undisputed queen of versatility.

News photoSweden’s Carolina Kluft, an Olympic heptathlon champion and two-time gold medalist in the world championships, stands in front of a manga-style illustration of herself in Osaka on Wednesday. Kluft will compete in the 2007 IAAF World Championships, which begin on Saturday.
AP PHOTO

She has to be. Her job title — heptathlete — requires as much.

The Swedish star is vying for her third consecutive gold medal at the 2007 IAAF World Athletics Championships, which begin on Saturday in Osaka.

Kluft, a 24-year old who is often called Golden Girl, also earned the heptathlon gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics and a pair of shiny first-place medals at the 2002 and ’06 European Championships.

Quietly, she’s put together an incredible win streak.

Kluft is unbeaten in the heptathlon since 2002. In the always-changing dynamics of track and field, that’s nearly two generations of athletes. Or put another way: What hasn’t changed since then?

Kluft’s next competition will be held at Nagai Stadium, where she will showcase her skills in the 100-meter hurdles and high jump on Saturday before lunchtime, and the shot put and 200-meter race in the evening.

On Sunday, her workday begins at 5:15 p.m., when she’ll put her endurance and strength to the test in the long jump, javelin throw and, finally, the 800 meters.

Kluft demonstrated her championship mettle and will to win at the 2005 IAAF World Championships in Helsinki in August. Despite sustaining an ankle injury in the high jump, Kluft endured the pain and had her ankle wrapped up. Then she participated in the heptathlon’s final event, the 800.

When it was over, Kluft had secured the world title with a personal-best 7,001 points and a 63-point victory over Eunice Barber of France.

After the meet, Kluft told the International Herald Tribune that “I can definitely say this was the toughest heptathlon I’ve ever done.

“Eunice had great competitive spirit and I had my injuries. But it was really tough for me to keep focus and stay positive . . . but this was a great experience for me.

“I’m just happy I made it, and if you want to talk about ranking, I think this will be very high ranked in the future.”

It should be.

American Jackie Joyner-Kersee has the sixth-best points totals in women’s heptathlon history. She set the world record in the heptathlon with 7,291 points at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Kluft told reporters in Osaka this week that Joyner-Kersee’s past accolades are impressive, but not something she focuses on.

“I never even think about it,” she told The Associated Press. “I will not end my career being disappointed because I have chased a record I may never get. I am not sure I even have the ability to break it.”

Barber, the 1999 world champion, has decided not to compete in the heptathlon in Osaka. Instead, she will lace up her shoes, dash down the runway and soar through the air in the long jump competition.

Responding to her rival’s decision, Kluft told AFP-Jiji: “That doesn’t matter at all. If one of the top athletes drop off, there are still a lot of others to compete against. It will be a good competition and I will focus on my performance.”

Kluft’s singular focus is on winning. She proved this again in May, when she outshined a field of top-level heptathletes at the IAAF Combined Events Challenge in Gotzis, Austria. Kluft placed first with 6,681 points, topping Ukranian Lyudmila Blonska’s 6,626

“It was the hardest fight. But I think it’s nice when there is a close fight because it’s good for the crowd,” Kluft told AFP-Jiji.

Kluft seems to bask in the glow of big meets, enjoying the interaction with fellow athletes as much as anyone. But why does Kluft, a crowd favorite all over the world, enjoy competing in heptathlons?

“The heptathlon is such a nice event because if one event doesn’t go well, you’ve got a chance in another,” she told BBC.com

Kluft said she plans to stop competing in heptathlons after the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“I have goals left, but I can’t do the heptathlon forever,” Kluft told AFP-Jiji. “After Beijing, I plan to compete in singles events, probably the long jump, which is my best event.”

It runs in the family. Kluft’s mother, Ingalill, is a former long jumper. And her father, Johnny, played in the UEFA Cup in the 1970s.

When she’s not competing, Kluft attends the University of Vaxjo in southern Sweden, where she is studying peace and development. After the 2004 tsunami in South Asia, Kluft traveled to Sri Lanka to make a movie for a Swedish TV station and she’s sponsored children in Africa.

It’s a nice reminder that winners can have other passions, too.