Headlined by Olympic marathon runner Lisa Weightman, Beijing 5000m representative Collis Birmingham and in-form rising star Ryan Gregson, Australia will be represented by a strong 18-member team in the 37th edition of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships to be staged in Amman, Jordan on Saturday.
Once again the powerful East African nations are expected to assert their dominance, however as demonstrated by the victory of Benita Johnson in 2004, and numerous top 10 performances from the likes of Steve Moneghetti, Robert DeCastella and Craig Mottram over the years, it is not impossible to break their stronghold.
For the first time since 2001, Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele, who has claimed six wins over the classic 12km distance in seven years, will not be competing in the men’s event, leaving the door open for 2007 champion Zersenay Tadese (ERI) or a member of the strong Kenyan team to stake their claim. Whilst Kenya has reigned in the team event, it has not celebrated a long-course individual champion since Paul Tergat in 1999.
Experienced campaigners Michael Shelley (QLD) and Collis Birmingham (VIC) will be making their fourth appearance in the green and gold at the world cross country championships, and will be endeavouring to improve on their best positions of 51st (Edinburgh 2008) and 67th (Mombasa 2008) respectively.
Liam Adams (VIC), who won a silver (individual) and bronze (team) medal at the 2008 World University Cross Championships in France, will be making his debut.
With Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba not returning to defend her title, the senior women’s race, held on the 8km course, will be an extremely open affair.
The Australian women’s team may find it difficult to defend their historic team bronze medal, however a top 10 place is not out of the question.
Finishing 20th last year in Edinburgh, Beijing Olympian Lisa Weightman will be looking to crack the top 20 in her third appearance at the championships.
Reigning national 10,000m champion Lara Tamsett (NSW), 2008 national 10,000m champion Melinda Vernon (VIC), Chiba Ekiden relay representative Tara Palm (SA) and Olympic triathlete Erin Densham (VIC) will provide a strong support cast.
The junior men’s race appears to have a clear favourite in 18-year-old Ayele Abshero, runner-up last year and comfortable winner of the Ethiopian trials last month. In the junior girl’s event, last year’s champion Genzebe Dibaba (ETH), younger sister of Tirunesh, will return to defend her title.
All eyes will be on Ryan Gregson (NSW), the 18-year-old who has been on fire this Australian season, with two Australian junior records over the 1500m and 3000m. His battle with American German Fernandez, who has set two world junior indoor mile bests this year, will be greatly anticipated by the Australian distance running fraternity.
Gregson will be setting his sights on a top-10 finish in Amman and with the support of Richard Everest (SA), Joshua Johnson (NSW), David Ricketts (NSW), Brett Robinson (ACT), Harry Summers (NSW), the junior boys' team could place in the top five.
Emily Brichacek (ACT) who placed 21st in Edinburgh, will lead the charge for the Australian junior women.
A day out from the start gun, team manager Tim O’Shaughnessy said the Australian squad was ready to go, despite the predicted tough conditions expected to greet competitors on the course.
“The course is tough but so are we,” declared O’Shaughnessy.
“The team are in good spirits. We were the first team to arrive and had the place to ourselves for a few days.
“The 1.9km training track is the only place you can run and it is getting crowded, however it a great experience for our athletes to train alongside the Kenyans and Ethiopians.”
The Bisharat Golf Course which will play host to the championships, has taken on the appearance of a traditional European cross country venue with heavy rains softening the ground surface.
“The course will be tough, especially if it rains. It has a clay surface and is very hilly. The forecast for Saturday is about 11 degrees with a chance of rain.”
Australian team coach and dual world cross country gold medallist Sonia O’Sullivan has had a major influence on the team, her advice and guidance an invaluable resource for the younger brigade.
“Sonia has been a huge influence. This year she has been able to travel with the team the whole way, plus she knows them a lot better after last year,” continued O’Shaughnessy.
“The official program came out with her picture on it winning in 1998 and the whole team were just in awe.”
Amman 2009 will only be the second occasion on which an Asian country has hosted the World Cross Country Championships, which are the oldest IAAF World Athletics Series event, first celebrated under the IAAF banner in 1973.
Further information and live results can be found on the IAAF World Cross Country Championships website.
14:30 (23:30 Saturday AEDT) – women’s junior race
15:00 (midnight Saturday AEDT) – men’s junior race
15:40 (00:40 Sunday AEDT) – women’s senior race
16:30 (1:30 Sunday AEDT) – men’s senior race
37th IAAF World Cross Country Championships
Amman, Jordan – March 28
Men (12km): Liam Adams (Vic), Collis Birmingham (Vic), Michael Shelley (Qld)
Women (8km): Erin Densham (Vic), Tara Palm (SA), Lara Tamsett (NSW), Melinda Vernon (NSW), Lisa Weightman (Vic)
Junior Men (8km): Richard Everest (SA), Ryan Gregson (NSW), Joshua Johnson (NSW), David Ricketts (NSW), Brett Robinson (ACT), Harry Summers (NSW)
Junior Women (6km): Emily Brichacek (ACT), Tamara Carvolth (QLD), Hollie Emery (NSW), Chloe Tighe (NSW)
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