by Brett Larner
Yoshimi Ozaki (Team Daiichi Seimei) scored the silver medal in the women's marathon at the 2009 World Championships in a thrilling three-way battle against eventual winner Xue Bai (China) and bronze medalist Aselefech Mergia (Ethiopia), Japan's first silver medal at the World Championships since Mizuki Noguchi finished second to Catherine Ndereba in the 2003 Paris World Championships.
Holding the fastest qualifying time on the Japanese team, 2:23:30 at last year's Tokyo International Women's Marathon, Ozaki was a question mark coming into Worlds after a spring of injury and an absence from media coverage, but her powerful, efficient form was clearly operating at 100% right from the start. When Russian Nailiya Yulamanova attacked after a moderately-paced first 30 km Ozaki was one of only three athletes to follow. Men's steeplechase national record holder Yoshitaka Iwamizu came to the rescue when Ozaki missed her special drink shortly afterwards. In the final 5 km after Yulamanova dropped away Ozaki pushed to break her Chinese and Ethiopian rivals, but the race came down to a sprint over the final kilometer with Bai taking gold in 2:25:15. Ozaki was 10 seconds back in 2:25:25 and Mergia another 7 seconds behind in 2:25:32. Japanese-coached Chunxiu Zhou and Xiaolin Zhu took 4th and 5th to give China the team gold medal by a wide margin. Japan-based Julia Mumbi Muraga, coached by the legendary Yoshio Koide, was the top Kenyan finisher, 12th overall in 2:28:59.
In an interview immediately after the finish Ozaki was fresh, energetic and full of laughter. Her hair did not even look wet despite the heat. "Up until the 30 km point I just ran my own pace," she said of the back-and-forth pacing of the main pack throughout much of the race. "The real race was only over the last section." Ozaki's silver ties that of her coach Sachiko Yamashita, who was second at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. As in the 2007 World Championships, where the great Reiko Tosa scored bronze, Ozaki's medal is thus far the only Japanese medal in Berlin and a significant achievement for Yamashita, one of the only female professional coaches working in Japan. It also extends Japan's legacy of medaling in the World Championships, with at least one medal in every World Championships since 1991 with the sole exception of 1995.
Yuri Kano (Second Wind AC), a teammate of Ozaki's older sister Akemi, was the second Japanese finisher at 7th overall in 2:26:57, her best race of the year. "In the morning my coach told me to be ready for tough conditions," she told journalists afterward, "I wanted to place better than this, but in the back of mind I had 'top eight at worst.' I'm glad I at least made my minimum goal." Kano's former teammate Yoshiko Fujinaga (Team Shiseido), running in her first World Championships in ten years, was a surprise third on the Japanese team, giving Japan the team silver medal, its seventh straight team medal, with a 2:29:53 finish. The only team member to cry during her post-race interview, Fujinaga said, "After ten years since my last World Championships I'm just glad I could make it all the way to the finish."
The shock of the race from the Japanese perspective was the underpar performance by Yukiko Akaba (Team Hokuren), who finished 31st in 2:37:43 after struggling to maintain contact with the pack from early on in the race despite being a pre-race favorite for medal contention. Fujinaga waited for Akaba at the finish line with an ice pack, and Akaba could later be seen bent over holding her left forefoot in evident pain.
Ozaki's medal, the team medal and Kano's top ten finish combined with Atsushi Sato's 6th place finish and the Japanese men's team bronze medal go a long way toward restoring Japanese confidence in the marathon after the failure of the Beijing Olympics. In Ozaki the country appears to have found another great with a bright future.
2009 World Championships Women's Marathon - Top Finishers
click here for complete results
1. Xue Bai (China) - 2:25:15 - SB
2. Yoshimi Ozaki (Japan) - 2:25:25 - SB
3. Aselefech Mergia (Ethiopia) - 2:25:32
4. Chunxiu Zhou (China) - 2:25:39 - SB
5. Xiaolin Zhu (China) - 2:26:08 - SB
6. Marisa Barros (Portugal) - 2:26:50
7. Yuri Kano (Japan) - 2:26:57 - SB
8. Nailiya Yulamanova (Russia) - 2:27:08
9. Alevtina Biktimirova (Russia) - 2:27:39 - SB
10. Kara Goucher (U.S.A.) - 2:27:48 - SB
12. Julia Mombi (Kenya) - 2:28:59 - SB
14. Yoshiko Fujinaga (Japan) - 2:29:53
31. Yukiko Akaba (Japan) - 2:37:43
(c) 2009 Brett Larner
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