The timetable of the penultimate day at the Berlin 2018 European Athletics Championships raised some eyebrows with the women’s 400m and 4x400m relay finals scheduled for the same session but Justyna Swiety-Ersetic came through this gruelling assignment unscathed and with her reputation significantly enhanced.
A moderate title favourite in the women’s 400m final, Swiety-Ersetic had ground to make up as she rounded into the home straight but the Pole was on the charge. Swiety-Ersetic had run herself safely into the silver medal position and with one final lung-busting effort and a perfectly timed dip, the Pole hoisted herself past her toiling Greek rival Maria Belibasaki whose legs suddenly turned to lead in the last five metres.
Swiety-Ersetic reeled in a stricken Belibasaki in the last few strides and while her margin of victory seemed clear enough to those watching on the television, Swiety-Ersetic waited anxiously for confirmation from the scoreboard before celebrating her accomplishment.
In a high quality final, Swiety-Ersetic smashed her lifetime best with a winning time of 50.41 ahead of Belibasaki whose time of 50.45 usurped the controversial Fani Halkia’s national record from the books. Lisanne de Witte also set a Dutch record of 50.77 to win the bronze medal.
The entire Polish team in Berlin 2018 wore black ribbons on their white national vests in memory of the legendary and widely loved Irena Szewinska who had died earlier that summer. Swiety-Ersetic was keenly aware of the significance of her performance in the context of Polish athletics history.
“This time is amazing. It is the second fastest time in the Polish history and also the first European gold for our country at this distance so it means a lot. Even Irena Szewinska who passed away this year got only bronze so it is very emotional and important for me,” said Swiety-Ersetic.
The celebrations would have to be put on hold for at least another couple of hours as Swiety-Ersetic was drafted into the Polish team for the 4x400m final at the end of the programme. Swiety-Ersetic was assigned the anchor leg and even though the individual champion was handed the baton in the lead, Swiety-Ersetic still had three teams on her tail including France who were represented by renowned relay exponent Floria Guei.
Midway down the back straight it seemed the exertions of the individual final might be catching up on Swiety-Ersetic. Guei glided past Swiety-Ersetic and both Italy and Great Britain were closing up on the Polish quartet.
But with a target to chase, Swiety-Ersetic latched on to Guei around the bend before moving wide at the home straight before powering past the athlete who memorably anchored France to the European 4x400m relay title in 2014. Just over 90 minutes after becoming the first Pole to win the individual 400m title, Swiety-Ersetic anchored Poland to their first ever European outdoor title in the 4x400m relay.
The individual 400m final took remarkably little out of Swiety-Ersetic who put more than half-a-second on the French team in the last 100 metres. Poland won gold in 3:26.59 with France (3:27.17) and Great Britain (3:27.40) making up the podium.
Writing about her memories of the European Championships in a story on World Athletics later in the season, Swiety-Ersetic said: “My memories of Berlin were beautiful and glorious. I won the individual 400m (in a PB of 50.41). It was a magical moment, although I could hardly comprehend how I did it. With my parents, husband, brother and his fiancée watching from the stands, it made my victory even more special. I can only articulate it as indescribable joy.
“After my individual race I was so tired and I felt I had no energy to race again 90 minutes later in the 4x400m. After all, running two races in such a short time frame is madness! Yet between races I spoke to my psychologist to act as a motivation. I had my concerns up until the last call but I was determined to finish the championship with two gold medals.”
Since the 2018 European Championships Swiety-Ersetic has gone from strength to strength both individually and as part of the 4x400m relay team. At the last World Athletics Championships in Doha, Swiety-Ersetic reached the individual final and an identical relay team from Berlin 2018 ran almost five seconds faster in the 4x400m final to clinch silver behind the United States in a massive national record of 3:21.89.