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Karsten Warholm: from promising combined eventer to 400m hurdles superstar

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Like every athlete expecting to be involved in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, 2019 European Athlete of the Year Karsten Warholm was frustrated by the fact the Games had to be postponed to next summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Norway’s 24-year-old European and two-time world 400m hurdles champion, mature beyond his years, is characteristically balanced in his attitude. “Of course I want to have the Olympics, but I think the Olympic spirit is to take care of the world and to gather all nations,” he says. “And to do that it needs to be safe and it needs to be the right thing to do.

“For me my main motivation is to always develop, so I will be pushing and training for when it will be back, but when that will be I don’t know.”

Warholm recently showed the kind of fitness all that training has developed as he ran alone in Oslo’s Bislett Stadium to record a new 300m hurdles world best of 33.78 at the self-styled ‘Impossible Games’ on 11 June. The Norwegian has also made the most of the limited international racing opportunities afforded to him, most recently powering to a European record of 46.87 in the 400m hurdles in Stockholm to inch ever closer to the world record of 46.78.

As European Athletics celebrates its Golden Jubilee, Warholm, who was also featured as part of European Athletics' 50 Golden Moments campaign, can also look back at his own significant European heritage – a series of events that have helped him develop into the athlete who now bestrides his event.

Two years before he sought an audacious 400m/decathlon double at the 2015 European Athletics U20 Championships, Warholm had won gold at the World U18 Championships in Donetsk in the octathlon – the youth version of the decathlon which involved all the Olympic events except the discus and pole vault.

Adding those two disciplines to his competitive menu in Eskilstuna, Sweden proved challenging in his nascent combined events career. “At that time I was mainly a decathlete,” he recalls. “That was my main motivation. But also I was running well at 400m as well. I wanted to do them both as a double – and to be honest I think I am still tired from that double. It’s a crazy double that no one should ever do!”

Were the throwing events hardest for him? “Absolutely,” he said. “The throwing events were where I really had my Achilles heel. I actually trained a lot with Andreas Thorkildsen but that was at the end of my decathlon career so I never got to fulfil my potential there. Also I wasn’t that good at shot put or the pole vault.

“So I had a lot of challenges because when I went from octathlon to decathlon I had to learn how to throw the discus and how to pole vault. At the age of 19 it’s a very late start. It was quite tough for me and when I went to Oslo I started to train and it was decided that my potential at the 400m hurdles would be better. So I never went back.”

Warholm won silver in both events, clocking 46.50 in the 400m behind the 46.48 and totalled a personal best of 7764 points in the decathlon.

Which was the most satisfying silver? “I was actually probably more pissed that I didn’t win anything!” he said with a chuckle. “I would probably rather have one gold medal than two silver medals. Doing that double is something that I’m proud of, it’s something that I can check off my bucket list, but I think that I maybe lost the chance of winning a gold medal – and you should never do so.

“I’m really glad they had these championships. For me it was a place where I could get even more knowledge and experience to take with me to my senior career.”

Warholm stepped up to senior competition the following year at the European Championships in Amsterdam where, in his new incarnation as a 400m hurdles specialist, he reached the final after setting a Norwegian record of 48.84 in winning his semifinal.

He finished sixth in 49.82 as gold went to Turkey’s Yasmani Copello in 48.98 ahead of Spain’s Sergio Fernandez in 49.06 and Switzerland’s defending champion Kariem Hussein in 49.10.

“It was a really good feeling, a moment I appreciate to this day,” he says. “So I got to run in the European final, being only 20 or so, it was a big year for me. I had just started my professional career and I felt that the 400m hurdles was something that I was really good at.

“It was also an experience that told me that being on these stages was somewhere where you could push your limits. Because I didn’t know at that time that once you have these settings, you can actually push to achieve more.

“To be honest I was so happy with my semifinal that that alone felt like a victory to me. So I was really hyped and slept badly. I was stepping up to the final, trying to do my best, but at that time the guys were really better than me – you had Copello and Kariem, those guys were really good, and Copello is a good runner down to this day.

“But it gave me something to work towards. I saw where the level was at – and I think that is really important for young athletes.”

There is no bigger stage for an athlete than the Olympics, and later that year Warholm took another huge step forward at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, lowering his national record to 48.49 in winning the opening heat before clocking 48.81 in the semifinal.

“The Olympics was huge for me,” Warholm recalls. “It was probably the main reason why I chose the 400m hurdles because I wanted to qualify for Rio. And the qualifiers in Rio are still one of my best experiences – 48.49.

“What is so funny is that we were at the training camp in January of that year and Coach Leif told me that I could run 48.50. He missed by one hundredth of a second so I thought that was bad!

“At that point I ran the qualifiers as if it was my final and in the semifinals I was tired. Again, my level wasn’t good enough to keep up with the guys who got to the final – but yet again a huge experience and something that I learned a lot from.”

Next stop in his continental tutorial was the 2017 European U23 Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, where he attempted a variation on his 2015 double as he entered the 400m and 400m hurdles.

In the former event he ran 45.75 to claim silver behind the 45.33 run by Slovenia’s Luka Janezic. In his specialist event he collected his first European gold without undue pressure as he set a championship record of 48.37.

“It was a really, really heavy race routine in Bydgoszcz,” he reflects. “Because it was six races in three or four days. For me it was a good experience and I got the gold in the 400m hurdles and a silver in the 400m so that was very decent I think, I was really happy to do that.”

Within a month, back at senior level, Warholm had his first gold in the World Athletics Championships, earning his astonishing breakthrough 400m hurdles victory at the 2017 London World Championships in 48.35. Cue the trademark mouth-tugging stare of disbelief.

He was favourite to take his first senior continental gold at the following year’s European Athletics Championships in Berlin – but his season before that stupendous event in the 1936 Olympic Stadium had been physically and mentally gruelling - suffering a string of defeats to the newly emerged Qatari athlete Abderrahman Samba, one of three men to run faster times than him in 2018.

“I was really looking forward to Berlin,” Warholm says. “That was my main target for the season. I was having a tough time getting beaten, and the other guys were running faster.

“So in 2018 I really felt like I needed the European Championships and I wanted to prove myself by adding another gold medal to my collection. The chances were good but I also knew there were going to be other guys after the medal.

“I chose to do a double with the 400m flat, which made it even more risky.”

He took gold in the 400m hurdles in a personal best and European U23 record of 47.64 but couldn’t quite rekindle the same form in the 400m final the following day, trailing in eighth in 46.68.

“The atmosphere in the stadium was crazy,” he says. “Germans are real fans of track and field, they know their track and field, and I think it was a great, great competition and a great championship. Really well organised, a fast track, a historic arena, I think it is something I am going to remember forever.

“It was nice to have a personal best but in championships it’s all about the medals. It was extra fun to get the Norwegian record again because I want to push the limits, I always want to run faster. Thanks to Copello he pushed me all the way to the finish line.

“Winning the 400m hurdles meant my first senior gold at the European Championships so it was a big moment for me,” Warholm says. “The 400m didn’t go too good, but hopefully in the future I will have another chance.”

Would he have attempted the same double at the European Championships which would have taken place in Paris this summer had not the pandemic forced their cancellation? “Yes, I probably would,” he responds. “I would have loved to double up. I will probably keep on doing that in the future.”

In March 2019 he travelled to Glasgow for the European Athletics Indoor Championships seeking an uplifting performance in the 400m flat as he contemplated a season where he would defend his world title against the new swarm of swift contenders.

And he got it, taking gold with an emphatic performance that saw him run 45.05 to equal the 1988 European indoor record set by East Germany’s Thomas Schoenlebe.

But he maintains that, while confident, he felt far from sure he would win given the presence of Oscar Husillos of Spain, who had crossed the line first in the previous year’s World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, clocking 44.92, only to be disqualified for a minor lane violation.

“I knew that Husillos had a great level in him,” Warholm recalls. “But I knew that I had great chances of winning. You can see in the race that I am leaving everything on the track. I didn’t spare anything. I wasn’t confident I would win but I was confident I would do really good and I just wanted to put on my best performance and I think I did.

“That also kick-started my 2019. I had proved to myself that I had a good race in me and had a good time and I was fast, and stronger than the year before. So it was good momentum to work with towards the outdoor season. It gave me a lot of confidence.

“Actually I said this to my coach as well, it was one of my more memorable medals. I felt like something changed there. I had been beaten all the year before, but I felt like something had worked when I was in Glasgow, something that gave me confidence, and the motivation to work towards the summer again knowing that I had taken further steps and that my training was putting me in the right direction.

“It was like a confirmation and it also showed I can run the flat as well as the hurdles and I am doing the right things. It is something else that I am good at. I am an athlete that can do more than just my main event.”

Reflecting on his European journey, Warholm recalls his satisfaction at being presented with two of his biggest golds by the late European Athletics President and fellow Norwegian Svein Arne Hansen, who took such obvious pride in the continuing achievements of “The Viking.”

“I am very pleased it was Svein Arne that was appointed to give me the gold medal in the European Championship in Berlin 2018 and also in the World Championship in Doha 2019,” Warholm says.

“These was two very special events for me and I also think it meant a lot for Svein Arne too. According to the plan, he was also to hand out the gold medal in the World Championships in London in 2017, but due to being affected by a stomach virus outbreak at the hotel, the plan was changed.

“It is special for me to look back on these memories now. Svein Arne was a very generous person and he was genuinely interested in the sport and the athletes. He and athletics belonged together, and it is a huge loss that we no longer have him among us.”

Mike Rowbottom for European Athletics