Feature23 May 2015

Austrian heptathlete Lagger hopes to make more history in Cali


Austrian heptathlete Sarah Lagger in the 100m hurdles (© Hannes Riedenbauer/Austrian Federation)

Better known as a winter sports nation, Austria is yet to win a medal at a global age-group athletics championships. But that could all change at the IAAF World Youth Championships, Cali 2015.

Earlier this month, 15-year-old Sarah Lagger became the youngest athlete to surpass the 6000-point mark in the youth heptathlon, scoring 6014 at the Open Styrian Championships in Leibnitz on 16-17 May.

It’s the highest heptathlon score ever achieved with the new lighter throwing implements – a 3kg shot and 500g javelin – that were introduced a few years ago. The previous world youth best of 5991, set by Tatyana Chernova in 2005, was with the senior throwing implements.

Several other youth athletes have scored in excess of 6000 points with the senior heptathlon. China’s Shen Shengfei scored 6185 in 1997, then three years later Carolina Kluft scored 6056 to win the world junior title while still a youth athlete. Britain’s Morgan Lake was also still a youth when she won the world junior title last year with 6148, again with senior implements.

But that’s not to take anything away from Lagger, who has become the first Austrian athlete to set a world youth best, some 34 years after fellow Austrian Sepp Zeilbauer set a world junior decathlon record of 7783 at the 1971 European Championships in Helsinki.

Strong all round

Lagger’s individual PBs are impressive as she appears to have no weak event: 13.91 in the 100m hurdles (76.2cm), 1.74m in the high jump, 14.09m in the shot (3kg), 25.07 in the 200m, 6.08m in the long jump, 46.59 in the javelin (500g) and 2:19.85 in the 800m.

Five of those PBs were set during her competition in Leibnitz. Aside from the heptathlon, she has achieved qualifying marks for the World Youth Championships in the long jump, 100m hurdles and 200m.

She also excels in the pole vault, an event in which she has won nine national titles across different age groups, and the discus. But in Cali she will most likely focus on just the combined events.

Lagger hails from Carinthia and competes for the Zehnkampf Union club. Athletics fans in Austria hope that she will one day follow in the footsteps of Liese Prokop, the 1969 European champion and former world record-holder from Austria.

In fact, Lagger’s marks in the high jump, long jump and 200m in Leibnitz were better than the ones Prokop achieved when she took the Olympic pentathlon silver medal in 1968.

Big score wasn’t a surprise

Lagger’s recent 6014 didn’t come as a shock to those close to her. Her coach Georg Werthner, who finished fourth in the decathlon at the 1980 Olympics, had been predicting a 6000-point score ever since Lagger set a national under-16 record of 5556 last September.

Werthner discovered Lagger in 2008 at a talent screening session at her primary school when she was eight years old. Of the 820 pupils, Lagger was among the top three.

Werthner and his younger brothers Roland and Ulrich undertake talent-scouting activities in schools. Many athletes have been discovered through the programme, but Lagger is arguably the greatest talent they have unearthed so far.

“It is just fun to work with her,” said Werthner, a four-time Olympian. “In seven years of cooperation, she has learned and improved in a very steady manner, still leaving plenty of time for a regular childhood with her school friends and with her brother and sister. She really has a lot of potential. Weight training has not even begun yet.”

Lagger herself knows that as well, but before her recent competition in Leibnitz, she said her coach was ‘crazy’ for speaking about the possibility of scoring 5700 to 5800 points. “It took a while for me to realize what happened,” said Lagger, whose idol is Olympic champion Jessica Ennis-Hill. “So many people supported me.”

Ukraine’s Alina Shuk and Switzerland’s Geraldine Ruckstuhl both topped the world youth lists last year and are still young enough to compete in the age group this year. Neither of them has contested a heptathlon so far this year, but will be expected to challenge for a medal in Cali.

Lagger’s compatriot Andrea Obetzhofer could also figure among the top six finishers in the Colombian city in July.

Seeing the red-white-red colours of the Austrian flag at the top of the world youth all-time list has made the close-knit athletics community of the alpine republic immensely proud. Such joy would be multiplied if that same flag were to rise first during the heptathlon medal ceremony in Cali.

Olaf Brockmann for the IAAF