Three world records fell on the track on the final day of competition on Monday (5 June) at the Nottwil Grand Prix in Switzerland.
Belgium’s T42 Para athlete Gitte Haenen was the first to race into the record books – in her first ever 400m race.
Haenen only began racing six months ago, and she admitted that world record marks were the last thing on her mind - although the 31-year-old was inevitably delighted after crossing the line in 1:28.76.
“It feels fantastic but it was more a good feeling that I did a good run, because it was my first 400m ever and my coach was also glad that I did what she asked me to do,” explained Haenen.
“I didn’t know the record, and I didn’t have a clue about how I would run myself. I just wanted to do my best, that was the important thing.”
A former Thai boxer, Haenen had planned to turn professional but she suffered severe damage to her knee when she was kicked during a fight. After enduring six years of pain, Haenen had her left leg amputated above the knee just over a year ago.
However, the desire to compete and succeed never left her.
“I always wanted to be a world champion in Thai boxing but that’s not possible anymore. I thought just because I can’t be a Thai boxer anymore doesn’t mean I can’t be good in another sport. My motto is when life punches you, you punch back harder.”
British wheelchair racer Ben Rawlings also broke his first ever world record, clocking 12:02.00 in the men’s 5,000m T34 as he knocked nearly 20 seconds off the previous mark set by the USA’s Austin Pruitt in 2014.
Rawlings had proved to be in superb form in Arbon last month, setting three European records - so the chance to achieve a world best seemed too good to miss. British teammate Isaac Towers, who shared the lead position for much of the race, finished just behind in 12:02.26.
“It was good – me and Isaac worked together to get that world record. That had been the plan. It’s been a long race series out here in Switzerland – I think I’ve done every race from 100m to 5,000m so I just felt a little bit tired in my arms but I still had enough to sprint at the end and I’m happy.”
South Africa’s Louzanne Coetzee (18:14.27) meanwhile lowered her world record in the women’s 5,000m T11, knocking more than one minute off the mark she set last year to add to her new personal best in the 800m on Friday (2nd June).
“I’ll be leaving Switzerland with two personal bests so I’m happy - it really does give me a lot of confidence. I don’t want to make too many predictions but I would love to come back from London with a medal or two,” said Coetzee, who hopes to race in the 800m and 1,500m T11 at July’s World Para Athletics Championships in the British capital.
Home favourite Marcel Hug (9:58.48) had set his sights on the men’s 5,000m T54 world record and the 31-year-old quickly built up a significant lead, but his time wasn’t quite fast enough to beat Thai Rawat Tana’s record of 9:49.17 set in Arbon - although the ‘Swiss Silver Bullet’ remained upbeat with his performance.
“For me it was very important to have this good end to the competition just to show that I am in good condition especially after the 1,500m on Saturday,” explained Hug, who had to watch as Canadian Brent Lakatos, racing in a different heat, broke the 1,500m T53/54 world record Hug had held since 2010.
“It was very disappointing for me that I was not able to be in the same heat, maybe it was the most frustrating thing I ever had in my career. So today I just wanted to show that I’m still good.”
Victory in the women’s race went to China’s Paralympic marathon T54 champion Lihong Zou (11:42.58), who pulled clear of Swiss favourite Manuela Schär (11:44.33) round the final bend after the pair had split from the pack early on.
Zou (55.92) also came out on top in the women’s 400m T54, while in the men’s heats Dutchman Kenny van Weeghel (46.14) crossed the line fastest.
There were a number of other 400m races in the morning session, with South African sprinters Charl du Toit (T37) (54.00), Anrune Liebenberg (T47) (57.64) and Dyan Buis (T38) (51.70) all in action.
Buis, who won his first Paralympic title at Rio 2016, took the tape in the men’s T35-47. Motivated by his win in Brazil, the 26-year-old can’t wait to head to London.
“I felt very comfortable, I think I’m in very good shape so I’m very positive and very excited for the World Championships,” said the six-time world silver medallist.
“I watched my race from Rio just for a bit of motivation and I was so emotional after that. I proved to myself that I can do it – that’s a huge motivation going forwards. I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in my life.”
There were clear wins too for Tunisia’s Walid Ktila (50.70) in the men’s 400m T34 and Great Britain’s Hannah Cockroft (59.41) in the women’s equivalent – the 24-year-old finishing more than 50m clear of her rivals despite feeling she could have done better.
“My left arm kind of went to sleep a bit in that race – it felt like it was just going through the motions and not putting any power in which is frustrating, but we’ve done a lot of racing in two and a half weeks, so I’m happy to still go sub-one minute, it’s a time that before we came out here I would’ve been really chuffed with,” explained Cockroft, who has set a remarkable five world records over the last two weeks.
Portugal’s reigning 400m T12 world champion Luis Goncalves (50.30) won his heat; Belgian world and Paralympic champion Peter Genyn (1:21.47) won the men’s T51/52 event and Kuwaiti world record holder Ahmad Almutairi (59.41) was the fastest of the T33 racers.
Out in the field British Paralympic silver medallist Stef Reid (T44) won the long jump T35-47, thanks to her opening round effort of 5.54m. Her closest rival Marlene van Gansewinkel managed 5.37m – setting up a thrilling competition at London 2017.
Germany’s Nicole Nicoleitzik finished best of the T38 jumpers with 4.73m – just 4cm behind the winning distance made by China’s Junfei Chen at Rio 2016.
Full results can be found here.
The World Para Athletics Grand Prix series now heads to Berlin, Germany from 17-18 June - the last Grand Prix of the year, which takes place just 28 days before the London 2017 World Para Athletics Championships.