This is Stuart Weir’s second story on the 2023 SPAR European Athletics Championships. The European Athletics Champs were a huge success for the Team GB, and that was great news after a week of tough financial news for UK Athletics.
Stuart Weir tells RunBlogRun about all of the fine performances by Team GB.
RECORD NUMBER OF GOLD MEDALS FOR GB & NI AT THE 2023 EUROPEAN CROSS COUNTRY CHAMPIONSHIPS
Great Britain and Northern Ireland topped the medal table at the 2023 European Cross Country Championships in Brussels, Belgium, after winning 11 medals in total and a record number of gold medals .
In challenging muddy conditions at Laeken Park, there were individual medals for Will Barnicoat [U23 Men], Megan Keith [U23 women], and Innes Fitzgerald [U20 women], while there were team titles for four out of the seven teams.
The 2023 SPAR European Athletics Cross Country Champs, photo by Getty Images for European Athletics
The U20 men’s team won team silver, while the relay won team bronze, and there were individual bronze medals for Abbie Donnelly [Senior women] and Matt Stonier [U23 men] on a frantic day for the Great Britain and Northern Ireland squad.
One of the finest displays of the Championships came from Megan Keith, who produced one of the largest winning margins in European cross-country history as she secured gold in the U23 women’s race. The Scottish athlete beat her nearest opponent by one minute and 23 seconds in one of the most dominant performances ever seen on the continental stage.
Megan Keith, European Athletics U 23 Cross Country, photo by Getty Images for European Athletics
By the end of the second lap, she was already ahead by 21 seconds, and the gap just kept on growing with the gold looking more of a certainty as the race unfolded. In the end, she had time to give high fives to the crowd before crossing the line to win her first U23 cross country gold medal – matching her 5000m victory in the summer – following silver last year and U20 gold in 2021.
She also contributed to the U23 women’s team gold after some excellent performances from the squad. Alex Millard (Bill Foster, Invicta East Kent) – bronze medallist in 2022 – was 11th, while Eloise Walker (Trevor Painter, Edinburgh) was the third and final counter in 15th, which saw the GB & NI team as clear winners ahead of Germany and Spain.
Megan Keith, U23 European Athletics, photo by Getty Images for European Athletics
Afterwards, a delighted Megan Keith said, “I am very happy with that one. Innes had a flyer this morning that inspired me, and I wanted to put in another solid run for the team. It was tough, but I am very happy to have won the gold medal.
“We knew it was a course that you could pay the price on if you started too fast, so I was intending to sit back on the first few laps and work on through, but I think everyone was a bit reluctant to go with the pace I set out at, so I committed to it, and I am glad it paid off.
“It will be a very proud moment for me to be on the podium. It was the first race this year that all my family came to watch, so it’s extra special to win today.”
The next race that followed was equally as exciting for the British perspective as Will Barnicoat followed U20 gold from 2022’s edition of the Championships with U23 gold in Brussels after a superb performance to outsprint the Frenchman Valentin Bresc. Matt Stonier took bronze to ensure that two Brits would be on the podium, with the team also winning gold.
Will Barnicoat, Matt Stonier, Team GB 2023, photo by Getty Images for European Athletics
Barnicoat and Stonier were always the main players in the contest, holding their place in the leading group for long periods, and as the race unfolded, the pair were part of a breakaway three that looked set to consolidate medal positions as they headed into the final lap. Barnicoat and Bresc opened a slight gap on Stonier as they entered the last 800m, and the pair would ultimately become embroiled in a battle royale to the finish line, with the Briton edging ahead to seal the title.
Stonier led the rest of the British charge in third overall, with James Kingston (Mark Hookway, Tonbridge) in 21st, which confirmed the team’s gold medal.
Barnicoat, who ensured the title stayed in GB & NI hands after Charles Hicks’ two consecutive U23 titles, said, “Last year, I won the gold medal in the U20 race, and people told me that it was a bit of a lucky win there. Today I confirmed that it wasn’t and that I can also win in the U23.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect today because I didn’t run that well in the trials. The course suited me perfectly because I like the mud. In the end, it was a tight finish. I just waited to attack in the last downhill, and could keep off the French athlete in the end.”
Innes Fitzgerald, European Athletics, photo by Getty Images for European Athletics
In the first race of the day, Innes Fitzgerald (Gavin Pavey, Exeter) set the tone for the team as she dominated the U20 women’s race to take her maiden European title. The Devon athlete led from the early stages and always looked in control as her quality shone at Laeken Park. With her teammates packing well behind, it was a double golden delight for Fitzgerald as the team also secured the gold medal.
Fitzgerald made her move to the head of the field on the first hill as the athletes sprinted away at the start, and she looked comfortable as she glided across the mud. As she moved away on the second lap, only France’s Jade Le Corre attempted to go with her pace, but that challenge soon faded as Fitzgerald pushed on to European success and became the seventh Briton to win a European women’s U20 title.
Jess Bailey (Matthew Long, Leven Valley) was the next British finisher across the line in eighth, and in winning that team gold, she now holds international medals in cross country, on the track, and in mountain running.
Axel Van Christensen, Belgium, U 20, photo by Getty Images for European Athletics
After celebrating with her teammates, Fitzgerald said, “I am really pleased and so happy to come away with the win, particularly as I wasn’t satisfied after last year. I think I showed everyone what I had, and this is more than I could dream of. I wasn’t intending to lead things, so when I saw that I was alone in the front, I just kept going and kept pushing myself.
“We had such a strong team, so I am very pleased to win team gold. We knew we had a chance, and everyone knew they had to push through and try the best that they could, so I am really proud.”
Karoline Grovdal, 3 time European senior women’s champ, 11 time medalist, photo by Getty Images for European Athletics
There was even more team gold success in the penultimate race of the day, this time for the senior women, as Abbie Donnelly (Rob Lewis, Lincoln Wellington) secured her maiden European medal with individual bronze after a stunning performance.
Donnelly, who has been a critical member of British cross-country teams for a number of years, got her breakthrough after committing in the early stages. She followed the breakaway move of Norway’s Karoline Bjerkeli Grovdal – who would eventually win – and it was a tactical decision that would pay the ultimate award. Although Nadia Battocletti would pass her for silver, Donnelly held on to her first senior international medal.
Abbie Donnelley, European Cross Country, photo by Getty Images for European Athletics
Jessica Warner-Judd (Mick Judd, Blackburn) – competing in her ninth European Cross Country Championships – was the next British scorer in fifth after a typically hard-fought performance. Izzy Fry (Chris and Sonia McGeorge, Newbury) was the third and final scorer in 10th, with a fast-finishing Poppy Tank (Luke Gunn, City of Plymouth) coming through in 11th.
The U20 men’s team came agonizingly close to team gold, but it was Ireland who secured it by two points. However, it was an excellent effort from a team full of new and young talent.
The Great Britain and Northern Ireland medal tally:
Gold (7): Will Barnicoat [U23 Men], Innes Fitzgerald [U20 Women], Megan Keith [U23 Women], Senior Women’s Team, U23 Women’s Team, U23 Men’s Team, U20 Women’s Team
Silver (1): U20 Men’s Team
Bronze (3): Abbie Donnelly [Senior women], Matt Stonier [U23 Men], Senior Mixed Relay Team