Kelly Holmes moved to within a step of claiming the first global title of her 10-year international career last night as she safely negotiated the 1500 metres semi-finals here at the 10th World Indoor Championships.
She began cautiously last night, dropping to the back of the field from the gun before moving up on the outside to the shoulder of the leader, Sonja Roman of Slovenia, with 600 metres left. After a glance behind at the bell, the Briton took the lead, checking her position on the big screen suspended from the ceiling before coming home to win in 4min 11.14sec.
The 33-year-old Olympic bronze and world outdoor medallist will toe the line in today's final knowing that she has had the benefit of what has been, for her, a relatively trouble-free winter of training.
But Holmes insists she is not favourite for the title, pointing towards Kutre Dulecha, who leads this season's world standings with 4:01.90, in answer to that question. The slightly built 25-year-old Ethiopian looked capable of living up to high expectations in her semi-final as she held off a determined challenge from the Russians Gulnara Samitova and Daniela Yordanova to win in 4:08.23.
Holmes will have more to think about than her own race in the next couple of days - Jo Pavey, who qualified for tomorrow's 3,000m final along with fellow Briton Hayley Tullett, intends to seek the Olympic bronze medallist's advice about running indoors.
In what was only the third indoor race of her career, the 30-year-old from Honiton looked periodically uneasy as the slow pace kept the field bunched until the final few laps.
"I found my heels were being clipped a lot more than I'm used to," said Pavey, who lowered Liz McColgan's 15-year-old British record to 8:34.55 last month. "I thought I might fall down at any moment." While Pavey took one of the four automatic qualifying places, finishing second behind Ethiopia's Meseret Defar in 8:58.05, Tullett took one of the fastest-loser places after finishing fifth in 8:51.27 in a semi-final won by Ethiopia's world 10,000m champion, Berhan Adere.
Maria Mutola generated unexpected excitement in her 800m heat by driving off hard from the gun and finishing half a lap clear of the field in a time of 1:57.72. At the halfway point the 31-year-old Olympic and world champion was on schedule to beat Jolanda Ceplak's world record of 1:55.82, and there was speculation that she might have been attempting to emulate Wilson Kipketer's feat in the 1997 World Indoor Championships when he earned a world record bonus in the first round before going on to secure the title.
But the Mozambique athlete explained afterwards that she had merely been pushing herself at her coach Margot Jennings's request to check her recovery from an enforced week-and-a-half's break after hurting her hip at Birmingham on 20 February, when she clipped the heel of her training partner Holmes and fell on the final lap of the 1,000 metres.
"It was about testing myself," she said. "Taking a week and a half out was no big deal. I was still in good shape because of all the work I had done, but I was a little bit shaky and this was a good opportunity to run a little bit faster to see what I can do. I didn't think about a world record - I was just running. To be honest I didn't expect to be that fast."
Jennifer Toomey, who had become the first woman to win the 800m and 1500m titles at the US Championships last weekend, was on the brink of an early exit in the first of the 800m heats. The former diver almost took a fall after her heels were clipped while the runners broke from their lanes, but after stumbling to the back of the field she recovered to win in 2:04.84.
Sudan's Ismall Ahmed Ismail, the winner of the AAA Indoor title at Sheffield last month, was not so fortunate, ending up flat on his back on the infield after stumbling during the opening men's 800m heat.
The Ukrainian shot putter Vita Pavlysh, who won the world indoor gold in 1999 only to have her title stripped from her following a positive drug test, reclaimed the medal in the first final of these championships with an effort of 20.49 metres.
A week after the team he supports collected its first major trophy, Middlesbrough's Chris Tomlinson will seek to make his own breakthrough in a global long jump event. The ungainly 22-year-old became the first Briton to qualify for a final in the morning session, something he had not managed in last year's Championships at Birmingham or the summer version in Paris.
Tomlinson, who has been in patchy form this year, produced his season's best effort of 7.96m with his third and last effort, but only squeezed through as the eighth and last qualifier, with two others below him missing out by just a centimetre.
Savante Stringfellow, of the United States, produced the best effort of the day, 8.31m, while James Beckford of Jamaica recorded 8.22 and Cuba's 31-year-old Olympic champion, Ivan Pedroso, seeking his sixth world indoor title, jumped 8.02.
"It's good to be in the final," a relieved Tomlinson said afterwards. "The standard was pretty unbelievable - 7.95 and not getting through to the final.
"I felt that my leg shoot was about 8.30 but I was losing distance on the landing. I think I'll need a top jump of around 8.15, 8.20 to have a chance of a medal, but having six jumps will help."
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