11 March, 2017

Women's pentathlon and the curious story of Eva Wilms

In my article on the "battle of the sexes" I mentioned in passing A. Skujyte who with 17.31 m holds the world's best performance in the heptathlon shot put (her personal best being 17.86 m). In fact Skujyte holds also the best shot put performance in the women's decathlon (of which she is the world record holder with 8366 points) with a throw of 16.42 m.

A. Skujyte, the current women's decathlon WR holder

The performances of Skujyte are really impressive allowing her to participate at major championships as a shot putter but it turned out that they are not the absolute best. While preparing to follow the 2017 European Indoors I sought the best indoor performances in combined events and I stumbled upon the women's best pentathlon shot put. The official record is one by Eva Wilms with 20.27 m! This kindled my interest and I decide to look her up.

Eva Wilms, a west-german athlete, was essentially a shot putter. Her international career was really short, lasting from 1976 to 1980. Despite her impressive personal records of 21.43 m outdoors and 21.06 m indoors she could only manage one silver and two bronze european medals all of them indoors. But where things become interesting is when one realises that Wilms was also a excellent pentathlete.

Eva Wilms in shot put

Women's pentathlon is not a new event. In fact it was held for the first time in 1922 in the Women's Olympiad and comprised the events 60 m, 300 m, high jump and two-hand(!) javelin throw and shot put. It was soon replaced by a two-day event with shot put, long jump, 100 m, high jump and javelin throw. By 1949 the events became shot put, high jump, 200 m on the first day and 80m hurdles, long jump on the second. The order changed in 1961 to 80 m HD, shot put, high jump and long jump, 200m. Three major changes were introduced after 1969, 1976 and 1977. First, the 80 m HD was replaced by a 100 m HD, then the 200 m was replaced by a 800 m and in 1977 the pentathlon became a one-day event. Since the introduction of the heptathlon from 1981 the pentathlon remains only as an indoors event with the hurdles race being a 60 m one.

Another shot (no pun!) of E. Wilms

Wilms first top-class pentathlon was in 1976 (still with the 200 m version). She obtained a total of 4924 points (with a 20.94 m throw) which were only 8 points behind the current world record. Curiously, she did not compete at the Montreal Olympics (at that fascinating pentathlon competition which saw the first two athletes tying at 4745 points with the third one just 5 points behind, realising an east-german medal sweep). From 1977 with the arrival of the 800 m the world record was up for takes and Wilms first established an indoor record with 4641 points and a 20.27 m throw at shot put. It is this last performance that figures in the pentathlon indoor best performances list. Wilms did not stop there and at the beginning of the outdoor season she broke twice the world record first with 4849 points and then with 4937 points and per event performances of 13.83 s at the 100 m hurdles, 20.95 m at the shot put, 1.74 m at high jump, 6.29 m at long jump and 2:19.66 min:s at the 800 m. The west-german boycott of the Moscow Olympics deprived her of a chance to compete at the 1980 olympic pentathlon. She was german shot put champion from 1974 to 1981 and she is now an athletics coach under her married name of Eva Rapp. Despite holding a world record she has never participated at a major combined event competition.

What I find somewhat unfair is that her best performance in the outdoor pentathlon shot put does not appear in any best performance list. It is true that the conditions of the heptathlon and the pentathlon are not the same and it would be also unfair for Skujyte if her best performance were replaced by that of Wilms. At least this article is trying to render justice to the two great athletes.

Speaking of best performances in combined events I started wondering what could be the best performances in the non-heptathlon events. Since the women's decathlon is alas rarely held one could easily imagine that the best discus performance is that of Skujyte in her WR decathlon with 46.19 m. But contrary to what one could think, women did not have to wait for 2004 and the inaugural official decathlon which saw Marie Collonvillé establish the first world record with 8160 points. In fact the first women's decathlon I am aware of is one in Talence in 1994 (where H. Drechsler won the heptathlon with 6741 points, a year's best, in her first combined event competition in 13 years). There is mention of Mona Steigauf registering 6670 points in a one-hour (!) decathlon. (A. Fatieiev in his 2011 article in New Studies in Athletics reports Steigauf's record as a 7351 points one, obtained in 1997).

Mona Steigauf, a great hepta/deca-thlete

In any case Steigauf holds the german decathlon record with 7885 points since 1997. So, how about pole vault? Stacy Dragilla competed in a decathlon in 1997 obtaining 6700 points. Her 4.10 m jump was at the time the best decathlon pole vault performance. It has since been improved by Breanne Eveland (who finished with 6821 points second behind Skujyte in 2005 when the latter established her world record). Eveland, a 4.40 m pole vaulter, jumped a 4.30 m decathlon best in 2006 when she improved her decathlon personal best with 7064 points.

Breanne Eveland, who holds the decathlon pole vault record

Pole vault has, in the pre-fibreglass era, been a stumbling block for many a decathlete. This allowed pole vault specialists to participate successfully at the decathlon. Things have changed in the last few decades. (The not quite successful Decastar 2013 participation of R. Lavillenie springs to mind). Still, the women's decathlon being a rather immature event, I would bet that girl pole vaulters who are not very bad at throws could give decathlon a try.

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