The runner to watch was in Lane 2, and she was hard to miss: Jolien Boumkwo of Belgium was a head taller than every other woman in the second heat of the 100-meter hurdles.
Boumkwo regularly competes in track and field’s strength events — the shot-put, hammer throw and discus — but on Saturday at the European Team Championships in Krakow, Poland, Belgium needed a hurdler. Any hurdler.
The two it had brought to the meet were injured, and if Belgium did not send a runner to the starting line in the 100 hurdles, its team would be disqualified.
So when it became clear there were no other candidates to step in, Boumkwo volunteered.
“I thought the chance would have been very small of me having to do this,” said Boumkwo, who learned she would be running the hurdles the day before the race. Once it became clear she was going to be the one on the starting line, she said she tried to not think about it too much.
She said she told herself: “If I’m going to do this, I want to make the best of it and try to enjoy it.”
And it seems like that is exactly what she did. Boumkwo beamed and waved at the television cameras when she was introduced with the rest of the runners.
Form was not her priority. Neither was speed, even though she remembered the techniques of hurdling, Boumkwo, 29, said in a phone interview on Monday. On Friday, she had finished seventh in the shot-put.
Boumkwo said she wasn’t nervous about the race. “It was a beautiful atmosphere,” she said. “I took my race seriously,” adding that she “took it hurdle by hurdle.”
While she was very happy with the role she played for her team, she said she’d stick to her own sport for now. “I’m not made for hurdling,” she said.
Belgium needed every point. Its team was hoping to stay in the top division of the European Team Championships, an event in which countries compete against their relative peers in three leagues that are based on performance. Disqualification would most likely mean demotion for Belgium. Running, even if she finished last, would mean two valuable points, which she knew might make the difference.
And so, for one afternoon, Boumkwo became a hurdler. Stepping rather than leaping over each hurdle, and then jogging to the next one, she took her time. The rest of the field was already over their second hurdle and sprinting toward the next when Boumkwo lifted her foot ever-so-carefully over the first one.
Her goal was to finish, and to finish on her feet, however long it took. An embarrassing fall probably would not have made a difference — she knew she was going to be last — but an injury definitely would have made things worse. Carefully and calmly, she cleared every obstacle and crossed the finish line in 32.81 seconds.
The crowd cheered in appreciation. A fellow runner, Maja Maunsbach of Sweden, greeted Boumkwo just past the line with a double-handed high five. Catarina Queiros of Portugal, who had run in the lane next to Boumkwo, extended a hand of congratulations.
Both Maunsbach, who was seventh, and Queiros, who was sixth, had finished fractions of a second behind the heat’s winner, Teresa Errandonea of Spain, who won in 13.22 seconds.
The storybook ending for Boumkwo and Belgium, however, was not to be. Belgium finished 14th in the team standings, 6.5 points behind Greece — a gap too large for even Boumkwo to make up — and was demoted to Division 2.
Boumkwo said the demotion was disappointing but that she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support. “This was probably my best European Championship ever,” she said. “I got something very nice out of it.”