Why ‘no one’s really safe’ in Olympic selection scramble

In a two-hour period on the flat and fast streets of Valencia on Sunday, the battle for Olympic Games selection on the Australian women’s marathon team took a mesmerising turn.

Before steaming over the finish line of the Valencia Marathon as the first Australian woman home, Genevieve Gregson told Wide World of Sports she had her eyes set on one goal: putting herself in prime position to snag the third and final spot for Paris 2024.

But the three-time Olympian had no idea she was about to blast through the race in two hours, 23 minutes and eight seconds (2:23:08), exceeding her expectations as she clocked up the second-fastest time by an Australian woman in the Paris 2024 qualification window.

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Before Gregson, Lisa Weightman, Izzi Batt-Doyle and Eloise Wellings took off in the Spanish city, Sinead Diver had the fastest time of the qualification period (2:21:34) and Weightman had the second-fastest (2:23:15).

Diver’s time, run in last year’s Valencia Marathon, remains the quickest of the qualification window, ahead of Gregson’s 2:23:08 and Weightman’s 2:23:15, registered in this year’s Osaka Marathon.

Taking to the Valencia Marathon start line after a three-day fight with nausea and a razor-blade throat, as she noted post-race on Instagram, the iron-willed Weightman still managed to crank out a 2:24:18.

There are now five women who’ve nailed the Paris 2024 entry standard of 2:26:50 in the qualification window, with Batt-Doyle chalking up a 2:23:27 in Sunday’s race and Wellings a 2:25:47.

Speaking to Wide World of Sports a day after the Valencia Marathon, Diver summed up the qualification dilemma with a touch of humour, saying of the Athletics Australia selectors: “I am glad I’m not in their position”.

Making the situation even more complicated is that Jessica Stenson and Ellie Pashley, 2:25:15 and 2:26:21 marathon runners respectively, are winding up for their own shots at the Olympic Games entry standard. Their contemporaries are on alert.

These phenomenal athletes, who collectively make for the strongest depth in Australian women’s marathon running history, are also acutely aware that time is not the only factor weighed up by Athletics Australia selectors.

Consistency of performance throughout the qualification period, participation in Australian domestic competition and how they’ve fared at prior major championships are among the many considerations.

“It’s crazy,” Gregson said of the scramble for Paris 2024 selection.

“If anyone ever asked I would just say, ‘Yeah, there’s only one spot left, it’s really hard, Lisa and Sinead have run times that are just so out of reach’. But to come out and now be the second-fastest out of the top girls — it’s a shock for me because I just didn’t plan on that. Us girls were all discussing how hard it was that there’s only one spot left, so to go out and run faster than Lisa’s PB [personal best] gave me a lot of confidence.”

Despite her heroics in Valencia, Gregson does not think she’s guaranteed her ticket to Paris.

“Today proved that no one’s really safe,” the Queenslander said.

“There’s still so much time [to qualify] and distance running in Australia is just forever getting better. In no way do I think I’m safe and that no one’s going to run faster, because we thought that a day ago.”

Even Diver admitted to having a touch of doubt.

“I never feel fully safe … I have huge respect for all these women and I know we’re all running around those times,” said the Australian record holder.

“I guess I am at an advantage and I’m in a good spot, being the fastest [in the qualification window] and being over a minute-and-a-half faster than Gen’s time yesterday.

“But gee, I did get a bit of a scare when she picked it up over the last five kilometres. I thought, ‘Oh my god, I could be in trouble here’.

“I’m going well again [after injury troubles] and I’ll just need to prove my fitness, I guess, early next year.”

The quickest times posted by Gregson, Weightman and Batt-Doyle in the qualification period are within a span of just 19 seconds.

“When the times are that close it’s not going to come down to the times, I think,” Diver said.

“It’s going to be a really, really tough job for them [the selectors].”

Stenson won marathon gold at last year’s Birmingham Commonwealth Games.

The South Australian is now easing back into running after the birth of her second child, who she and her husband Dylan welcomed in September.

“That bar has been set incredibly high for me now,” Stenson admitted.

“So the official qualifying time is 2:26:50 and I thought that would be something that I would set my sights on … but knowing now that I would have to run under 2:23:00, which would be a two-minute-plus PB, and also within seven months of giving birth, I’m just not sure if it’s physically or mentally or logistically possible.

“But I’m willing to have a go at working towards the fitness to put myself in the position to run a PB marathon.”

Gregson is wary of Pashley and Stenson.

“I have no doubt that Ellie’s going to see all these times and say, ‘All right, the bar’s been raised, I know what I’ve got to do’,” Gregson said.

“And Jess — we’ve proven that babies don’t slow you down, so I have no doubt she’ll be eying off some attempt at some point.”

Stenson thinks Pashley is “a huge chance” of making the Olympic Games team.

“She’s very talented, she’s on an upward trajectory with marathon running and she’s shown what she can do in recent times with her incredible World Cross Country Championships result [when she finished 19th only eight months after giving birth] … I think Ellie has something pretty special coming for her next marathon.”

It’s likely that all seven women vying for the three spots will tackle another marathon en route to Paris.

The Osaka, Tokyo, Milano, Rotterdam and London marathons, all fast and staged in the first quarter of the year, are among the feasible options.

In the meantime, selectors are pondering an unenviable task.

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