Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken's
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The ‘Great’ Irena Szewinska (July 2018)

(Born Leningrad 24/5/46 died Warsaw 29/6/18)

Irena Szewinska is in the Jewish Hall of Fame. Another fact. She was elected onto the IAAF on the 3rd of August 2005.
She gained more major Championships medals as an athlete than any athlete in the history of Polish athletics.
In 1967 Irena Kirszenstein married her coach, Janusz Szewinska and they had two sons. She was very helpful to other athletes when she retired, which included team management.
Looking back, one could see she was always an impressive sprinter to watch, being 1.76 tall and weighed 63kg.

Back in my first book ‘More than Winning’ (Published in 1992) I wrote a Chapter on her and much of that is here. I remember talking to her in 1977 and I did meet her again in 1997 when she brought over Jacek Wszola, the Polish 1980 Olympic high jump Champion. It was for the  European Veteran indoor competition in Birmingham.

‘It was at her Warsaw High School, at the age of fourteen that her physical education teacher conducted a class competition over 60m metres. Irena surprised everybody, including herself, by winning in 8.3. Her teacher encouraged her to train and, at her school they co-operated with one athletic club, the coach from that club visited the school and, arranged afternoon training two or three times a week. One year she trained in the winter, as her first completion had been in the autumn. She was 15 when she high jumped 1m 5 om and clocked 13.6 for the 100m. The following season she improved to 1.56 for a new Polish junior high jump record and 12.6 for the 100m.

On to 1964 and the Tokyo Olympics. Joint co-favourites for the long jump were Mary Rand and Tatyana Schelkanova of Russia, who had progressively upped the World record from 6.48 in 1961 to 6.70 in July 1964. In the event Mary Rand won the gold with a new World record of 6.76 but the 18 year old Polish lady, Irena Kirzenstien easily defeated the previous World record holder for the silver with 6.60. She followed that with her first Olympic Gold medal in the 4x100 relay where Poland won in 43.6 from USA 43.9 and Great Britain & NI  44.00.
In 1965 Irena came to the White City in June for the British Games, and, although Mary again beat her by the smallest possible margin in the long jump, she won the 100 yards in a new European record of 10.6. On the 9th of July she broke Wyomia Tyus’ 100m world record with 11.1 in Prague, and then on the 8th of August she beat Wilma Rudolph’s 1960’ record over 200 in Warsaw with 22.7

At the Europeans one year later, in 1966 in Budapest, she won three gold medals and one silver. The only defeat was to her compatriot Ewa kobukowska in the short sprint where both were timed at 11.5. Irena’s winning time in the 200 was 23.1 and the long jump with 6.55 plus gold in the sprint relay.
In 1967 was a quieter year but she did win a ‘Statuette’ at the Europe v USA match on the 9th of August for winning the 200.                  

1968 and the Mexico Olympics. She was surprisingly eliminated in the preliminaries rounds of the long jump but that may have been a blessing in disguise for what came after. She obtained a bronze medal in the 100 (1 Wyomia Tyus USA 11.08 WR ; 2 Barbara Ferrell USA 11.15 and 3rd Irena in 11.19). Then her second Olympic gold medal for Irena came in the 200 in a World record time of 22.58, 2nd was Raelene Boyle of Australia 22.74.

In 1969, she took a sabbatical for the very good reason she was expecting her first child, and then followed two relatively lean years. She remerged as contender for the Munich 1972 Olympic Games. The East Germans had improved to be a World force by now and Renate Stecher won the 200 in 22.40; with Raelene Boyle 2nd in 22.45 and Irena 22.74.
She also considered 1973 to be a quiet year bur managed to run 11.1-100/22.7/200 and 52.00 for/400. The latter she was experimenting with as a new event for her to try and do.

How successful her experimenting can be judged by what followed in 1974. On the 13th of June she broke the 200 world record at Postdam with an automatic timing of 22.20, then 9 days later became the first person to break 50 seconds for t he 400 with a time of 49.9 at Warsaw. Later in Rome she regained her European Championships 100 & 200 from Renate Stecher in 11.13 & 22.51,

Another comparatively quiet year before the next Olympics in Montreal. She concentrated on the 400 for the 1976 Olympics. Christine Brehmer had reduced her world record to 49.77 at Dresden 9th of May, which Irena reduced further to 49.75 at Bydzoszcy.
29th of July, 1976. The first 3 in he 400 Olympic final 1 Irena Kerzenstien/Szwinska (Poland) 49.28 World Record; 2 Christina Brehmer (GDR) 50.51; 3 Ellen Streidt (GDR) 50.55 and 4th Pirjo Haggman  (Finland) 50.56. From Lane 4 the Polish strider blasted a scintillating turn of speed and her rounded-up time was 49.29. That time stood for 2 years, until Marita Koch emerged to break it but, still, Irena’s great career continued.

In the first World Cup in Düsseldorf in 1977 she won the 200 & 400 22.72’& 49.52. plus a silver medal in the 4x400
You would have thought she would have had enough at International level by then but, none of it.  
In 1979 in the 2nd World Cup, representing Europe again in Montreal she came 3rd in 51.15 behind Marita Koch, who did 49.7 and Maria Kulchunova (50.60) and in the team that came 4th in the 4x400 relay—Sixteen years amongst the best is really remarkable.

When I asked Irena Szewinska in 1977 who she thought were the hardest athletes to beat?
“At the beginning of my career Tyus & Maguire (USA); Renate Stecher was a very good athlete. When we ran against each other she was first sometimes and I was first sometimes which made it very interesting”

Alastair Aitken

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