A few days ago, we revealed some of our Top World Athletes in 2017, kicking off with Part 1 of the series. We now bring the concluding part of that feature as we introduce our Top 6 athletes of the year. We will begin the countdown from No.6.

  1. Ekateríni Stefanidi

Having won the Olympic title last year with a winning mark of 4.85m, Ekateríni Stefanidi came into the season as the woman to beat. That notwithstanding, it was expected that it would at least be a two-horse race between herself and USA’s Sandi Morris who won Silver in Rio and topped the World rankings last year with her Personal Best (PB) of 5.00m set in Brussels.

However, the Greek pole vaulter was prepared for the challenge and ensured that she held her own, recording Diamond League victories in Doha, Rome, London and Birmingham, amongst other wins. And so she was touted as the favourite for the world title ahead of the London 2017 World Championships.

Rio 2016
Ekaterini Stefanidi after winning her country’s first GOLD in Athletics at Rio 2016 Olympics. Photo Credit: Rio 2016

Stefanidi topped the standings in the qualification round with her height of 4.60m, and then sailed to victory in a Greek National Record (NR) of 4.91m – a World Lead (WL) which catapaulted her to 4th position on the world all-time list. She then attempted a new height of 5.02m, which was unsuccessful. Her GOLD medal is the fifth GOLD medal for Greece in World Championships history.

So dominant was the 27-year old this year that she amassed an impressive streak of 14 consecutive victories. The 2017 European Indoor Champion ended her season on a high by winning the Diamond Race trophy in her event. She also owns five of the Top 10 marks in the world in 2017, including the best three marks in the rankings.

She beat Nafissatou Thiam, Mariya Lasitskene and Anita Wlodarczyk to win the European (female) Athlete of the Year. She is also a finalist for the IAAF World (female) Athlete of the Year award, and will contend with Thiam and Almaz Ayana for the highly coveted prize.

Do you know that Ekateríni Stefanidi’s parents are former athletes who competed internationally in the triple jump and sprints, respectively? Her younger sister, Georgia, is also a pole vaulter.

  1. Sam Kendricks

USA Pole vaulter Sam Kendricks is a delight to watch any day! Not only is his spirit of sportsmanship second to none; his sense of patriotism to his country is top notch and inspiring to those who have been following his success story, seeing that he has come a long way since winning a Bronze medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

The 25-year old, who is a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve, enjoyed several impressive moments this season. For the first time in his career, Kendricks enjoyed an unbeaten run all season and made the most of World Record (WR) holder Renaud Lavillenie’s lack-lustre performance this year, following an injury.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Kendricks was the man to beat in the Diamond League series in Shanghai, Eugene, Paris and Lausanne. He also dominated the event at the Jamaica Invitational in Kingston. The 2017 US Outdoor Championships was one of the highlights of Kendricks’ season. Not only did the jumper claim a third consecutive outdoor title, he won the event with a new Personal Best (PB) of 6.00m, joining the exclusive club of 6m jumpers in the men’s Pole vault. It remains the World Lead (WL) for 2017.

This was a huge morale booster for Kendricks going into the World Championships. The American enjoyed a smooth sail in his first five jumps, but faltered twice at 5.95m, before clearing the height on his final attempt to clinch his first world title. Opponents Piotr Lisek and Lavillenie failed all attempts on the same height to settle for Silver and Bronze respectively.

Not done with winning GOLD, Kendricks sought to clear 6.01m but retired after an unsuccessful attempt. He capped off his impressive season by winning the Diamond Trophy in Zurich, and owns the Top 3 marks in the world this year.

Do you know that Sam Kendricks stopped mid-run on a jump to stand at attention when he overheard the US national anthem playing while competing in the qualifying round of the Rio Olympics?

  1. Mutaz Barshim

On No.4 position is Qatari High Jumper, Mutaz Barshim, who was in imperious form all season. Having struggled in 2016, it was a relief to see Barshim return to a similar form that saw him clear a height of 2.43m in 2014 to become the second best on the all-time list in his event and Asia’s most successful High jumper.

Despite some of his outstanding performances, Barshim was yet to win a major global title asides his World Indoors triumph in 2014 in Sopot. Having won Bronze at the 2012 London Olympiccs, Silver in Moscow 2013, then a 4th place finish in Beijing 2015, and then another Silver at the Rio Olympics, 2017 was the year with a difference for Barshim.

Barshim opened his season on a winning note in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in April, setting a then World Lead (WL) of 2.35m. He consolidated on the victory by winning his event at the Doha Diamond League where he enjoyed the massive backing of his home crowd. He also added successes in Shanghai, Oslo and Paris heading into the World Championships.

Competing at the London Olympic Stadium on the final day of the World Championships, the former World Junior Champion kept a clean slate, clearing 2.20m, 2.25m, 2.29m, 2.32m and 2.35m at first attempt. He was the only athlete in the field to clear 2.35m, before making three attempts at 2.40m which he failed.

Photo Credit: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images Europe

He would go on to clear 2.40m at the Birmingham Diamond League a week later, and then equal that mark in Eberstadt seven days later. He then ended the season by clinching the Diamond League Trophy in Zurich. The 26-year old was unbeaten across 11 competitions and is the first high jumper in history to leap 2.40m or higher in five successive years!

In an interview with sportskeeda.com, Barshim revealed that he looks forward to not just breaking the World Record (WR), but also surpassing it: “I want to jump as high as possible and break the WR. I may even be able to clear 2.50m. I’m progressing step by step, in a calm manner. When I eventually retire, I shouldn’t feel sorry thinking I could’ve done more. It’s for this reason I,” he said.

Barshim won an award as the Best Male Athlete from Asia at the Association of Olympic Committees (ANOC) Awards in Prague earlier this month. He is also a finalist for the IAAF World (Male) Athlete of Year award, alongside Mo Farah and South Africa’s Wayde Van Niekerk.

Do you know that Mutaz Barshim never displays his trophies or medals at home because he wants to remain hungry for more successes?

  1. Luvo Manyonga

It’s no mean feat winning the Sports Star of the Year award in a country that World Record (WR) holder in the men’s 400m, Wayde Van Niekerk hails from. But that has been Luvo Manyonga’s experience, following a spectacular season that saw him setting an African Record and also winning a global title on his second appearance at the World Championships, six years after his first outing (Daegu 2011).

Having been resigned to a four-year hiatus from the sport (starting in 2012), Manyonga bounced back into global reckoning at the Rio Olympics, narrowly missing the GOLD medal to USA’s Jeff Henderson by just 1cm.

But he would not be denied in 2017!  Manyonga leaped to a then World Lead (WL) of 8.46m in Bloemfontein in March, and then set a Personal Best (PB) of 8.62m at a meet in Pretoria in March, erasing Khotso Mokoena’s National Record (NR) and African Record of 8.50m. He then claimed his maiden national title by bettering the African Record to 8.65m, which remains the WL for 2017.

He was one of the most consistent athletes in 2017, notching victories at the Shanghai Diamond League and the IAAF World Challenge in Hengelo. He was favoured to win the Long Jump, but he was not going to get it on a platter of gold. The South African fouled on two attempts but his second attempt which landed at 8.48m was enough for GOLD.

He went on to consolidate on this feat by winning the Diamond Trophy, becoming only the third South African to win a Diamond League title in any discipline after Caster Semenya and Mokoena. The 26-year old jumper last week, clinched two awards at the South Africa Awards held in Johannesburg, namely, South African Sports Star of the Year and Sportsman of the Year.

Manyonga’s inspiring speech at the awards went thus: “Today I’m smiling as a world champion, undefeated this season. I’m a living example that it is possible, irrespective of your background, to achieve your dreams and I’m proud of that. I thank the Almighty for everything he is doing for me, and I thank my country for recognizing me.”

Do you know that Luvo Manyonga used to combine the Triple Jump with the Long Jump, but gave up the former in 2009 because he kept injuring his hip?

  1. Caster Semenya

Occupying the No.2 spot on our list of 2017 Top World Athletes of the Year is South Africa’s Caster Semenya, who has now become a household name in the sport, owing to her dominance in the women’s 800m. After all, not every athlete has the ability to remain undefeated for two straight years.

The 26-year old’s season kicked off with the Doha Diamond League which she easily dominated in a then World Lead (WL) of 1:56.61. This was to be the pattern for the entire season as Semenya went on to snatch wins in Eugene, Oslo and Monaco.

Going for the 800m/1500m for the first time at a global championship, Semenya ensured that she didn’t return home empty handed as she snatched the Bronze medal behind Faith Kipyegon and Jennifer Simpson. With that out of the way, Semenya focused on her main event where she smashed her Personal Best (PB) set at the Rio Olympics, replacing it with a WL of 1:55.16 to grab her third world title over the event.

A few days after the World Championships, Semenya demonstrated that she still had a lot of fuel in her reserves as she stormed to a World Record (WR) in the 600m at the IAAF World Challenge in Berlin, smashing Cuban Ana Fidelia Quirot’s former mark of 1:22.63 set in 1997 to set a new world best of 1:21.77. She went on to win the Diamond League Trophy in Brussels a few days later.

Semenya’s outstanding performance this season earned her two awards at the South Africa Sports Awards: Sportswoman of the Year and People’s Choice awards. Her coach Jean Verster was named Coach of the Year as well.

Semenya has now set her sights on breaking the WR in her event: “I have Olympic, world and Commonwealth titles now so maybe it is time to target the world record; it’s the next thing on the list. I know it will be difficult but I will have to attempt it soon, maybe. I have a lot of dreams to achieve”, she said.

Do you know that the first time Caster Semenya went for the 800m/1500m double at an international competition was the 2009 African Junior Championships?

  1. Mariya Lasitskene

Occupying our No. 1 spot as the best athlete in 2017 is Russian High Jumper Mariya Lasitskene who successfully defended her world title from 2015 (2.01m) whilst competing as an Authorized Neutral Athlete (ANA) in London 2017 (2.03m), following Russia’s ban from Athletics for state-sponsored doping.

Lasitskene sat out the 2016 Athletics season and was unable to compete at the Rio Olympics as the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) upheld their decision to ban the Russian Track and Field Federation from the Games, but it appears that the 24-year old has shown the world a glimpse of what it missed by not watching her compete last year by dominating her event in 2017.

For Fantasy Diamond Race players, Lasitskene was a sure bet any day! Who wouldn’t pick an athlete who remained unbeaten from one leg of the meet to the other? After her application to compete as a neutral athlete until Russia is reinstated was accepted, Lasistkene opened her season at the Eugene Diamond League, winning with a World Lead (WL) and Personal Best (PB) of 2.03m.

She then soared to a new PB and Diamond League Record (DLR) of 2.06m at in Lausanne afterwards. Going to the London World Championships, it was evident that no other athlete stood a chance of snatching the GOLD medal from Lasitskene who was the only athlete to have jumped 2m and above at the time.

Lasitskene easily recorded clean jumps at her first five attempts but faltered at the sixth (1.99m). Going by the expression on her face after the miss, you could tell that the 2010 Youth Olympic Games Champion was upset with herself but quickly bounced back, easily clearing the next height of 2.01m, with eventual Silver medalist Yuliya Levchenko ending her campaign at that height. Levchenko is the only other athlete to have sailed past 2m in 2017!

The Russian went on to take the victory with 2.03m, becoming the first ANA to win GOLD at the World Championships. She then attempted to break the Russian National Record of 2.07m, moving the bar to 2.08m, but she was not successful at all three attempts. That notwithstanding, she is pursuing Stefka Kostadinova’s World record (WR) of 2.09m.

Lasitskene tops the world standings with nine of the best 10 marks in 2017. Asides Levchenko, Germany’s Marie-Laurence Jungfleisch is the only athlete with a 2m jump to her name this year, a feat she achieved after the World Championships.

Do you know that having missed out on competing at the Rio Olympics, Mariya Lasitskene did not watch the event, but says she was happy for Ruth Beitia as she respects her a lot?

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Yemi Olus is a Senior Sports Writer and Editor at Making of Champions. She has a bias for Athletics and was previously a Sports Reporter at the National Mirror, where she hosted a weekly column ‘On the Track with Yemi Olus’ for over two years. A self-acclaimed ‘athletics junkie’, she has covered national and international events live, such as the African Athletics Championships, African Games and IAAF World Championships. She has also freelanced for the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) and currently hosts a weekly Track and Field column in the Vanguard Newspaper.

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