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Salwa Eid Naser wins world 400m title with third-fastest time ever, bold strategy

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Salwa Eid Naser had enough of chasing the towering Shaunae Miller-Uibo in the 400m. The Bahrain sprinter tried something different in, of all races, the world championships final.

“Normally, I chase,” she said. “Today, I wanted to be chased.”

The strategy switch for the biggest race of her life worked. The time: 48.14 seconds, the third-fastest lap in history and the fastest in 34 years.

Naser, a 21-year-old who broke out two years ago with world silver, stunned the favorite and Olympic champion Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas. Miller-Uibo, who petitioned the IAAF to change the 2020 Olympic schedule to accommodate a 200m-400m double, lost for the first time in more than two years at any distance.

Miller-Uibo took silver in a North American record 48.37 seconds. Less than an hour later, Miller-Uibo’s husband, Estonian Maicel Uibo, took silver in the decathlon after going into the 1500m finale surprisingly in the lead.

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In the women’s 400m, Miller-Uibo was followed by three women who lowered personal bests — bronze medalist Shericka Jackson of Jamaica and Americans Wadeline Jonathas and Phyllis Francis, the defending world champion.

The only women who have run faster than Naser, who was born Ebelechukwu Agbapuonwu in Nigeria to a Nigerian mother who sprinted and a Bahraini father, were dubious — East German Marita Koch (47.60) and Czechoslovakia’s Jarmila Kratochvilova (47.99).

But Miller-Uibo was the woman whom Naser chased the last two years — ranking second to her in 2018 and again this season going into Doha.

In fact, Naser’s only two losses since the 2017 Worlds were when she was runner-up to Miller-Uibo, once in 2017 and once in 2018. Naser lowered her national record in both of those defeats, but each time she came off the turn nearly even with the six-inches-taller Miller-Uibo, who powered past her in the final straightaway.

Naser was determined not to be caught in the same position as those two races or as in the 2017 World final, when she was fourth off the turn and passed a stumbling Miller-Uibo and Allyson Felix to grab silver.

This time, Naser made up the stagger on Jonathas in about 100 meters. Then she took aim at Miller-Uibo two lanes to her outside. She gapped her by the time they came around the 300-meter curve and lowered her national record by .94 of a second. Miller-Uibo had to do the chasing, and she ran out of track while still PRing by six tenths.

“Of course it was a surprise,” to beat Miller-Uibo, Naser said. “I already said thank you to [Miller-Uibo] because without her I don’t think I would have gone this fast.”

Miller-Uibo had no comment when asked if she considered Naser the legitimate world-record holder.

“I let her get away from me a little too much, but I got a huge PR so I have to be happy with that,” Miller-Uibo said. “She ran a crazy race.”

In other finals, Brit Katarina Johnson-Thompson dethroned reigning Olympic and world champion Nafi Thiam in the heptathlon. Johnson-Thompson, a former teen prodigy who failed to earn a medal at five previous Olympics and outdoor worlds, broke Jessica Ennis-Hill‘s British record with 6,981 points. Thiam took silver with 6,677.

German 21-year-old Niklas Kaul became the youngest world decathlon champion, moving from 11th after the first day to win with the second-highest day-two total in history (4,527 points). The only man with a better day-two total ever was French world-record holder Kevin Mayer, who withdrew Thursday during the pole vault with a hamstring injury.

The only Olympic decathlon champion who was younger was Bob Mathias, who earned his first of back-to-back titles in 1948 at age 17.

China’s Gong Lijiao repeated as world champion in the shot put, throwing 19.55 meters. Gong was the only woman in the world to throw 20 meters in 2017, 2018 and again this year. U.S. Oympic champion Michelle Carter was ninth.

Worlds continue Friday, highlighted by an American showdown in the women’s 400m hurdles, where a world record could fall.

In Thursday semifinals, favorites Faith Kipyegon of Kenya, Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands and Americans Shelby Houlihan and Jenny Simpson advanced to Saturday’s 1500m final.

Kipyegon, the reigning Olympic and world champion, is coming back from pregnancy. Hassan, who broke the mile world record in July, is attempting an unprecedented 10,000m-1500m double gold.

NBC Olympics senior researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report from Doha.

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