Romanian Maria Cioncan, who twice fought galliantly against Kelly Holmes at the Athens Olympics three years ago - finishing with a bronze medal in the 1.500m, was killed instantly yesterday in a car crash in Bulgaria as she traveled home from a training camp.
Cioncan's coach, Stefan Beregszaszy, was travelling separately in another vehicle, and confirmed the news to the IAAF soon thereafter. The shocking news spread quickly within the Romanian Athletics Federation, with Gabriela Szabo, a member of its managing board, stating to Romanian news agency Mediafax yesterday that the federation did not know Cioncan had been traveling through Bulgaria.
The 29-year-old, who was one of seven women in the 1.500m to set personal bests in the Athens final, ran a lifetime best of 3.58,39 in the Olympic final, one of the most exciting races in the Olympic Games as only the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona producing three or more sub-4 finishes.
Kelly Holmes won the final - her first of two gold medals - in 3.58,90. Russian Tatyana Tomashova finished second in 3.58,12. Six women in all broke 4.00,00 in the blazing final, with Poland's Anna Jakubczak, running 4.00,15 for seventh.
Cioncan won her semi-final heat in 4.06,69, forcing the second heat to send all seven of its qualifiers to the final with taxed legs as each of the athletes in semi-final two ran faster than Cioncan did in winning her heat. She also ran 4.06,68 to win heat three of the qualifying rounds.
Cioncan had placed seventh in the 800m final five days before the 1.500m final, running 1.59,62 - her second sub-2.00 clocking of the Olympic Games.
Cioncan improved drastically in time and place in the 1.500m from her 2003 IAAF World Championships, where she placed ninth in the final with a time of 4.02,80.
A Romanian 800m and 1.500m national champion, Cioncan first broke on to the world scene with a showing at the 2001 IAAF World Indoor Championships, where she placed ninth in her heat with a 4.17,47 clocking, and made the semi-finals, clocking a 2.00,72 to place fifth in her heat.
She failed to make the final two years later in Birmingham, running 4.14,52 for fourth in her heat.
Cioncan won the European Cup A Final Super League in the 1.500m in 2002 (4.03,74) and won the 800m three years later in Florence (2.00,88).
Cioncan's excellent mark at the 2004 Olympic Games put her name in the rich Romanian tradition of middle distance running along the side of Natalia Marasescu, Paula Ivan, Doina Melinte, Maricica Puica, Szabo and Violetta Szekely.
Though her time was an excellent mark among the all-time greats to ever run the event - Cioncan had the fifth-best Romanian mark - she recorded "only" the 15th-best performance among her countrywomen.
The Olympic bronze was Cioncan's crowning moment as an athlete, and she helped use her notoriety to bring justice to greater causes.
Cioncan participated in the Opening Ceremonies of the 2004 Special Olympics in Bucharest - the National Games - held at Iolanda Balas Soter Stadium by carrying the "Flame of Hope" to the cauldron with Special Olympics Romania athlete Andrei Nita.
The event was attended by a host of dignitaries, including legendary national sportswoman Iolanda Balas Soter, the stadium’s namesake.
Cioncan's presence will be missed on the field as well as with her personal charitable endeavors.
2004 Olympic Women's 1.500m Final:
- Kelly Holmes (Gbr) 3.57,90 (Personal Best and National Record)
- Tatyana Tomashova (Rus) 3.58,12 (Personal Best)
- Maria Cioncan (Rom) 3.58,39 (Personal Best)
- Natalya Yevdokimova (Rus) 3.59,05 (Personal Best)
- Daniela Yordanova (Bul) 3.59,10 (Personal Best)
- Lidia Chojecka (Pol) 3.59,27 (Season Best)
- Anna Jakubczak (Pol) 4.00,15 (Personal Best)
- Elvan Abeylegesse (Tur) 4.00,67
- Carmen Douma-Hussar (Can) 4.02,31 (Personal Best)
- Natalia Rodriguez (Spa) 4.03,01 (Season Best)
- Olga Yegorova (Rus) 4.05,65
- Hasna Benhassi (Mor) 4.12,90
Cioncan's 1.500m Progression:
- 2005 -- 4.07,39, Firenze, 19-June
- 2004 -- 3.58,39, Athens, 28-August
- 2003 -- 4.02,80, Paris Saint-Denis, 31-August
- 2002 -- 4.02,10, Bucharest, 09-June
- 2001 -- 4.12,24, Funchal, 30-June
- 2000 -- 4.06,20, Bucharest, 06-August
- 1999 -- 4.14,00, Göteborg, 31-July