Last week-end's NCAA Championships officially closed the lid on the 2008 indoor season, and there were no shortage of great performances and record-setting marks accomplished around the globe by athletes on the elite level down to United States prep athletes who have yet to get much press or experience on the international stage.
Three women produced world records this season, and scores of other ones sprinted, jumped and leaned their ways to superlative marks which would have made headlines and captured votes on their own merits had the super elite failed to strike gold when it counted.
Yelena Soboleva, Susanna Kallur and Yelena Isinbayeva - names which reverberated from stadium to stadium this winter as they competed at their absolute bests this indoor campaign - each etched their names in the record annuals, and were each picked for gold in Valencia two week-ends ago when the entrants were declared.
Soboleva and Isinbayeva found favour and fortune on their side during the two-day event by coming up with victories.
Kallur, who led the world at 60m hurdles, had the untimely displeasure of becoming injured following her first-round heat and was never able to make it to the semi-finals, unfortunately, knocking her from the top of my personal AOY list despite her previously undefeated season and capturing three of the top-5 times ever recorded indoors in the event.
So that left the two Valencia teammates who share the same name, Yelena, up to take the honours.
Soboleva and Kallur started off the 2008 world-record chase by breaking all-time standards on 10-February, with Kallur, competing in Karlsruhe, knocking off a dubious hurdles record set 18 years and six days earlier by Ludmila Engquist - from whose dubious shadow she was attempting to run under.
Soboleva, on the other hand, knocked a few ticks off her own 1.500m world indoor record the same evening in Moscow.
The last of the record trio, Isinbayeva, competed six days later in Donetsk, Ukraine - a meeting site where she has earlier found vaulting nirvana, and set her third-consecutive world-record at the meet which vaulting legend Sergey Bubka had arranged.
The two athletes - tied at one world-record apiece - were even on paper, but one understands clearly that Isinbayeva, the superstar, having set her fourth world indoor record in as many years, was clearly ahead of her rival.
That was until Isinbayeva's next competition brought her back down to earth and behind Russian Svetlana Feofanova at Pedro's Cup in Bydgoszcz, Poland four days later, leaving Soboleva and Kallur undefeated prior to the world championships.
Soboleva, who finished the winter campaign with three personal bests, three national records and a world record to her credit, finished undefeated in five finals and contested one more meet than had Isinbayeva.
Soboleva earns my vote for Female Indoor Athlete of the Year for 2008 for twice bettering the previous 1.500m world indoor record (3.58,05 and 3.57,71); for netting the fourth-fastest mile ever recorded (4.20,21); and for demonstrating an incredible amount of resolve in taking two seconds from her previous 800m best at her national championships, running the fifth-fastest indoor time in history (1.56,49) - all without having run a step indoors last season.
Soboleva, a 25-year-old who competes for the Trade Unions club in Moscow, opened her 2008 compaign with a low-level 2.01,61 victory at the Moscow Challenge on 20-January.
Soboleva defeated Yekaterina Martynova, a 2.00,85 800m runner, by nearly two seconds in her first race since finishing four seconds down to Bahrain's Maryam Jamal in last September's World Athletics 1.500m final in Stuttgart.
The 800m time indicated Soboleva had decent fitness following an excellent outdoor campaign, and that she was on her way to perhaps a successful indoor campaign following a one-year hiatus from the winter season.
How much Soboleva would improve could never have been wildly guessed of one's life depended on it.
Soboleva, competing in her second indoor race in two years, contested the mile at the Russian Winter Games seven days later and demonstrated for both herself and her competitors that the world indoor 1.500m record-holder was at the top of the queue and may have genuinely had something incredible in store once the season picked up, clocking a national record time of 4.20,21.
Soboleva's achievement was history's fourth-fastest ever run, and the fastest since Romania's Doine Melinte set the current world indoor standard of 4.17,14 in February 1990.
Soboleva's outdoor best, 4.15,63, was set in Moscow in 2007.
Soboleva rested after her tiring mile and prepared to contest her national championships to again be held in Moscow 11 days later. She'd been entered in both the 800m and the 1.500m, and faced considerable competion in each event as single competitions, let alone coming in a double.
The 800m race was first.
Soboleva qualified first in her heat, running 1.59,56 - a time which wasn't completely taxing, but one which would take its toll on her by the time her 1.500m final was contested the following day. Waiting in the wings for an opportunity to strike at Soboleva's strength was Natalya Ignatova, who would run only 11/100 slower than Soboleva in the heats and qualify for the final.
Soboleva returned the following day to win the four-lap final with a very hard third 200m split, breaking apart from the field and powering home to a new personal best. Ignatova (1.58,84), Mariya Savinova (1.59,46) and Mariya Shapayeva (1.59,71) all set personal bests behind Soboleva, with the top-three each ending the season with the top marks in the world this year.
Being a world record-holder does not afford one an automatic gold medal - especially if one is contesting in the fiercely competitive Russian National Championships.
Soboleva would learn that lesson a few hours following her 800m victory, as 2006 World Indoor Champion and teammate Yuliya Fomenko attempted to run the legs off of Soboleva during the middle of the race.
Soboleva, who had considered dropping out of the 1.500m due to exhaustion, hung on in the race and drew from the well one final time to rush home and stop the clock in 3.58,05 - 0,23 faster than the world record she had set two years earlier.
Five of the nine women in the field set personal bests.
Soboleva travelled to Valencia rested and barely trained following a short, yet very intense, period of racing in February which had tired her.
The 12th IAAF World Indoor Championships 1.500m final generated the top-level excitement and energy fans had come to expect and anticipate, with Fomenko and Soboleva taking care of business up front and pushing each other up the 1.400m mark where Soboleva ultimately pulled away and ran away from her nearest three rivals in fast pursuit.
Soboleva's world record-setting performance (3.57,71) dragged Fomenko (3.59,41), Ethiopia's Gelete Burika (3.59,75) and Jamal (3.59,79) under the four-minute barrier, with all four women setting personal bests, and three of them new national bests in the process.
No woman in 2008 had the impact on the sport, the record books, their nation and their fellow competitors like Yelena Soboleva did. She inspired her comeptitors to run at their fullest capabilities, and she came out on the victorious end in the three races which counted most to her: her national championships and the world championships.
Yelena Soboleva just may take off 2009 as she did 2007 following a long season, but 2008 will leave memories far and deep to last several seasons over.
Croatia's Blanka Vlasic would have gotten a strong nudge at Soboleva's level had she been able to tie or break Kajsa Bergqvist's 2.08m world-record. She will receive an honourable mention, instead.
Yelena Soboleva's Personal Records:
- 800m indoors: 1.56,49 NR
- 800m outdoors: 1.57,28
- 1.500m indoors: 3.57,71 WR
- 1.500m outdoors: 3.56,43
- Mile indoors: 4.20,21 NR
- Mile outdoors: 4.15,63
- 2.01,61 Moscow Open Championships
- 4.20,21 Russian Winter
- 1.59,56 (Q) Russian National Championships
- 1.56,49 Russian National Championships
- 3.58,05 Russian National Championships
- 4.07,85 (Q) IAAF World Championships
- 3.57,71 IAAF World Championships