Blanka Vlašić - "I was born to do the high jump"

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Blanka.JPGBlanka Vlašić, Beijing 2015, photo by Beijing 2015 World Athletics

565940809_AH_5936_6B2A36C5D568B5A467AAFD7AB1478705.JPGBlanka Vlašić, Beijing 2015, photo by Beijing 2015 World Athletics

Stuart Weir sent us this piece on Blanka Vlašić , perhaps the best woman high jumper in the event history...and the story is not done....

Blanka Vlašić - I was born to do the high jump

Blanka Vlašić is arguably the greatest female high jumper of all time: twice World Champion outdoors, twice World Champion indoors, twice Olympic medallist, European champion, winner of 17 Golden Leagues and 14 Diamond League competitions. She is also one of the most popular athletes on the scene.

Some excellent high jumpers go through their career without ever crossing the 2 meter barrier. Blanka has jumped over 2 meters 165 times. In 2008 she cleared 2m an incredible 41 times.

Blanka grew up in a home where sport was very important. Both her parents were PE teachers. Her father competed as an elite decathlete. When he retired from competition, Joško Vlašić became a fitness trainer for some track and field athletes, some tennis players and other sports at the local stadium. When Blanka was about 11 she started going along and became part of the small group of athletes: "I did sprint, long jump, high jump - you know how it happens, you try everything, you join the group and you're having fun. You try all the events and see what suits you best". Looking back she feels that the discipline she learned about going every week and being committed at an early age, stood her in good stead for her career.

When she was 14 her father made what proved to be a very significant decision, bringing in Bojan Marinovic as a specialist high jump coach. Bojan and Joško remain Blanka's coaching team. Bojan knew the high jump inside out. He had jumped from right side but when he got injured, he taught himself to jump from the left. From day one he stressed to Blanka the importance of a good technique. She says, "He had - and still has - a great ability to communicate knowledge with simplicity, and high jump technique is not easy".

From 2007-2010, Blanka was dominant winning The World Championship outdoors and indoors twice each as well as the 2010 European Championship. Her first World Championship gold was 2007 in Osaka. "I remember feeling in top shape and that I was ready", she recalls. "The whole year was just amazing. In every competition I seemed to be jumping over 2 metres. So I knew I was ready. I didn't have any injuries. I was calm and peaceful".

The one that got away was the Olympic gold in 2008. Blanka and Tia Hellebaut (Belgian) cleared 2.05 but neither jumper cleared 2.07. Blanka's first time failure at 2.05 gave the gold to the Belgian. It was a bittersweet moment for Blanka: "In the moment, it was very frustrating. Jumping 2.05 in the Olympics and losing - how frustrating can that be? I was very sad - you come so close that you can smell it and then you don't get it. But from my perspective now I am proud that I was part of maybe the strongest Olympic podium ever in the history of high jump when 2.05 was not enough for the gold medal. Now I can't look on it as a failure. But it was a huge emotional drain on me. I had had a long season and afterwards I was tired and emotionally empty".

In her final event of the 2008 season she went into the Van Damme meet having won all five previous Golden League events. For the second time that season she was beaten in a major competition on count-back (this time by Ariane Frederick) so ending her chance of winning the $1Million jackpot. "The Olympics took everything from me and left me emotionally empty. In the circumstances jumping two metres was OK. It was too bad about the money but for me it was never about money".

Since 2011 Blanka has struggled with injuries. When I asked her about frustration with injury, her answer was remarkably positive: "First of all, I need to say that I was injury free for such a long time on until 2010, even the beginning of 2011. So that is a long time without injury problems. That was a blessing. Then one injury started all the others". She explained that she was born with what is called "Haglund's heel" meaning that the bone is not quite straight, which results in an irritation of the Achilles. Years of high jumping brought it to a head. She describes the result as "having a rock in your shoe, a rock behind the Achilles - pushing on it all the time and the Achilles rubbing on it and hurting all the time. Crazy pain. When the bone was surgically removed there were complications with the first operation and I wasn't able to walk properly for a long time, which is why I got all the other injuries.".

565940809_AH_5908_4EE19E98E1DCAF6DDF1C68A68330731B.JPGBlanka Vlašić, Beijing 2015, photo by Beijing 2015 World Athletics

Faith in God plays an important part in Blanka's life: "When I had my first injury and I didn't know if I'd be able to jump again I was in a dark place, very depressed and I tried to find my identity, besides that of a high jumper or sportswoman. So I was searching for that identity and I realized that I am a child of God and I always have his endless love no matter what place I finish - first or last, for the gold medal or not able to jump at all and so I found my dignity in God. I changed a lot in my life. Jesus Christ is the most important person in my life. He's with me all the time. When I'm scared I'd give him my fear, and ask him to carry it. When I am jumping, I am not praying to win, I'm just praying to be able to give what I have at that moment. It is a lot easier to go through the difficult things in life when you try to see everything through God's eyes, from his perspective. Sometimes the most painful times are your biggest blessings and that's how I try to think about my injuries".

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Mary Kuchina and Anna Chicherova, Blanka Vlašić, Beijing 2015, photo by Beijing 2015 World Athletics

The women's high jump competition at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing was a brilliant competition with Mary Kuchina and Anna Chicherova of Russia going head to head with Blanka Vlašić, all three clearing 2.01 metres and then failing at 2.03. On count-back Kuchina took gold, Blanka silver and Chicherova bronze. That silver medal meant as much to her as most of her career golds. She explains why: "It was a huge victory for me and God showed his greatness. I can actually say the moment where he picked me up. It was at 1.95 which I cleared that the first attempt and everything started to be amazing. It was one of the greatest competitions of my life. Coming into Beijing I was in a bad condition. I was in a lot of pain. I remember saying to my coach on the bus to training, 'if I feel pain even when I'm sitting, but I don't know how and would be able to jump. Am I going to make it - to be able to run properly?' She battled through to lose the gold medal only on count-back.

It was a similar story at the Rio Olympics. Having only competed once - an indoor event - in the previous 12 months, she made it to Rio and jumped 1.97 for bronze, losing to Ruth Beitia only on countback.

Feeling that high jump is her calling helps a lot: "I enjoy training. It's never boring. I'm never thinking, I'm not up to it today. Every competition is a challenge. But every jump is a challenge and I try to do my best. I feel that I was born to do high jump. That is why there is no place I would rather be than in the field".

She is also known for her dancing when competing: "When I am dancing you know that competition is going well. And when things are going well, it is easy to dance. Not every jump is a good one so I don't dance after every jump".

Last March, Blanka withdrew from selection for the Olympics. The statement on her behalf said: "Blanka's condition is much better. The bone is no longer inflamed, the Achilles tendon is not yet well, but her general condition is fine and she is training. We estimate that continuous jumps over two meters are not a reality at this time. She will continue her career anyway, but now she does not want to sell her reputation and does not want to jump below two meters. We sent a letter to the Croatian Olympic Committee so that they could act on it."

Let's hope that the extra year will help and that we see Blanka dancing in Tokyo in 2021.

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