He’s a star in a golden age of high jumping, but Mutaz Essa Barshim’s toughest opponent is his own chronic back problem. Ahead of tomorrow's world indoor final in Sopot, Barshim opens up to SPIKES about his career so far.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that having opposition like Olympic champion Ivan Ukhov and world champion Bohdan Bondarenko (joint No.2 and No.5 all-time – indoors and out), represent 22-year-old Mutaz Essa Barshim’s biggest barrier to winning a major title.
In reality, it’s so much worse than that.
Back problems have plagued Barshim's progress since 2011. He undergoes round-the-clock physiotherapy, and has grown accustomed to the race against time to be fit for major champs.
Just a week before the London Olympics, he was diagnosed with a stress fracture of the fifth lumbar vertebra (that’s in the lower back). He finished joint third. You read that right, Mutaz Essa Barshim won an Olympic bronze medal in the high jump, WITH A BROKEN BACK!
Last June in Eugene, he cleared the magical 2.40m barrier, something only eight other men have done outdoor. The man from Doha joined high jump royalty, and set an Asian record in the process.
Sadly, after the highs of his Eugene heroics, injury resurfaced and he missed seven weeks of competition.
Star turn: Follow him on twitter @mutazbarsham
Barshim arrived at the Moscow 2013 World Championships last summer full of doubt.
“I was not nervous, but I was insecure,” he says. “I didn’t want to push too much because if you do, you feel the pain. I didn’t want to jump too much, not ten jumps.”
He jumped six times in qualification. Failing three times at 2.29m, he squeaked through. Blessed relief: “I didn’t feel the pain, so I thought okay, now I can push for the final.”
He pushed it real good. Those inside Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium witnessed the greatest high jump final of all time.
Three men: Ukraine’s Bohdan Bondarenko, Canada’s Derek Drouin and Mutaz Essa Barshim pushed each other to their very limits, each clearing 2.38m. That would have been good enough for HJ gold at the previous nine world champs.
Gold belonged to Bondarenko, who matched his PB 2.41m as Barshim took silver.
“I was really satisfied with a silver medal,” he says. “My goal was to jump 2.40m but after having some problems and coming back, silver is great. It was the greatest high jump competition in history and I’m really happy to be a part of it.
"Thanks to the guys, we have brought high jump back to the golden days.”
“I proved it to myself that I could do it,” says Barshim. “It showed I have much more in my body. I just have to be patient and follow the training. Let's just say, a door opened for me.”
Only 14 men are able to answer this next question, and Barshim is one of them. What's it like to clear 2.40m?
“It’s like flying and it takes a long time before you come down,” he says with a laugh. “A few years ago it was a big dream, and it is nice to have finally made it.”
His back problems present a constant battle, which may never be fully won. Yet on previous form, you wouldn’t bet against him at a major champs.
He's started this season in top form, with a 2.35m clearance in Malmo, where he has a training base.
Earlier today, he cruised through high jump qualifying at the Sopot 2014 World Indoor Championships. Tomorrow, he goes for gold in the final.
To win his first global title, he must best the likes of Ivan Ukhov (who leapt to an incredible PB of 2.42m just last month), and Olympic silver medallist Erik Kynard of the USA.
"To be honest, I don't think about my competitors" he says, "I just think about myself. As long as I improve, I'm going to be up there."