Nafissatou Thiam is an emerging Belgian heptathlete who'll spend the next decade competing for international honours. But making the breakthrough as a multi-eventer takes more than just talent. She talks exclusively to SPIKES about her highs, lows, and love of multi-tasking.
Currently living, training and studying in Liege, Belgium, 19-year-old Nafi Thiam has garnered plenty of early-career attention for some exceptional performances in the high jump. However, Thiam knows that it's one thing to demonstrate ability in one discipline, another to handle the rigours of a two day competition.
Juggling heptathlon's seven events isn't the only challenge. “It's hard training in Belgium in the winter” she says. “There's just one indoor track, but it's really far away [154km away, in Ghent], so we have to train outside all winter. And when it snows, that's not always easy.”
Thiam's first taste of international competition came aged 16, at the Lille 2011 World Youth Championships: “it was stressful, everything was very serious” . She finished fourth in a talented heptathlon field but the experience proved vital. “It was the moment I really understood that athletics was what I wanted to do.”
A year later, the world juniors proved much tougher. “I was really disappointed with the long jump, that was the event I'd worked a lot on, and my first two attempts were fouls, and then for the last attempt I was under pressure and I didn't really jump. I just ran into the pit,” she recalls, laughing.
“But it was an important experience, and I think I learned for it. Last year in Rieti [at the European junior champs], in the shot put, my first two attempts were fouls and for the final attempt I knew I had to stay calm. I threw a PB [14.26m].”
That was one of five PB's set in two days, as she powered to gold with 6298pts and a Belgian national record.
Thiam may have displayed maturity under pressure as a junior but the senior stage presents a different set of challenges. Our conversation turns to the Moscow 2013 World Championships, where just shy of her 19th birthday, Thiam experienced her first major senior athletics competition.
“Moscow was different. I was more relaxed than in Rieti or Barcelona. It was great to compete with all the athletes I was used to seeing on TV but I had to keep the competition in mind.”
Thiam finished 14th with 6070pts, and turned heads with her impressive clearance of 1.92m in the high jump.
For her summer exploits, she won the Gouden Spike (Belgium's female athlete of the year), and she's remarkably humble about her achievements.
“After I won the high jump I started to think I could do something good in the heptathlon but there's a huge difference,” she says. “The level is very high, but I know I'm still young and although I want to compete with the best, I am still far from the other girls. I'll have to train a lot. And harder, because I'm still really far from the top.”
A lot to learn: Thiam catches up with the competition in Moscow.
“At the moment I'm mainly working on running, especially the 800m. That's my... I am very bad! Also, the 200m. For the high jump, we don't really jump a lot, we do explosive, dynamic exercise but I don't do real high jumps in training.”
Although it has not being the primary focus for her training, the high jump is Thiam's favourite event and her chosen individual discipline.
Because there's no heptathlon in the IAAF Diamond League, a heptathlete's calendar, during an outdoor season without a major event, can look a little thin. It's therefore important that multi-eventers maintain their competitive edge by competing in an individual discipline.
Earlier this month, she qualified for the final of the women's high jump at the world indoor champs in Sopot. Ever the multi-eventer, she even found time to tweet during the competition.
While a major high jump medal in Poland was unlikely, it provided a less pressured, but still competitive environment which allowed Thiam to further acclimatise to the nature of senior athletics.
“Outdoors, my target will be Zürich because there's no championships in my age group this year. It's not really a goal, but like Sopot or Moscow I will try to benefit from the good conditions and the competition to put in a good performance.
“For the moment, we haven't changed a lot. Year-on-year I do more training, for longer. But my coach says I am still young, and we don't want to rush things. I'm at university too, so I have to leave time for studying. But at the moment I am training six or seven times a week.”
Thiam is a geography undergraduate in Liege, a subject she enjoys because “it's multidisciplinary like decathlon” . Athletic demands mean she probably won't complete her degree for another 4 or 5 years, meaning she'll still be a student at the time of the Rio 2016 Olympics.
“I'll be 21 in Rio, and of course I think about it, but I prefer to stay focused on the goal for each year, so this year, Zürich and Beijing next. Anything could happen, just one thing at a time.”