In June Blanka Vlasic was injured and in a funk: her world championship dreams lying in tatters. Against the odds, the high jump heroine hauled herself through to win a miraculous silver medal in Beijing. The Croatian reflects on the tumultuous build up to one of the greatest moments in her career.
Despite having pocketed four world titles (two outdoor and two indoor) and an Olympic silver medal in a glittering career, Blanka Vlasic's against-the-odds silver in the World Championships in August will perhaps burn brightest in the charismatic Croatian's memory.
The 2.08m high jumper has endured a tortuous three years. Her 2012 Olympic campaign was derailed by surgery after a fragment of bone on her left ankle broke off and became embedded in her Achilles. Knee problems forced her to skip the European Championships in Zurich last year.
Frustratingly, last winter these knee issues lingered and Vlasic barely jumped in training. She returned to competitive action for her first time in nine months in Rome in June. There she popped over a respectable 1.97m for second, repeating the trick nine days later in New York.
But there were warning signs in the Big Apple. The statuesque Split-born athlete had started to feel discomfort in her right Achilles. The pain intensified after her next jumps session. She woke the next day and could not walk.
“I felt like it [the Achilles injury] was happening again and experts advised me to stop competing if I wanted any chance of making it to Beijing,” the 32-year-old explains.
At this year's New York Diamond League meet Vlasic aggravated her Achilles on her way to clearing 1.97m for second place
After missing the last three outdoor major championships through injury, Vlasic was not prepared to give up on Beijing.
“I didn’t want to skip another big one. It was psychologically important because if I didn’t [compete], it would have been so much harder to get ready for Rio. If competing in Beijing was a possibility, I had to take that chance.”
With this is mind she gathered her medical team and put together a strict daily plan, with bouts of therapy and treatment interspersed with training. Slowly the injury eased. She focused on specific left leg work (her take-off leg) and committed to just four jumps sessions ahead of her Beijing quest. The first went well, but a second more intense session – around a dozen jumps – caused her to break down. It was just two weeks out from world champs.
“I woke up the next morning and I couldn’t walk,” she says. “It was like my mind had shut down. I couldn’t believe it. After all I’d done, I still faced a problem.”
She prayed to God not for a miracle but for the strength to accept what was about to unfold. Thankfully the following day the pain had eased by 70 per cent. There was hope. Seven days before she was scheduled to fly to Beijing she took a punt and publicly stated her intention to compete.
“I felt a sense of real calm,” she explains of the decision. “It was like a sign from God.”
She tried to dwell on the positives. Vlasic had recorded some confidence-boosting results with her left leg exercises. Her overall conditioning was good. Yet her mind wrestled with negative thoughts. Arriving in Beijing seven days before the qualification round she still felt pain in her Achilles. The wait was excruciating.
“Every day, if I thought about the competition, I would start to cry. It was so stressful because I didn’t know where I stood. My aim was to stop thinking about the competition.”
She turned to God: her “refuge”; her “safe place”.
“I thought if God brought me to Beijing, he brought me here for a reason. But what that reason was I didn’t know.”
The night before qualification she struggled to sleep and experienced a “strange mix of emotions” – “I was positively nervous but at the same time I was peaceful deep inside,” she says.
She felt “not so bad” during warm up. On the bus on the way to the stadium Vlasic's father, Josko, commented: “I know how much this means to you and the time you gave. Just being there is your victory.”
Qualification proved a breeze. She felt good and quickly found her rhythm, clearing all three heights – 1.86m, 1.89m and 1.92m – at the first time of asking to ease into the final.
Yet ahead of the final two days later the doubts resurfaced. She became anxious about the thought of entering “the big league”. She couldn’t sleep and did not take her usual pre-competition afternoon nap, leaving her “dizzy” from the lack of sleep. She asked her coach, Bojan Marinovic: “is this going to pass because I don’t think I am going to be able to jump?”
PODIUM TEARS: Vlasic won world champs silver in Beijing, clearing 2.01m in only her third competition of 2015
Her fragile confidence was further eroded after a first time failure at 1.92m. “At the point I told my coach I cannot connect my legs with my head,” she recalls.
Then, suddenly, her body responded. She cleared 1.92m with her second attempt and then 1.95m at the first time of asking. After sailing over 1.97m to equal her season’s best, her confidence soared.
“I started to feel more relaxed,” she adds. “I was enjoying the intensity and pressure of the competition. I was in the right mood to fight. I was no longer in a defence mode. I started to feel like a hunter. It was like the old Blanka had never left.”
The confidence continued to climb after first attempt clearances at 1.99m and 2.01m. “It was like some enormous power lifted me up. It was a small miracle for me.”
Every successful attempt was met by a huge outpouring of ecstatic emotion. When she and Mariya Kuchina both failed at 2.03m it came down to a countback decision, with her Russian rival taking gold courtesy of six first-time clearances up to that point.
The slimmest of margins had denied Vlasic gold. Yet her silver medal was among the sweetest moments of a 15-year international career.
“It was a perfect evening which turned out beyond my expectations – like a fairytale,” Vlasic reflects. “Beijing was one of my greatest memories. I have won competitions before but not felt this way. It made all the tears and pain worth it for that one moment. The silver had a golden shine.”