To Vlasic, title defence was ‘hardest things I have done in my career’
Blanka Vlasic of Croatia shows off her dancing skills after becoming the IAAF World Champion in women's High Jump for the second time (Getty Images)
Berlin, Germany - She was probably the calmest person in the stadium, maybe in Germany. On a night of extraordinary drama, rampaging emotions, and not a little chaos, Blanka Vlasic kept her freshly-scarred head in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium last night while all around her 56,000 people were having their minds blown or their hopes shattered.
The tall, elegant Croatian defended her world High Jump title last night in the face of extreme pressure and fierce competition, not least from Germany’s new darling of athletics, Ariane Freidrich, who had beaten her in this very stadium just two months ago to set up the most hyped head-to-head of the championships.
The near-capacity crowd hadn’t just come to see Usain Bolt burn up the record books. They’d come to see Germany win it’s third gold of the championships, to be there when their platinum blonde police officer took the Croatian glamour girl’s world crown.
After all, Friedrich had beaten her at the European Indoor championships in Turin earlier this year too, and she leads the world rankings with her national record of 2.06m. This would be the duel of the championships, everyone said so.
But while Bolt’s unbelievable dash sparked flames of excitement, and the heat of expectation rose feverishly around this famous bowl, Vlasic remained a picture of calm “right to the end”, as she proudly put it herself.
“My coach told me ‘You were never so peaceful. This is why you won. You saved so much energy’,” she says.
You could see it in her face, and her limbs. While Freidrich, who eventually finished third behind Russia’s Anna Chicherova, paced about the jumpers’ fan between attempts carrying the weight of her nation’s expectations, Vlasic sat calmly in her place on the bench, or leant against the sponsors’ boards around the outside of the track, waiting her turn.
Not that this was an easy win for the 25-year-old. Far from it. Behind that look of serenity, was months of hard work and a determination not to let her title go, whatever the pressure.
“This is one of the hardest things I have done in my career,” she says. “It’s not easy to defend your title, it’s always hard. Winning the first time was hard, and the second time was harder, especially because they have pumped this rivalry so much from months before. You try to avoid thinking about it, but sometimes you can’t help it.
“I prepared for every condition. I worked hard on my physical preparation and my mental preparation for this. I was ready for everything – for rain, for every body condition, every feeling, other people jumping 2.05m, everything.”
Of course, all that preparation nearly came to nothing, when even before the qualification round, she cracked her head off the door frame in the hallway of her hotel and was rushed to hospital for six stitches. But the Olympic silver medallist wasn’t going to let that get in the way of her defence. Not tonight.
After losing to Belgium’s Tia Hellebaut in Beijing last summer, and having a share of last year’s $1 million ÅF Golden League Jackpot snatched away from her by Friedrich, the 2007 World champion had come to Berlin to show she’s “not a girl of one dance”.
“I didn’t really feel it,” she says, referring to the head wound. “Maybe I felt it before but I told myself I couldn’t change that so I only thought about what I could change, which was me.”
She adopted the same approach to the pressure heaped on both jumpers from the much-talked of rivalry with Freidrich. The German had boasted that her intention was to “have fun and tease Vlasic”, and at the European indoors the German had taken quiet satisfaction in seeing Croatia’s favourite athlete walk up to the bar to check Freidrich’s opening height – 1.95. “Blanka was very irritated,” Friedrich said.
But Vlasic wasn’t in the mood to be tugged and teased by mind games last night. Friedrich again entered the competition later than all the other jumpers, at 1.92m, and skipped the next height, 1.96m. But Vlasic was in her own world.
“Today, I didn’t feel the pressure from all this talk,” she says. “I think it stayed in my hotel. When the competition started the pressure was only coming from inside me. When it starts the only person I’m responsible too is myself. I had no excuse to jump badly.”
And she didn’t. Vlasic won the competition when she cleared the bar with her second attempt at 2.04m. Not her best – which stands at 2.07m – and a centimetre lower than her losing height from the Olympic final last year. Yet, with Chicherova and Friedrich already two fails down at that height, it gave her the advantage and she celebrated with her famous dance, wiggling her hips and shooting imaginary bullets from her finger tips.
Not that she thought then it would be enough to win. “I started to think about the heights when I was warming up and my focus was on 2.08m and 2.10m,” she says. “I thought I would need something like that to win. So when I was jumping 2.04m it wasn’t even in my mind that it would be enough for gold.
“But after I cleared 2.02m, my technique just came right, and from then I was confident I could go as high as I needed to win. That was the turning point in the competition for me.”
Only after Friedrich had failed at 2.06m – just – did Vlasic have the gold. And even then she remained calm, simply putting her hands to her face. It was only after she had tried three times at the world record, 2.10m, that she allowed the emotions out, grabbing a Croatian flag from her coach Bojan Marinovic, jumping up and down on the track and bursting into tears.
“It’s a big emotional thing for me,” she says. “I’m glad it’s over and I’m so happy I came out on top and defended my title.
“There was a special feeling, tonight, a positive energy,” she adds, referring to the crowd. “They started clapping when I asked them too. They really wanted me to jump well today.”
No doubt, the rivalry with Friedrich will move on from her to another stage. “I’m still young,” says Vlasic. “There’s more to come.”
But for now both are agreed on one thing at least – all the attention is good for women’s high jumping.
“This competition has brought women’s high jump closer to the German crowd and to the watching world,” says Friedrich.
Vlasic agrees: “It’s so much alive and I’m proud to be part of it.”
It was a performance to be proud of too.
Matthew Brown for the IAAF
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