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Updated 3 September 2010
Blanka VLAŠIC, Croatia (High Jump)
Born: 8 November 1983, Split, Croatia (Dalmatian Coast)
Lives: Split, Croatia
Manager: Harald Edletzberger
Coaches: Joško Vlašic (her father), and Bojan Marinovic
When Blanka Vlašic steps to the track of Split’s Poljud Stadium at the Continental Cup, it will be yet another dream come true for Croatia’s No. 1 sporting star and Split’s No. 1 celebrity. Her appearance will certainly bring down the house.
While hers is not a new name on the international scene -- her first two metre clearance was as long ago as 2003 -- it's still nonetheless important to remember that the woman currently dominating the high jump, Blanka Vlašic (pronounced Vla SHeeCH), is still just 26. But armed with two outdoor world titles, Olympic silver, three World Indoor Championships medals – she is the defending World indoor champion – and personal bests of 2.08 outdoors and 2.06 indoors, Vlašic continues to vividly illustrate the precocious potential she displayed after becoming the only back-to-back World Junior high jump champion.
The product of a sporting family - her father Joško still holds Croatia’s national record in the decathlon, a 7659 tally from 1983, and her mother was a basketball player and national level cross country skier - Vlašic took on an athletics lifestyle when she was very young. As a coach, she said, “my father was on the field all the time. Sometimes when I couldn’t stay home alone, he brought me along. So I started to like it there.”
At first, she remembers, she wanted to be a sprinter. “When I was young, I wasn’t interested in the high jump. I was hoping that I would some day be a sprinter. But when I grew up, I was very skinny, so when I tried it, I fell in love with it. I tried everything before I decided on the high jump.”
Others encouraged her to try more lucrative sports like basketball or volleyball, but carved out of a mold of fierce independence, she resisted. “I was very stubborn, and I didn’t like group sports. I like to work alone. When I make a mistake, I make it on my own. I’m guilty of that. And when I win, it’s all mine.”
By the summer of 2000, before her 17th birthday, she was already jumping 1.93m, had made her first Olympic appearance, and arrived at the World Junior Championships in Santiago, Chile, as a clear podium threat. There she defeated defending champion Marina Kuptsova with a 1.91m leap to take home an unexpected gold.
She improved to 1.95m the following year, finished a notable sixth at the World Championships, in Edmonton, with a 1.94m leap and, not yet 18, was already a regular fixture on the senior circuit, earning invitations to the world’s finest meetings. When the next World Junior Championships rolled around, she arrived in Kingston as an overwhelming favourite. She didn’t disappoint, improving to 1.96m to win by a massive nine-centimetre margin. She capped her final junior season by finishing in a tie for fifth at the European Championships.
2003 was her breakout year. Still 19, Vlašic began it with her 1.96m personal best from Kingston and quickly went to work on removing that mark from her short-term memory. Vlašic improved to 1.98m indoors at the Gugl meeting in Linz, Austria, in March, just a week before finishing fourth at the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham. She reached 1.98m again at the FBK Games on the first of June, then improved again five weeks later with a 1.99m clearance at the Gaz de France meeting in Paris for her first Golden League victory.
“I couldn’t believe that I beat all those girls, who were very strong,” she said. “I didn’t expect that.”
Three days later, at Croatia’s only Grand Prix meeting, Vlašic would come of age. Before a capacity crowd at Zagreb’s Sport Park Mladost, Vlašic electrified the stadium, her capital city and her nation with a third attempt clearance of two metres. Still a teenager, Vlašic was now a member of the still-exclusive two-metre club.
"I jumped two metres at home, in Zagreb, and it was very emotional for me. I was expecting it for such a long time, and when it happened I just couldn’t believe it. It was the most emotional competition for me.”
And for others as well. Seasoned local reporters openly wept. Fans, filling every nook of the stadium, roared. And fireworks, prepared ‘just in case,’ filled the northern Croatian sky. It mattered little that Hestrie Cloete, then the reigning World champion, went on to win the competition. The evening clearly belonged to Vlašic. To this writer, it was one of the single most indelible moments of the 2003 season.
She improved to 2.01 in Zurich, and qualified for the Paris World Championships final, but finished a disappointing seventh, managing 1.95m.
Paris was an omen of sorts for Vlašic, as things began to slowly unravel in 2004. While her results - a bronze medal at the World Indoor Championships in Budapest, an indoor personal best of 1.99m and outdoor bests of 2.02m in Bastad, Sweden and 2.03m in Ljubljana, Slovenia - were certainly respectable, she was regularly feeling lethargic and having difficulties maintaining a consistent weight. She qualified for the Olympic final, but couldn’t manage better than 11th after a modest 1.89m clearance. It would be her last competition for nearly a year.
Diagnosed with a hyperthyroid condition, Vlašic underwent surgery in 2005 and competed just twice, a 1.95m effort at the national championships in late July and in the qualifying round in Helsinki, where she missed advancing to the final. After a successful surgery, recuperation, and perhaps a break from her hectic competitive schedule was precisely what she needed; since 2006 we have witnessed the resurgence of a new and improved Vlašic.
She cleared 2.05 indoors and 2.06 outdoors in 2006, but yet again at a major competition, left home empty-handed. At the fiercely competitive European Championships in Göteborg, she cleared 2.01, the highest-ever non-medal winning jump. But she would become even better and more consistent in 2007.
Capping a relatively busy indoor campaign with another disappointment – she was fifth at the European Indoor Championships in Birmingham, clearing just 1.92 --she went on a tear outdoors, beginning with her first competition in Doha, clearing a national record 2.04. There she also began what has become a regular feature in her outdoor outings: serious attempts at Stefka Kostadinova's 2.09 World record set 20 years ago (30 August 1987) at the World Championships in Rome. She concluded 2007 winning 18 of her 19 outdoor competitions, clearing 2m or more in 17 meetings, and claiming the World title in Osaka, the first athletics medal for Croatia.
Her steady pre-Osaka run-up was particularly noteworthy: a 2.05 national record in Madrid (21-Jul), a 2.03 win in Monaco (25-Jul), a 2.06 NR in Thessaloniki (30-Jul), and yet another PB, 2.07 in Oslo. Only two women have ever jumped higher.
As a reward for her World title, Croatia Post issued a commemorative stamp in her honour on her 24th birthday (8 Nov).
As the Beijing Olympic Games approached, Vlašic’s feats on the track ensured that she would arrive in the Chinese capital as the overwhelming favourite for gold.
After equaling her national record indoors of 2.05 in Weinheim, Vlasic followed up on her Osaka success with a World indoor title in Valencia where she scaled 2.03. That performance in Spain marked the 22nd consecutive victory for Vlašic, then the longest-running victory streak in the sport. She added to that run throughout the spring and summer to bring a 34 meet win streak to the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, where it was finally brought to a dramatic end.
In one of the finest competitions ever, both Vlašic and Belgian Tia Hellebaut sailed clear at 2.05, but Hellebaut managed with her first leap while Vlašic needed two, resulting in what was perceived by many as one of the bigger upsets of the Games. But Vlašic didn’t agree.
“I won a silver medal and jumped 2.05,” she said. “How can that be a disappointment?”
Despite her positive spin, bad luck followed as she concluded her post-Beijing campaign. Bouncing back with a 2.01 leap to win in Zurich, Vlašic arrived in Brussels for the Golden League series finale as one of just two athletes remaining in the chase for the $1 million prize. Here again, and competing on home turf no less, Hellebaut could again take on the role of spoiler. Emotionally and physically drained, the Belgian didn’t, but a new rival, German Ariane Friedrich, did. Vlašic’s loss to the German on countback – both cleared 2.00 – would cost her a cool half a million dollars.
But Friedrich’s rise, coupled with Hellebaut’s retirement, gave Vlašic and the event another heated rivalry as the focus turned to Berlin for the 2009 World Championships.
It didn’t take long for the rivalry to gain traction. Friedrich proved her mettle with an indoor victory in mid-February in Karlsruhe - again on countback - where each leaped 2.05, a personal best for Friedrich and an equal best for Vlašic. The attention then shifted to Torino and the European Indoor Championships, where continental disaster again struck the Croatian. On this occasion, Vlašic couldn’t manage 1.96 and finished a well-beaten fifth, while Friedrich’s rise continued with her first major championships victory.
Their next meeting came at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium and the Golden League series opener in mid June, a dramatic meeting which would set the stage for their next head-to-head at the same venue two months later when the World title was on the line. Vlašic had already been jumping well – she opened with a strong 2.05 performance in Doha five weeks earlier – and topped out at 2.03. But again, it was Friedrich who produced the sensation of the afternoon. Jumping before more than 68,000 vociferous fans, Friedrich capped the performance of her career with a first attempt clearance at 2.06, breaking a national record which had stood since 1991. For the rest of the summer, their rematch at Olympic Stadium would remain one of the most anticipated of the World Championships.
The drama continued to unfold when the pair returned to Berlin, beginning early on the morning of the qualifying round. Instead of being wrapped away in her usual pre-competition preparation routine, Vlašic found herself on a hospital table receiving six stitches for a gash on her head from a freak accident while training in the hallway of her hotel. The injury didn’t affect her in qualifying, however, as she advanced with ease.
The final was among the most dramatic of the championships. Vlašic again prevailed, this time at 2.04, to become only the second woman to take back-to-back titles, with Friedrich taking bronze.
Following her title defence, Vlašic’s momentum continued. After a victory in Zurich, Vlašic returned home for the annual Zagreb fixture, site of her first-ever two-metre clearance. Thrilling the sold-out stadium and a live television audience, she raised her national record to 2.08. Only World record holder Stefka Kostadinova (2.09) has jumped higher.
And she continues to improve. Vlašic raised her indoor best to 2.06 in Arnstadt on 6 February 2010, and was unbeaten in six competitions indoors, including a successful defence of her World indoor title. Among her personal highlights was the annual Slobodna Dalmacija Women’s High Jump meeting in Split, where for the second year in a row, more than 12,000 fans gathered to watch her compete. Both events witnessed the largest crowds – by far – to ever assemble for a single-event competition.
On the outdoor circuit she was introduced to yet another scintillating rivalry, this time with American Chaunte Lowe, who defeated Vlašic twice. She nonetheless will arrive in Split for the Continental Cup as the world’s premiere jumper, with ten victories in 12 competitions. Among those was her triumph at the European championships in Barcelona where she finally captured her first continental medal and a perfect seven-for-seven record in the Inaugural Samsung Diamond League.
2000 - 1.93; 2001 - 1.95; 2002 - 1.96; 2003 - 2.01; 2004 - 2.03; 2005 - 1.95; 2006 - 2.03 (2.05 indoors); 2007 - 2.07; 2008 – 206 (2.05 indoors), 2.06; 2009 – 2.08 (2.05 indoors; 2010 – 2.03 (2.06 indoors).
High Jump: 2.08 (2009); 2.05i (2006, 2008)
2000 1st World Junior Championships
2000 17th Olympic Games
2001 7th European Junior Championships
2001 5th Goodwill Games
2001 1st Mediterranean Games
2001 6th World Championships
2002 10th European Indoor Championships
2002 5th European Championships
2002 1st World Junior Championships
2003 4th World Indoor Championships
2003 1st European Junior Championships
2003 7th World Championships
2004 3rd World Indoor Championships
2004 11th Olympic Games
2005 10th World Championships
2006 2nd World Indoor Championships
2006 4th European Championships
2007 5th European Indoor Championships
2007 1st World Championships
2008 1st World Indoor Championships
2008 2nd Olympic Games
2009 5th European Indoor Championship
2009 1st World Championships
2009 1st World Indoor Championships
2010 1st European Championships
Prepared by Bob Ramsak for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2008- 2010.