Czech javelin thrower Jakub Vadlejch (© Getty Images)
The shadow of three-time Olympic champion and world record-holder Jan Zelezny looms large for any Czech javelin thrower. But for Jakub Vadlejch, he is content to shadow the national icon as he strives for global dominance in the event.
Zelezny has been beside Vadlejch since he was junior, guiding him to an international career that has seen him glean his own glittering array of medals. Yet, the best could still be yet to come for the Prague-based thrower.
“Jan is like my stepfather,” says the quietly spoken athlete. “He is my mentor and everything is because of him. He gave me a feeling for javelin throw and everything I have achieved.
“My first meeting with him was at the age of 19, it was after an 84-metre throw, I introduced myself and he said ‘I know you. You are a big talent.’ It was a dream for me.
“I started at 10 years old. It was normal for me to throw, with balls or with stones, over the river. My biggest idol at this time was Jan Zelezny. It was watching him win on television in Sydney, his third consecutive time in becoming Olympic champion.”
Vadlejch showed real early promise, representing the Czech Republic at the 2007 World U18 Championships, 2008 World U20 Championships and the 2009 European U20 Championships. Frustratingly, an elbow injury prevented him from performing at his best at his first major championships in 2007, particularly as it was hosted in his home country in Ostrava.
He transitioned on to the senior circuit seamlessly with his performances setting him apart as one to watch. He landed his spear at 84.47m in Olomuc in 2010 aged just 19 and a year later he threw 84.08m in Domažlice to underscore his considerable potential. Such performances made him a mainstay of the Czech team at major championships, including the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games, the 2011 and 2015 World Championships and the 2010, 2014 and 2016 European Championships.
Jakub Vadlejch at the Tokyo Olympics (© Getty Images)
Yet throughout this period, he was unable to translate his best abilities to the championship arena, not just falling short of the medals, but struggling to reach finals. It was then he turned to sports psychology.
“I started to work with my mental coach and it helped me a lot,” he says. “Because I always threw 80-85 in the season, but on the major stage, I wasn’t able to do it. It started in 2015 and from that point I have had 53 competitions over 85 metres.”
Since that point, he has found a greater level of consistency and the ability to deliver under the glare of expectation at major championships. He won the Diamond League title in 2016 and reached the final in Rio. But it was at the 2017 World Championships in London it really manifested itself when he produced a personal best throw of 89.73m to earn silver, only denied gold by Germany’s Johannes Vetter with a monster 89.89m. Vadlejch peaked again at the Tokyo Olympics, taking silver with a season’s best of 86.67m, behind India’s Neeraj Chopra.
Then last year, he earned bronze at the World Championships in Oregon with 88.09m, before reinforcing his championship pedigree by taking silver at the European Championships in Munich with 87.28m.
It was also a year in which he joined the event’s most exclusive club by becoming a 90-metre thrower, landing the spear at 90.88m at the Diamond League meeting in Doha. It put him 16th on the world all-time list and one of only 23 men to go beyond the mythical barrier.
Any doubts over Vadlejch’s abilities at the top level have now been banished and he now his sights on the one elusive goal: a gold medal. This summer’s World Athletics Championships in Budapest present the best chance so far in the Czech’s career of global glory.
“I have a silver medal from each championships, so the next goal is a gold medal; it is my dream,” he says. “Consistency was my goal. It’s a perfect mind-set for World Championships and Olympic Games. I’m pretty satisfied (with my career so far), but I still hope there is much more in me. Maybe 90 plus? I am still pushing myself and we will see what happens in the future.”
He has opened his season confidently, regularly breaching 85 metres, his best being a world-leading 89.51m at the Paavo Nurmi Games as he builds towards the season’s main competition, the World Athletics Championships in Budapest.
Jakub Vadlejch, winner of the javelin in Monaco (© Getty Images)
“I think Neeraj Chopra will be against my dreams. But I will do my best and this year is my chance. I am pretty confident, but it is about the day. I want to throw 90 in Budapest. I feel the strongest I ever have done. Everything in training is better than ever.”
Over the past decade, the men’s javelin has become one of the most cosmopolitan in the sport, with the world’s leading spear throwers drawn from every continent rather than just its traditional European base.
Two-time world champion Anderson Peters of Grenada and Olympic champion Chopra have taken the lead from the likes of 2012 Olympic champion Keshorn Walcott of Trinidad and Tobago and 2015 world champion Julius Yego of Kenya. It is a development that Vadlejch has embraced.
“It’s perfect for our event,” says the relaxed Czech. “It makes it more attractive for more people. This year in Doha I saw hundreds of people watching Chopra, it was nice to see.”
Away from the sport, Vadlejch gets a kick out of coffee. “I am a coffee enthusiast,” he says. “I have a very good espresso machine, with 10 alternatives. I have everything – at home it’s like a small coffee house. My favourite roastery is in London in the square mile.”
But back on the javelin runway, it is the opposition who Vadlejch has been roasting so far this year. Through the grind of training, he has found a consistency that has given them plenty to percolate over.
Chris Broadbent for World Athletics