Feature02 Mar 2016

Wester's giant leap into global championship contention


Long jumper Alexandra Wester in action at the German Indoor Championships (© Getty Images)

Four years ago, Alexandra Wester’s athletics career seemed all but over.

A promising heptathlete – she won the German schools title at the age of 15 – Wester suffered a severe knee injury during a hurdles race and spent a year out of the sport.

After two operations to her cruciate ligament, meniscus and knee cartilage, she came back. But combined events was already deemed too dangerous and it was decided that she should best stick to the long jump, albeit having to change her jump-off leg from her right to her left.

Three years on, her remarkable recovery continues. She currently leads the world indoor list and has just become German indoor champion to put her on the plane to the USA, where the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016 will be held from 17-20 March.

Berlin breakthrough

Wester’s leap to fame came at the ISTAF Indoor meeting in Berlin three weeks ago when she went out to 6.95m to shoot to the top of the world and install herself as a serious medal contender for Portland.

It added 23 centimetres to the PB she had set in Dusseldorf just 10 days prior and was a whopping 36-centimetre improvement over her pre-2016 overall lifetime best.

It was also the third longest indoor jump in German athletics history, placing her behind Heike Drechsler (7.37m) and Helga Radtke (7.09m).

It was a fascinating tussle in the Berlin indoor arena. Britain’s world silver medallist Shara Proctor had taken the lead with a personal best of 6.91m in round two. That would have been enough to out-psyche most novices, but not Wester.

Having watched her second-round leap of 6.82m – her fourth PB of the winter – overtaken by the Briton, Wester responded in round three with her record leap.  

It was a stunning moment for the 21-year-old, but she managed to articulate what it meant for her to the German federation athletics magazine, Leichtathletik. “It was enormously liberating,” she said. “I didn’t expect that kind of distance at all. My goal for the indoor season was 6.75m to qualify for the World Indoors. I would never have thought this mark was possible.”

In stark contrast, her coach, Charles Friedek, was reported to be speechless at what his charge had done, but Wester was quick to admit his influence over her rapid improvement. After a year studying sports science in Miami last year, she returned to Germany and based herself in Cologne under the tutelage of Friedek, the 1999 world triple jump champion.

“We are a great team and we work well together,” she said. “With his help, I have greatly improved my technique.”

But in order to ensure her place on the plane to Portland, Wester still had to consolidate her improvement at the German Indoor Championships in Leipzig last weekend to secure her first German vest. It proved no contest as she more than held her nerve to claim her first senior title with a leap of 6.75m.

Last year, recently returned from the States, at the outdoor German Championships in Nuremburg, she could finish no higher than seventh. “I am so proud to finally be able to call myself German champion instead of just schools champion,” she wrote on her Facebook page following victory in Leipzig.

Technical changes

Apart from the natural progression she has made, the new ASV Cologne athlete explains that Friedek’s technical input has been decisive. She has worked with lighter weights with more concentration on speed, improving her 60m PB to 7.53 in 2015. She particularly lays emphasis on her dip at the board which allows her to gain more height and length in the jump. She has dispensed with the heavy weights favoured in the US and uses lighter weights with faster reps. A seven-kilogram weight loss since her return from Miami may have helped too.

In Leipzig, Wester wanted to simply qualify for the team by winning the competition: “My plan was to jump around 6.70m and I did that so I am happy,” she said. “The problem was the run-up was so fast I had to bring my marker back by one metre. But from now on it is all about one thing; my gaze is directed towards Portland. I want to be consistently over 6.70m there.

“I hadn’t expected everything to go so well this winter,” she added. “For me, the World Indoor Championships represent a psychologically important role. It is a big step for me. The two weeks of basic training I shall be missing [by competing there] are nothing compared to the experience of competing in such a high quality field.”

Wester was born in The Gambia in 1994 of a German father and Ghanaian mother. At the age of three, she moved with the family to Germany where, at the age of six, she took her first steps in athletics.

In 2008 she joined USC Mainz and one year later was German schools heptathlon champion, setting a national age-group record. At the age of 16 she was runner-up at the German Youth Championships.

Despite all the publicity surrounding her move to Cologne, it is worth mentioning the fact that her first coach at USC Mainz was Harry Letzelter. It was Letzelter who laid the all-important groundwork from which she is now reaping the benefits.

No distractions on road to Rio

Athletics aside, she has a fitness page on Youtube and has done some sportswear modelling, though all of that is taking a back seat this year. “Now and again I take a few modelling jobs,” she says. “But this year my focus is totally on athletics.”

After Portland, the road leads to Rio, for which she has already qualified. “The Olympics has been my dream for a long time,” she says.

And the seven-metre barrier? “First of all I have got to consolidate my outdoor jumping,” said Wester. “But seven metres is possible since I am only 21 and hopefully have many years ahead of me.

“It was not a perfect jump in Berlin. There is always something that can be improved, for example the position of my arms during the jump. But that is just fine tuning.”

As for examples to follow, she cites a trio of world and Olympic champions who inspire her: the looseness of Usain Bolt, the consistency of Ashton Easton who has maintained a high level even after winning so much, and Allyson Felix for her will power in fighting back to the top after injury – something which Wester can clearly relate to.

Michael Butcher for the IAAF