Madara Palameika in the javelin at the 2012 Olympics in London (© AFP / Getty Images)
From the moment Madara Palameika entered the world, she was “born to throw” – according to her mother, at least.
Experiencing a difficult pregnancy, doctors warned Agnese Palameika that the large child she was carrying might not make it and that her shoulder would be broken. Thankfully, for all concerned, it was a trouble-free birth and Madara Palameika was born a perfectly healthy baby at 4.8kg and 58cm.
Yet Mum believed the small miracle hinted at a special talent.
“She said I must have strong shoulders (to survive the birth), that she thought I was going to be a javelin thrower,” explains Palameika, whose mother clearly had great instincts.
Yet if her mother had great intuition, it was Palameika’s father, Gints – a javelin coach based out of the family’s home town of Talsi – who acted on them.
“My daddy saw something special in me and that I could throw things very far,” explains Palameika. “I also used to observe the athletes he coached and I had this feeling that I could do the same.”
She made her competitive javelin debut at the age of 10 and, under her father’s coaching guidance, she quickly established herself as one of Latvia’s most promising young throwers.
Just three days after her 18th birthday, she cracked the 50-metre barrier for the first time. But gripped by nerves, she could only finish 17th in qualification at the 2005 European Junior Championships with a best of 45.43m. The following year Palameika had a similar experience at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Beijing as she threw more than seven-and-a-half metres down on her best to place 16th in qualification.
“I was so nervous,” she says. “I remember back then I had no confidence, and I struggled with lots of things in my mind.”
Learning to flourish on the big stage
More comfortable in “her own skin” and becoming more accustomed to life on the international stage in 2007, she enjoyed the best season of her career to date, hurling a lifetime best of 57.98m in Riga and later that year taking bronze behind Germany’s Linda Stahl at the European Under-23 Championships in Debrecen.
Yet the vivacious Latvian was to suffer more heartache in 2008 as an untimely virus denied her the possibility of qualifying for the Beijing Olympics. Inspired by her compatriot Sinta Ozolina, who posted a national record of 60.13m to qualify for the javelin final inside the Bird’s Nest Stadium, she vowed to not miss out on the 2012 Olympics.
Fuelled by a fresh motivation, Palameika made a huge breakthrough in 2009 to secure gold with a massive PB and Latvian record of 64.51m at the European Under-23 Championships in Kaunas. Yet the following month old frailties resurfaced as she placed a distant 27th at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin.
“I remember seeing those ladies as so strong, and I was so nervous,” she says. “I forgot to compete.”
The following year she placed a solid eighth at the European Championships in Barcelona. 11th place followed at the 2011 World Championships and then eighth at the London Olympics. Yet every competition was an emotional battle.
“I’m a bit of a girlie girl,” she says. “I never think of myself as this monster made for the javelin. I have these emotions and need to think about everything.”
Palameika, who describes herself as a having ‘a fast arm with good flexibility’, was in consistent 60-metre shape in 2013, but once again those negative thoughts re-emerged as she finished 27th and last at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow.
“My daddy told me I was ready but when I went into the call room I suddenly had these thoughts in my head,” she says. “I thought what if something goes wrong? I was thinking too much and losing my confidence. I was putting too much pressure on myself. It was such a crazy moment.”
A crazy moment, but one she does not plan on repeating.
Adopting a care-free approach
Out of the ashes of the Moscow disappointment, she has approached the sport with a fresh attitude. Every training session and competition is viewed as fun and the more care-free philosophy has worked.
In 2014 Palameika enjoyed her finest season to date, hurling the spear to a national record of 66.15m in Jelgava and finishing fourth at the European Championships in Zurich.
Last year she claimed her maiden IAAF Diamond League victory in London and although she was “crushed” to finish 13th in qualification – just one place and four centimetres shy of the final – at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015, her performance in the Bird’s Nest Stadium was of sufficient quality that she had not come close to repeating her “crazy moment” in Moscow.
“It was a nice feeling to know I could beat Barbora Spotakova at the Diamond League,” said Palameika, who defeated the world record-holder and Olympic champion by one centimetre in London. “My hands were shaking. It was a big win for me and it gave me a lot of confidence.”
Still coached by her father, she admits the pair fight “like brother and sister” but that the relationship works because it is based on trust and honesty. Last winter she also received a boost as Ozolina, a seventh-place finisher at the 2015 World Championships, has joined her training group.
“We are very competitive and it makes practice more intense,” she says. “It has made practice more focused and I have learned some new things about me.”
Re-energised by her training set-up, she has clinched IAAF Diamond League victories in Rabat and Birmingham this year, the latter with a season’s best of 65.68m, and a second-place finish in Rome to head the standings in the Diamond Race.
So with Rio looming and Palameika currently fourth on the world lists, what are her ambitions for the big one in Brazil?
“In Rio I want to prove I am a stable thrower,” she says. “I want to prove I can perform well at the right moment.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF