Michel Torneus on his way to long jump gold at the European Indoor Championships
For Swedish athletics fans, the mid-2000s when Carolina Kluft, Christian Olsson and Stefan Holm reigned supreme is no doubt remembered with the nostalgia that is evoked when British fans recall the days when Seb Coe, Steve Cram and Steve Ovett ruled the track in the late 1970s and 1980s.
So what is it like for the next generation of Swedish athletes following in these formidable footsteps?
“It’s really hard,” smiled Michel Torneus, speaking two days after winning the European indoor long jump title in Prague, where he produced a world-leading 8.30m.
“People always talk about the golden ages and they talk about the future that’s coming up, but they sometimes forget we are out there fighting right now.”
Torneus, whose mark in Prague was an outright lifetime best, has been on national teams with some of the doyens of Swedish track and field in the past but whereas Kluft had won world and Olympic heptathlon titles by the age of 21, international success wasn’t as immediately forthcoming for Torneus.
But it would be wrong to say he was a late bloomer.
A decade ago, Torneus jumped 7.94m to finish the year ranked second to Greg Rutherford on the European junior rankings, but a stress fracture in his groin left him unable to build on this initial promise.
Four years later, Torneus jumped beyond eight metres for the first time to seal selection for his first big event, the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin. But, unaccustomed to rubbing shoulders with the world’s best jumpers, he initially struggled with the pressure and pageantry of the biggest stage.
“It’s taken me a long time to learn how to compete in the big event and in the big championships,” he said.
“I’ve just felt a lot of pressure and stress but for every championships, I’ve learnt a little bit more about myself and how I handle different situations.
“That’s the thing about sports. For some people, it just works. Like Kluft, I trained with her and she just went out and did what she had to do. She was that sort of person.
“I thought I was maybe more of an analysing guy and I didn’t know I was that guy. I thought I was the relaxed guy who went out and had fun but, after some time, I realised I’m thinking a lot more than I should during these competitions.
“It took a while for me to crack the code of how to do good at championships.”
Motivated by medals
Torneus uncorked a narrow no-jump at the Swedish Indoor Championships in the build up to Prague which, at least to the naked eye, looked some way in excess of his winning mark in the European indoor final.
“It was a really good jump,” remembered Torneus, but he didn’t speculate how long it was. “For me, the medals allure me. That’s what I like, and that’s what I’m chasing.
“At the same time, it’s good to do a big jump to win, but it’s not the most important thing.”
Prague last month saw Torneus get his first major gold medal. To place his performance into a global paradigm, his winning mark would have made the podium in the past two Olympic and world long jump finals.
Recent form, plus statistics, are pointing towards a breakthrough on the world stage this summer but Torneus believes he’s not quite the finished article yet.
“I’m one of the slower long jumpers so I’m always working on speed,” said Torneus, whose 100m best stands at 10.71.
“If you compare it to a lot of guys, it’s not so good. I’m just trying to get quicker all the time, get faster, that’s what I’m working on. I’ve put a lot of focus on this over the past few years and it’s getting better and better but I think another push, and we’ll get a greater distance.”
Listening and learning
Replicating the success of the Swedes who dominated a decade ago might be a daunting task, but Torneus is still quick to cite their impact during his formative years.
“I realised I had to listen and learn from the older ones to know what to do because they have cracked the code,” said Torneus, who describes Kluft as “the best”, and refers to Olsson and Holm as 'big inspirations' when he was growing up.
“At the same time, you have to go your own way,” he added. “You have to listen and feel like that maybe that’s something for me, and maybe that’s something that’s not for me. I think that’s the way you learn.”
As well as being inspired by the great champions of the past, motivation also comes closer to home in the form of his nine-month-old daughter Leah.
“It makes me work even harder,” said Torneus, reflecting on fatherhood.
"Track and field is the passion. It’s what I’ve done since I was six years old but now I have a daughter and I’m not at home, it feels like I’m wasting time away from my family so I’m just trying to do it 100 per cent so I can feel that at least I’m doing something good.”
Torneus’s enthusiasm for the sport shines through.
On life after competitive long jumping, he would quite like to stay connected to the sport but, for the time being, Torneus enjoys the de facto role of mentor which comes with now being one of the elder statesmen on the Swedish team.
“Now, I’m just trying to teach the younger ones on the team after 14 championships,” he joked.
Steven Mills for the IAAF