Paulina Guba wins the shot put at the European Championships in Berlin (© Getty Images)
To the more casual fan, Paulina Guba’s might not have been a familiar name prior to 2018. The Polish shot putter burst into the top echelons only this year after her victory at the European Championships. Guba, now 27, has in fact been going at it for a while, earning her first national title in 2011, but her road to the top has not been a straightforward one.
Guba first came into contact with the shot put when her middle school physical education teacher asked her to take part in an interschool competition. Going into the competition without any serious training, she did well enough to attract the attention of a local coach in Otwock, where she continued training until graduating from high school.
“In middle school I had to travel 25 kilometres three times a week to train,” Guba recalled. “Then I went to high school where she was coaching, but I had to stay after school until six or seven PM to do the training there.”
The effort led to notable results at the junior level, as she placed fourth in the European U20 Championships in 2009 and seventh in the World U20 Championships a year later. It was also in 2010 that Guba moved to Gdańsk to begin her studies at the Academy of Physical Education and started training with Edmund Antczak, who remains her coach until today.
Her progress in the next two years was fast. In the winter of 2012, still only 20, she reached 17.79m to qualify for the World Indoor Championships. She seemed destined for a good international career, but things would not go all her way afterwards.
“I had to have a surgery on my foot, and it was unsuccessful, so the next year I needed another one,” Guba said. “I had to continue competing to receive financial support and I was winning national titles, but I couldn't show all I was capable of. I basically lost three years of my career because of that.”
It was only in 2015 that Guba was able to improve her personal best, taking it to 17.95m. That year, she finished fifth at the European Indoor Championships and made the World Championships final. The next year started very promisingly with a big new best of 18.63m at the national indoor championships, but despite the decision to skip the World Indoor Championships to focus on the summer season, the rest of the year did not go as planned.
She admits she does not know exactly what went wrong, but with an outdoor best of just 17.74m that year and a failure to make the final in the Olympic Games, the season was a definite disappointment. At that point, she even briefly considered retiring, but decided to stick with it. The 2017 season was somewhat better with a new outdoor best of 18.24m, but at the World Championships she went out in qualifying once again.
New fitness coach rounds out support team
It was after that year that she decided the time had come for major changes. The one that she now considers particularly important was the addition of fitness coach Magdalena Szczepanska, a former Polish heptathlon champion, to her support team.
“There are many fitness coaches, but Magda understands the shot put, and that's what I needed,” Guba said. “We do a lot of general physical training, jumping and cross-country running.” She admits she is not a keen runner, but she gives Szczepanska major credit for the improvement she made in 2018.
And that improvement was impressive by any standard. Already in her first two indoor competitions of the year she set absolute personal bests of 18.73m and 18.77m. She was not far off these marks at the World Indoor Championships, where she finished fifth, her best result yet in a major global competition.
The form grew progressively better outdoors. Her 18.77m in Bialystok on 20 May began a streak of 11 consecutive meets over 18.50m. That level of consistency eventually brought her more PBs. First came 18.94m in Bottnaryd, then in early July in Cetniewo she finally broke through the 19-metre barrier. It was by some margin, too, as her 19.38m took her to third on the Polish all-time list, just 20 cm off the national record held since 1976 by Ludwika Chewinska. As fate would have it, it was Chewinska herself, now working as an official, who measured the mark.
Berlin-bound, among the favourites
After more top marks, including 19.29m for second place at the Athletics World Cup in London, Guba travelled to the European Championships as a firm medal candidate. She started the final with 18.77m, which put her in second behind the favourite Christina Schwanitz's 19.19m. It stayed that way for the majority of the competition, until in round five Aliona Dubitskaya of Belarus moved to second with 18.81m. Guba, however, responded immediately with 19.02m.
The Pole showed even more of that fighting spirit on her final attempt. Already assured of silver, she put it all into the final throw and sent the shot flying to 19.33m, just short of her career best. With Schwanitz unable to respond, Guba thus became a sensational gold medallist, the first ever for Poland in her event.
The winning put resulted in an atypical emotional reaction from the normally restrained Guba. “The emotions were building up inside me from the first attempt, and finally exploded at the end,” she explained. “Many people ask me why I usually don't show emotions during a competition, but I prefer to smile afterwards, not while I'm still competing.”
She also gives credit to the work she has done with a psychologist this year for her ability to perform under pressure. “He does not force me into anything, but listens and lets me figure out the solution to my issues. Now I go into every competition with my head held high, even when my rivals have better PBs. I also learned to manage my energy better in competition. In the past I would put everything into the early attempts and have nothing left.”
Guba admits she was emotionally drained after the big win, which is why her form was not quite the same in later competitions. However, she still finished a creditable fifth in both the Diamond League Final and the Continental Cup, reaching 18.94m in the latter.
Back in training, with a focus on Doha
After a well-earned three weeks of post-season vacation, Guba has already started general training and is planning to recommence more specific technical work in early November in preparation for the 2019 season. Unlike most top Polish athletes, she is not planning on any warm-weather training camps. “I have good conditions for training in Gdansk, so this year after the indoor season, me and my coach decided I would continue training at home. It worked well, so I'm planning to do the same again in preparation for next season.”
She is planning to compete indoors, but has not yet made a decision on participation in the European Indoor Championships. “I will see how well I'm competing. I'm not planning to focus on that competition as much as on the World Championships, but if I'm in shape, I will do it. I don't want to go there just to finish fifth or sixth.”
Regarding her overall goals next year, Guba believes she still has the potential to improve, but does not want to offer any specific predictions. Asked about Chewinska's national record, she says, “It would be great to get it, but several girls have been close in the past and didn't do it. The most important thing is to stay healthy and keep training.”
Pawel Jackowski for the IAAF