Feature25 May 2016

Beitia looking for elusive Olympic medal in 'extra time'


Ruth Beitia in the high jump at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015 (© Getty Images)

Ruth Beitia will have her first international outdoor competition of the summer at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene on Saturday (28).

But the 2015 Diamond Race winner – who could arguably be regarded as Spain's best ever female athlete – admitted she is thinking more about events in South America later in the season rather than those more immediately coming up in the northern hemisphere.

Having collected a vast array of medals and titles at major championships in recent years, the 37-year-old high jumper only lacks an Olympic medal to fulfil her athletics dreams, as she openly admitted: “I everyday get up and go to bed thinking of getting a podium spot in Rio, that’s what keeps me still going at this stage of my career.”

Beitia’s athletics career had a notable turning point after the London 2012 Olympics Games.

Earlier that year, she had announced she would hang up her spikes once that season was over and she gave up her regular training sessions that autumn and took up – just for fun, not at a competitive level – other sports, such as roller skating, in her native Santander.

This was despite the fact that, ironically, Beitia had just enjoyed her most successful campaign until then and got her first European title in Helsinki, as well as just missing out on a medal in London when she finished fourth despite clearing 2.00m.

“I was 33, I already had a job in local politics and I have a degree to my name," she said. "I still felt at my peak but I had enjoyed a fruitful sports career so I thought it was the right moment for my farewell.

“I didn’t want to be forced to retire due to an injury or not being competitive any longer.”

Rain leads to return

“However, my home town of Santander is quite rainy so the weather prevented me from skating on a lot of days; it was then that my lifetime coach Ramon Torralbo made the suggestion to me: ‘you might want to join the group again, just to maintain your physical fitness', so I gradually resumed the training sessions.

“I still felt in good form and I finally decided to take on some top competition again.”

Beitia’s decision proved to be right as most of her successes have come in this ‘extra time’ – as she likes to call it – of her career.

“This is all thanks to Ramon," she said. "I’m very lucky as he has guided me for 26 years. Ramon has always seen each of his athletes firstly as a person, and then as an athlete.

“He never tried to force our development as athletes, for instance I started lifting weights quite late simply because he thought I wasn’t ready before.”

In many respects, her leap into politics was more difficult than leaping for a living as a professional athlete.

“I have been a member of the Cantabria Parliament since 2011," she said. "To represent people is a huge responsibility and you can’t do all you would like to do as you are subject to a limited budget, have to negotiate with other parties… The high jump is definitely easier for me."

In the past five years, Beitia has only been a part-time athlete as she has to cope with her professional commitments in the morning.

“After so many years training twice a week, I already have a broad base to work from so one daily session is now enough for me," she said. "I would say I have found the right balance between mind and body, and I’m sure that’s the key of my current success. From 2013 onwards I enjoy each competition a lot as I consider each of them a gift."

Back to the books

Besides her athletics career, the world indoor silver medallist has a varied academic background.

She has got a physiotherapy degree and is currently studying psychology, which qualified her for the Spanish University Championships, which she competed in and won earlier this month as a rehearsal for Eugene and beyond, and where some of her opponents were about half her age.

“I’m very fond of reading but I’ve now had to change my usual books for my university notes before going to bed.”

Beitia does not rule out her second degree becoming her profession in the future.

“Sports psychology is an exciting subject and I have the advantage of seeing it from the perspective as an elite athlete," she said. "It would be nice to share my experience and knowledge in the future with other athletes."

Beitia, unlike some her fellow continental champions from 2014, has confirmed she will defend her European title in Amsterdam in July but her focus is obviously the Olympics, where she has been on an upward curve for the past three editions.

She didn’t make the final in 2004 but then progressed to seventh in Beijing before claiming fourth place in London four years ago.

“It’s quite obvious that the gold medal in Rio is already mine, it’s not necessary to actually have the competition,” joked Beitia, who is well known among the Spanish international athletes for her sense of humour.

“Seriously speaking, my target is to make the podium but I wouldn’t dare to predict anything beforehand," she added. "I hope to get there in full form, have a great competition and let’s see what happens there.

“I’m very proud as I’ve competed against several generations of jumpers. I still keep in touch with Antonietta Di Martino and Tia Hellebaut; they both are very good friends and are impressed with my longevity at the highest level.

“But my reference point in athletics is (former Spanish international and 1.96m jumper) Marta Mendia. We were fierce rivals on the track but we also developed a genuine friendship. Nowadays, she is one of my closest friends and even now she is retired, we meet up several times a year.

“One day, every top athlete hangs up their spikes, and their records will be broken, and you become a former champion," added Beitia. "The only lasting thing is the friends you have made.” 

Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF