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News31 Jan 2011

Blanka Vlasic – Croatia’s National Treasure


Blanka Vlasic clears 2.05 to win the IAAF / VTB Bank Continental Cup in Split (© Getty Images)

Pinning Blanka Vlasic down for an interview these days is as formidable a challenge for a journalist as it is for her competitors to beat her in the field. Spare time is scarce for Croatia’s greatest athlete who confided in Paul Gains in between sports management lessons.

Article published in IAAF 2010 Yearbook - December 2010 

A self-confessed perfectionist, the reigning World High Jump champion was in the midst of studying for her first semester college exams in sports management when she finally conceded a half hour one day before Christmas. This, after weeks of attempts of cooperation. Such is the demand on her time that she is already making sacrifices for the greater good.

There will be no 2011 indoor season for her. Appearances will be kept to a minimum as she pursues higher education.

“After many years I figured I will need my diploma years after I end my career if I want to stay in the sport,” she explains, with an extended yawn, even though it’s noon in her hometown of Split, Croatia.

“It’s important to have this paper, it’s more legitimate. When I do well on my exams it’s a different feeling of achievement. The people I have met, new friendships, I am enjoying it very much. It was very hard at first but I got used to it. My days go from morning to evening. Even though I am tired, I know I am doing something for my future besides sports.”

In mid-December she moved into a new apartment with a terrace that provides a spectacular view of the sea. Below is a beach on which she vows to spend as many summer afternoons as she can spare. Inside her home the two-time IAAF World High Jump champion keeps her many awards including the recently acquired 2010 World Athlete of the Year trophy.

It’s an award, she claims, that actually represents years of hard work even though it was presented for 2010, a year in which she not only won the World Indoor Championships, but cleared 2 metres in no less than ten outdoor competitions. Most impressively she was the only athlete to remain undefeated in Diamond League meetings.

“The Athlete of the Year Award means a lot because it’s a very competitive sport - the whole world is doing athletics, and there are strong girls on the circuit. To be the best is a big honour,” says the 27-year-old. “And I am able to dedicate it to my father (Josko) as the person  who is the most responsible for my success. I remember when I was a little girl and starting out (in the sport) all the awards seemed miles away, a dream. When this dream came true it’s incredible.”

In the absence of a world outdoor championship or an Olympics the biggest event on the 2010 calendar was the IAAF Continental Cup which was held right in Split. Despite the immense pressure to perform against the world’s best, in a stadium filled to capacity with her compatriots, including her three brothers, her parents and friends, she won with 2.05m - the equal best jump of the season.

Croatia is a small nation boasting a population of just 4.5 million. Sportsmen are among its greatest ambassadors with the people proudly gravitating to the successful ones. Coincidentally Vlasic was this year named the top “Croatian ambassador” by the Croatian National Tourist Board for maintaining a Croatian presence on the world scene. She is, quite simply, a national treasure.

Each time she returns from a major championship there has been a reception in her honour. The President, the Prime Minister and other government ministers have participated in such festivities, sharing cake and champagne and delivering speeches. Croatian national pride swells around her. Winning her event on home soil then was an opportunity to pay back the loyalty she has experienced.

“It was the perfect experience, it was unforgettable.  Sure, all those wins at World Championships they were really emotional, but this was different,” Vlasic claims. “It was on a different level. You cannot compare it. After so many years I came there and the first time I jumped in front of my hometown crowd, it was a full stadium, a season best, then this victory lap....... it was so emotional. I was recovering from it for days afterwards. I wanted so much to perform well in front of them.”

“I will always remember it. It was a great competition and I am happy that the IAAF gave us this opportunity (to host) and we didn’t disappoint them. I was very proud that night, of my city, of my country and the people.”

Vlasic is one of the most beloved Croatian celebrities and the sight of her draped in the national flag celebrating a medal performance is quite familiar to Croatians home and abroad. After she won the 2007 IAAF World Championships in Osaka she went into the Beijing Olympics as the favourite having twice cleared 2.06m in the weeks leading up to the Games. Both she and Tia Hellebaut cleared 2.05m in the Bird’s Nest Stadium but the Belgian did it on her first attempt. Vlasic needed two tries. Settling for silver was a huge disappointment and it took months to accept the loss.
“The people were great,” she remembers. “I was hard on myself. I remember one headline on the front page of a newspaper was  "For us you are the winner." They were very supportive. It was more the media from outside Croatia who were treating it as a huge defeat but jumping 2.05m in the Olympics is not such a bad result.

“It’s definitely not a failure. It was the first time in an Olympic games where 2.05m was not good enough for the gold medal. Tia and I made history so that is something to be proud of.”

Nevertheless at the end of the 2008 season she experienced an emotional downturn where she was lacking motivation and was unsure of her future. Then she performed poorly at the 2009 European Indoor Championships finishing 5th with a height of 1.92m compounding her fragile emotional state. The antidote proved to be a trip to Los Angeles where she participated in a photo shoot for her long term sponsor adidas.

Four days away from home afforded her the opportunity to think about the future. It was an emotional escape. She went for daily runs on the beach and generally relaxed. Looking back on that period now she sees it as a positive experience.

“The whole year crashed down on me at one time. I was feeling unmotivated I was in a dark place,” she recalls. “It was the hardest moment in my life when I went to L.A. to shoot my adidas commercial.  I wasn’t really anxious to come back to train. I needed to wait for the desire to come back. It lasted not so long. But I am grateful for that. It made me stronger. When the motivation came back I was hungrier. I made one step forward in my training and the result was Berlin (gold).”

Shortly after defending her World title in the German city she cleared a new personal best with 2.08, in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. That was just one centimetre below Stefka Kostadinova’s World record which has stood since 1987.

Recovering from the Beijing disappointment was therefore complete. It wasn’t the first time where she had to reach deep into her psychological arsenal to overcome adversity.
After taking the bronze medal at the 2004 World Indoor Championships and then clearing a national record 2.03m outdoors she approached the Athens Olympics with great optimism. But then something went wrong.

Inexplicable fatigue affected her performances and in Athens she could clear only 1.89m for 11th place. She sought medical attention afterwards and it was decided she had been suffering from hyperthyroidism. The following spring she underwent surgery to remove the thyroid gland in her neck and missed the entire 2005 season. Recovery was  swift though. She competed at the 2006 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Moscow where she cleared 2.00m to finish second to Russia’s Elena Slesarenko (2.02m). There are no residual effects she claims.

“I don’t have the gland anymore,” Vlasic explains nonchalantly. “I have to replace the hormones every morning. I don’t have it anymore. When I wake up in the morning I take two thyroxine pills and I need to do that for the rest of my life. But other consequences? I don’t feel anything. I feel perfect.”

The experience has helped her come to realise the importance of eating well and to see food as a sort of preventative medicine.

“I cook for myself every day, I don’t eat wheat I don’t eat bread, I only eat steamed food, with a lot of vegetables,” she confirms. “Fish, meat grilled without oil. It’s not really a special diet. I am used to it, I enjoy my food. It’s not a problem for me.

“Nowadays food is not only pleasure it’s also preventative. It can help prevent diseases. People should be aware of this.”

Vlasic enjoys entertaining friends at her home, when she has time, sharing food and wine. And she is keen on rock music, often attending concerts in Split or Zagreb with friends and family. Not one to sit idly by and watch passively she says she likes to get on to the middle of the arena floor and dance.

“That’s the best way to blow off steam,” she says laughing. “My brother (Marin) always lifts me up at the end of the concert on his shoulders, we never sit in the concert we are always in the middle of the floor, a bunch of us.”

Once her studies are completed for the year Vlasic will prepare for the 13th IAAF World Championships in Daegu where she hopes to win her third consecutive title. She believes that skipping the indoor season will give her enough time to adequately train for the championship. Still, she concedes it will not be easy to win again.

“I love the World Championships. I have good memories of Osaka and Berlin,”she reveals. “There will be a lot of travelling with the Diamond League and going to Daegu . The only thing on my mind now is to try and stay healthy and keep training, I know if I do everything right then I will be able to have the opportunity for a new gold medal.”

Blanka Vlasic will be 29 when the London Olympics open. While many athletes don’t see a future beyond London the Croatian superstar has no plans to retire. As long as the motivation is there she will compete. And, when the day comes where her ambition is satiated she will have a sports management degree to fall back on. She may even have time to herself.