Ibarguen: That dominant athlete you haven’t heard of

Unbeaten in 29 competitions since London 2012, the Colombian has had a fair share of hiccups en route success.

Beijing 2015 IAAF World Championships
Ibarguen had been a high jumper before switching to triple jump [EPA]

Caterine Ibarguen bagged a second world title in Beijing’s iconic Bird’s Nest stadium on Monday. With the triumph, she has been unbeaten in 29 competitions since winning silver at the London Olympics three years ago.

The competition was unusually scare-free: no last minute injury nightmare, no extreme allergic reactions on event-day but a smooth passage through qualifying followed by a single, supreme and title-winning jump of 14.9m in the final.

It hasn’t always been like this, however. In her final training session before London 2012, she pulled her left hamstring.

The stages of her life…

Moving to Medellin aged 14 : It wasn’t easy. It was my grandmother, my mother and my first coach Apartado Wilder Zaparta who persuaded me. They saw it as a chance for a new life – better housing and better food.


The coaching in Medellin : It was extremely strict. They forced us to do 300-400 sit-ups daily. The coach Regla Sandrino reminded us to “think of yourself as “I am not the best of Colombia, but the least bad”.


Athens Olympics (where she finished 16th in the high jump) : I had a complex about myself back then, about my physical condition, my physique, which is a little thicker and bigger compared to high jumpers from other countries who are all extremely slim. Psychologically I was not prepared for it.

“I cried many times,” Ibarguen told Al Jazeera. “All my life I dreamt of being in good shape for the Olympics, but I couldn’t run. Every time I tried to jump, I tore more muscle fibres.”

Two weeks of intense physiotherapy followed and, faking 100% fitness, she battled through the pain to qualify for the final. She landed a 14.8m in her final attempt to finish on the podium.

If that was remarkable, events at the Moscow World Championships the following year took the drama to a new level. Hours before the final, Ibarguen was on the bus to the stadium when she fainted.

“I’d eaten oatmeal for breakfast which gave me terrible cramps.

“During the journey the pain became unbearable. I was sweating uncontrollably, apparently my eyes started to roll and then I passed out.”

The bus didn’t stop because several athletes were already late for their competitions. Ibarguen was laid out on the floor until she regained consciousness. But it wasn’t until she reached the stadium that she received any medical attention.

Few would have considered competing that evening, but Ibarguen was determined. Once again jumping through pain, she recorded the year’s best jump to claim her first global title.

The origins of such mental fortitude lie partly in a brutish training regime. They also lie in an upbringing which spanned one of the most troubled periods in Colombia’s recent history.

Ibarguen grew up in the coastal town of Apartado where life revolved largely around banana trade. Her parents worked on the local plantations and she remembers growing up on a diet rich in two things – bananas and fish.

While the family survived on a meagre income, her natural athletic attributes were evident from an early age – they were not always to her liking though.

“I was always taller than the other children at school and I hated it,” laughs Ibarguen, who grew to an imposing 1.81m. “One day I asked my mum if she could find something to stop me growing.”

Family life wasn’t always easy. Amid escalating conflict between guerrillas and various paramilitary groups, Ibarguen’s parents separated when she was seven. While her father remained in Apartado, her mother fled to the neighbouring town of Currulao.

Ibarguen's effort of 14.9m was enough to land her the gold [EPA]
Ibarguen’s effort of 14.9m was enough to land her the gold [EPA]

Paulo Villar, a 110m hurdler and long-time teammate of Ibarguen, remembers the many no-go zones controlled by armed militias. Six years older, he was more aware of the ever-present dangers. Young people who stayed out at night were at a real risk of being killed by thieves or drug addicts, according to him.

But Ibarguen doesn’t want to describe her journey as a traditional rags-to-riches tale.

“There was little money but I can never say I went to bed without eating. Times were difficult but Apartado has always been full of colour and music. People had so little but they still decorated the streets and danced the rumba. As a child you don’t think about the troubles.” 

Ibarguen never sought athletics as a way out. Instead, it found her. While competing in sprints at school at the age of 12, her speed and power impressed scouts from a local club who saw her as a potential long jump champion.

At 14, she was sent to Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, where she lived in a hostel with 50 other teenage hopefuls.

Times were difficult but Apartado has always been full of colour and music

by Caterine Ibarguen, Triple jumper

“The first ten days were really bad. I was on my own, away from my family. It felt like a big void, I thought about their absence all the time. But I knew it was an opportunity. A voice in my head old me to keep fighting for what I wanted.”

In Medellin, she was trained as a high jumper, a move which seemed to pay off. She became a Colombian champion, setting a national record of 1.93m which still stands. However international success proved harder. She finished 16th at the Athens Olympics and failed to even qualify for Beijing.

“At 24, I was questioning my future in the sport.

“I didn’t think I had what it took. To win medals in high jump you have to be capable of jumping 2.05m. I decided to change career so I accepted a scholarship to compete for the Metropolitan University of Puerto Rico and study nursing.”

It wasn’t a straightforward choice. Ibarguen wanted to be a nurse but she hated the idea of leaving Colombia. She eventually relented to the persuasive powers of university coach Ubaldo Duan who assessed her physique and declared that she could be a triple jump world champion.

“I thought he was crazy,” she remembers. “I loved my country and moving to Puerto Rico seemed mad. But he was convinced my speed and build were perfect for triple jump.

“I spoke to my mum and decided to give it a go. Ubaldo has changed my life completely. He gave me a second chance.”

Just two years after taking up the discipline, Ibarguen won bronze at the 2011 World Championships. She hasn’t looked back. At 31, she could have many years left in her sport. But she plans to retire after next year’s Olympics to start a family and complete her nursing training.

With two world titles to her name, she has just two goals left: breaking the 15.5m world record which has stood since 1995, and striking gold in Rio.

As in all her competitions, she will be powered by the sound of Vallenato, the Colombian Carribbean folk music which has been with her since her childhood.

“The songs make me think of Apartado. They take me back through my own story, all the memories and inspire me. So I always listen to them before I compete. And then I see myself being triumphant.”

Follow David Cox on twitter: @dcwriter89

Source: Al Jazeera