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Cloete - heartbreak and gold

Hestrie Cloete after clearing 2.06m (Getty Images)Hestrie Cloete after clearing 2.06m (Getty Images) © Copyright
Hestrie Cloete concealed heartbreak to score a soaring triumph when she retained the World High Jump title during a dramatic final session at the ninth World Athletics Championships in the Stade de France.

Despite her victory with 2.06 metres, equalling the best jump in 16 years, to give South Africa a second high jump victory in these championships, Cloete described it as "a bad day".

"It was," she said, "the third anniversary of the death of my sister's little girl." This had been in her thoughts, along with the death of another sister, in an accident, shortly before she came to Europe. "I don't want to talk about it."

The stress of the occasion made her success even more remarkable. When she won two years ago, the 26-year-old Cloete was her country's first global title-winner in a women's field event since Esther Brand took Olympic gold in 1952. When Brand won in Helsinki, it was with a height of 1.67m.

Now nearing 80, Brand still officiates at competitions in Bloomfontein, and has encouraged Cloete's career. "She normally phones me a lot, and we spoke on the phone just before I came to Europe," said Cloete. "She encourages me. She's one of the ladies of the past who still takes a keen interest. She likes to see me keep the flame alive."

Cloete cleared every height first time, eight jumps from 1.85 to 2.06m. This made her the equal third best outdoor performer in history, behind Stefka Kostadinova's 1987 world mark of 2.09, and Lyudmila Andonova (2.07 - 1984).

Runner-up Marina Kuptsova, of Russia, and Sweden's Kajsa Bergqvist both cleared 'just' 2.00m. It is the first time that all three medallist have been over 2.00m in what has been a vintage season for high jumping.

Bergqvist, who had cleared 2.06 herself in July, was content with bronze, struggling against a foot injury. "I had to treat my injury constantly to be able to jump with it," she said. "I had no choice but to go ahead and keep jumping."

Cloete, the double Commonwealth Games winner beat her previous best by a centimetre to improve her Commonwealth record. Her win made it a high jump double for South Africa, after Jacques Freitag had taken the men's event. It was a double which Sweden had cast covetous eyes upon.

"I came here and defended my title. That was the most important thing for me," added Cloete. "I am proud that South Africa won two gold medals here. It looks like we are coming back into the world of athletics."

Cloete, from the village of Coligny in Northern Province, is still coached by Martin Marx, the teacher who discovered her talent at school in Lichtenburg. They have grown up together in the sport.

At first she showed promise as a heptathlete, and also at 400 and 800 metres. "I switched to high jumping, because it was less painful than the 800," she said.

Her father is a train driver, and she is married to a panel-beater. She had planned to quit after Athens next year, to have a baby, but her form is so good that a family may now be put on hold. "If the season ends well, I will go on for another year," she said.

Cloete took three attempts at the world record height of 2.10. The world mark of Bulgaria's Kostadinova has stood since August 30 1987. "I was a child at school then, but I honestly feel that 2.10 metres is within my reach. Both my head and legs can do it, but just not today. Maybe by the end of this year, or maybe next year, but I know I will try it, and I know I can get it."

She dismissed jibes about her eccentric style. "It works for me," she said. "I just jump in front of the crossbar. Let's leave it there."