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Hestrie gives South Africa Gold

Cloete gives South Africa Gold
Ed Gordon for the IAAF
12 August 2001 – Edmonton - There was absolutely no possibility that Hestrie Cloete would successfully clear her final attempt in the high jump on Sunday afternoon.  Already with the knowledge that she had won, the South African's eyes were so flooded with tears that it was all she could do to keep the crossbar in focus.

Cloete won a close-fought battle against the defending world champion Inga Babakova of Ukraine, one which saw both jumpers clear 2.00, the event's benchmark height, as Cloete won on a countback.

The Germiston native, previously a gold medalist in the Commonwealth and African championships, was a picture of extreme relief at the end.  "It was a very tough competition.  It was very stressful who would win in the end."

For the 22-year-old Cloete, the top step of the medal podium was a three-year journey, starting in 1999 when her 2.04 jump at the Monaco Golden League meeting set the standard for the world's female high jumpers.

Billed as one of the favourites in Seville, she sent a shock wave through the stadium when she failed to make it past the qualifying round.

In Sydney, things went much better as she took the silver medal with 2.01, the same height cleared by the winner Yelena Yelesina of Russia.  Ironically, it was Yelesina who prevented a rematch in Edmonton when she was eliminated in the preliminaries.

Now, Cloete can finally feel the honour that goes with a global win as she presented her country with its only gold medal in these championships. 

But she knows that her event is unforgiving of errors, and that a minute slip-up can cause a medal to quickly vanish.

"I'm trying to improve every year.  I keep concentrating on my technique, knowing that I must continue to make strides until 2004."

Babakova, a native of Turkmenistan and a dual citizen of both Lithuania and Ukraine, was winning her fifth World Championships medal--a second silver to accompany her 1999 gold and two previous bronzes. 

At age 34--and the oldest competititor in the final--she showed no disappointment in not successfully defending her title.  Her only complaint was with the wind, which hampered everyone. 

"The strong headwind was blowing in my face and causing difficulties with my technique.  But I got some good advice from my coach--and my husband--and I consider my silver medal a product of our teamwork."

Kajsa Bergqvist of Sweden, the world indoor champion from last winter, matched the bronze medal she won in Sydney.  Sporting a clean record through 1.97 and tied for the lead with Cloete, she found 2.00 out of reach today.

Clearly, changing wind conditions contributed to some premature exits.  After jumping was complete at the second crossbar placement of 1.90, only one of the twelve finalists had been eliminated.  But after 1.94, as the wind began to pick up strength, the field was down to six.

Most surprising were the difficulties of Bulgarian Venelina Veneva, whose 2.04 was leading the season prior to Edmonton.  With scattered misses throughout the day, she easily lost out on the bronze medal against Bergqvist on a countback.

A name to be reckoned with in the future is Blanka Vlasic of Croatia.  The 17-year-old World Junior Champion from last year placed sixth with 1.94, only one centimetre off her personal best and in the biggest pressure cooker she has seen to date. 

Cloete once told a South African publication that she chose high jumping because she wanted to "reach for the clouds".  Those clouds, which last year had a truly silver lining after her second-place Sydney performance, have suddenly turned to gold.

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