Of all the big-name stars of athletics that competed at the Sainsbury’s Grand Prix in Birmingham on Sunday, the seventh of this season’s IAAF Diamond League meetings, it was Sandra Perkovic who had most reason to be pleased with her performance.
Croatia’s London 2012 Olympic Games Discus champion not only maintained her unbeaten record for the season with her fourth straight Diamond Race victory, but she did so despite arriving in sunny Birmingham less than three hours before her competition after a draining seven-hour trip from Turkey, where she’d added the Mediterranean Games title to her bulging bag of honours the previous afternoon.
On a day when the likes of Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Carmelita Jeter, Sally Pearson and Amantle Montsho appeared to be running on empty, Perkovic pulled herself together.
Inspired by a buzzing and capacity Alexander Stadium crowd, she won her sixth straight competition of the year in almost as many weeks since starting her 2013 campaign and remains on target for her goal of winning all seven Diamond League contests this summer.
Her winning distance of 64.32m may have been some way down on her world-leading 68.48m from New York but then that was hardly surprising.
“When I arrived here I was so tired – really, really tired,” said Perkovic. “Today I wasn’t ready at all but I came here to make sure I had another four points and to make sure I only have victories this year.
Perkovic’s arduous journey started very early on Sunday morning in Mersin where she had become Mediterranean Games champion with a throw of 66.21m.
At that point, Birmingham was an hour’s car ride and six-hour flight away.
She grabbed 30 minutes sleep in Istanbul but arrived at the meeting hotel exhausted at 11am with just enough time to check in before heading to the stadium at 11:30 for the start of her event at 13:25.
“I just had time for a quick wash, to grab my gear and my discus, and to run to the stadium,” reflected Perkovic. “When I got to there, my coach had to run to the warm-up track to hand the discus to officials an hour before the competition.
“It seems crazy but I wanted to win here because my wish for this year is to win all the Diamond Leagues. I really didn’t think I would be able to because I was so tired.
“When the competition started and I threw 64 metres and the other girls threw 58 and 59 I thought, ‘Oh my God, this could be my fourth win.’”
Perkovic’s opening effort of 64.17m immediately put her in the lead and no one else managed to get beyond 62.50m, before she eventually extended her lead in the sixth round.
It will hardly go down as a classic contest, but Perkovic’s only regret was that she couldn’t perform better in what she described as near perfect conditions.
“I had problems in my last two competitions,” she said. “In Kaunas, at the European Cup, the circle was too slow. Yesterday, at the Mediterranean Games, the circle was too, too slippery. I almost fell down when I was throwing!
“Then I came to Birmingham and there was a perfect circle here, and a great atmosphere.
“Next time I want to be prepared and rested for this competition because the atmosphere was really great, the people were cheering for us all the time, and the announcer was calling my name every time I threw.
“If this had happened in Rome maybe I would have thrown 70 metres because there I was really ready for the competition. Today, I wasn’t ready at all.
"But I feel special at Diamond League meetings. All the girls and guys want to throw far, or run fast, or jump high. I think Diamond League meetings are really special; it’s true athletics
“I arrived here so tired, but when I saw all the guys and girls, I said to myself, ‘Why not?’ For me there is a special energy in the Diamond League.”
It’s not only the quest for Diamond Race points that’s given Perkovic’s motivation an extra boost this season.
A year after becoming Croatia’s first Olympic athletics gold medallist since the country became independent; she can hardly be accused of resting on her laurels.
She is hungry to add the one title missing from her collection at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow next month that she has changed coaches, adopted a new approach to training, and set herself hard targets such as winning every competition she enters, and throwing beyond 70 metres for the first time.
“I now have the Mediterranean Games title, the Olympic title, the double European title, but I don’t have the World title,” she said.
Preparing for Moscow
Perkovic was 19 at the World Championships in 2009 when she got to the final, finishing ninth in Berlin with 60.77m, but she missed the 2011 World Championships in Daegu.
"Making the final in Berlin was really great for a young girl but now I want the gold in Moscow, and I am really preparing for that,” she says.
"I will have had five competitions in three weeks by the time I get there. I go to Lausanne now, then Monaco; then I will go back to base to get ready for Moscow.
"Last year I was almost undefeated but I lost in Paris when it was rainy – that was the only reason. This year, it is very important for me not to lose.
“I am young, only 23 years old. I got the Olympic gold last year but I know what happens to Olympic champions, the next year they are not that good.
“I wanted to prove that I really am the best discus thrower so I changed my coach.”
Perkovic took up athletics at eight, inspired by the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games. She was guided from 2005 by Ivan Ivancic, who moulded her from a raw and ambitious 14-year-old to become the 2007 World Youth Championships silver medallist at 17.
The medals then started to mount up; she was the World junior bronze medallist in 2008, European junior champion in 2009, European champion in 2010 and 2012, and then the 2012 Olympic champion.
“I liked Ivan and he took me to an Olympic title so that is not a small thing, but I thought I needed to take care of myself, and my career,” says Perkovic, explaining that she felt the 76-year-old two-time European Athletics Indoor Championships Shot Put medallist “was too strict”, using what she calls ‘the Russian system’.
“You know, train hard, don’t sleep, just train and train and train. I had a lot of injuries; but I thought, ‘I am only 23 and I want my career to last another 10 years.’”
Her new mentor is Edis Elkasevic, who won the 2002 World junior title and was a former World junior record holder before an elbow injury prematurely cut short his career in 2005.
The two are “a great team”, according to Perkovic. “He is young and I am young. I want more and he wants more. I think after every big step in your life it makes sense to change; you need to find new motivation for the next year and beyond.
“My new coach understands my body more. When I say I have an injury to my knee or back, he says ‘Ok, let’s find some good therapy and rehabilitation.'
Now I think I am well set for Rio [the 2016 Olympics]. That I think will be the peak of my career because I will be 27.”
Bad news, then, for the rest of the world’s top women discus throwers.
Matthew Brown for the IAAF