There is a fine line between success and failure. The difference between the two can be dependent on many factors, but for German shot putter Christina Schwanitz her recent success has been down to one key change – a psychological one.
The 27-year-old has long been one of the best in the world in her event, but until now she had struggled to achieve the kind of success that her talent promised.
In five successive global championship appearances – the 2005 World Championships, 2008 World Indoors, 2008 Olympics, 2009 World Championships and 2011 World Championships – Schwanitz threw farther in qualifying than she did in the final.
After the World Championships in Daegu two years ago, where she finished 12th in the final with 17.96m after throwing 19.20m in qualifying, she knew something had to change. And if it didn’t, retirement was a serious consideration.
“My performance in Daegu was completely down to nervousness, it was nothing physical,” said Schwanitz, who began working with sports psychologist Grit Reimann later that year.
“My problem was that I put myself under too much pressure at major championships, but working with a psychologist has now given me a lot of self-confidence. Competition now gives me great enjoyment and I now don’t worry about the pressure.”
Foot problem finally rectified after surgery
The other notable change in Schwanitz is that she recently had an operation on her feet over the winter, having initially undergone surgery in 2007. Several years ago she had five screws put in place, which only came out last November.
With the screws out, training has been made a lot easier and her coach, Sven Lang, has been able to increase the workload. “It now means I can run barefoot and do jumps and sprints,” said Schwanitz, who trains alongside World champion David Storl. “I can also move more freely in the ring and give it more effort.”
Schwanitz also finds it beneficial to train in an all-male training group. “It gives you extra incentive,” she says. “In the weight room, for example, they lift 30 or 40 kilos more than me, but I try to stay as close to them as I can.”
Gradual rise to the top
Schwanitz has progressed steadily since her junior days. A bronze medallist at the 2004 IAAF World Junior Championships, she improved rapidly and increased her best four times the following year, ending the season with a best of 18.84m at the age of 19 and taking silver at the European Athletics U23 Championships on home soil in Erfurt, despite being just 19 and one of the youngest competitors in the competition.
After sitting out 2006 and most of 2007 through injury, she returned with a bang during the 2008 indoor season and set an outright best of 19.68m in Chemnitz. Although she remained consistent around the 19-metre mark in the years that followed, that performance remained her lifetime best until this year.
With the screws out of her feet and her confidence growing, Schwanitz started 2013 as she meant to go on. At the German Indoor Championships she broke her long-standing personal best with 19.79m, making her the favourite to win gold at the European Athletics Indoor Championships.
Schwanitz was wary. “If you’ve never experienced being the favourite for a competition then you can’t understand how difficult it is to be in that position,” she said at the time. However, she needn’t have worried as she won the gold medal in Gothenburg, her first major title.
Breaking 20 metres as winning streak continues
Schwanitz ended the 2013 indoor season undefeated, and having come close to achieving a 20-metre throw indoors, she made it one of her aims for the summer.
During a warm-weather training trip in Spain, she threw 20 metres in training, but she knew it would count for nothing unless she replicated it in competition.
She didn’t have to wait long, because in her first competition of the summer, the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Shanghai, Schwanitz broke the mark not once but twice: first with 20.12m in round two, then 20.20m in the penultimate round.
“Twice over 20 metres, that was a big thing,” said Schwanitz, who travels to competitions with a lucky pillow, given to her by her fiancée Tomas, whom she’ll marry in September this year.
“In 2008 when I threw 19.68m, I surprised myself. God knows how I managed it, and I didn’t think I’d be able to do it again. But today it’s different. I trust in my ability to throw far.”
She followed up her performance in Shanghai with victories in Halle (19.84m), Prague (19.94m) and most recently the Diamond League meeting in Oslo on Thursday, where once again she went over 20 metres with 20.10m to record her 12th successive victory of 2013.
“It is always nice to go over 20 metres,” she said after the competition. “Of course I would be happy to continue with my winning streak as long as possible.”
Moscow medal now the goal
As the current leader of the Diamond Race and with her recent personal best being within touching distance of Valerie Adams’ 2013 world-leading 20.37m, Schwanitz is now one of the medal favourites for this summer's IAAF World Championships in Moscow.
“Sure, it would have been great had I been in 20-metre shape for the Olympics,” she said. “But ifs and buts don’t count for anything. Now we just have to make sure I do well in Moscow.
“I want to win a medal, and I want to beat Valerie Adams, but I don’t like to talk about what I may or may not do, because it creates extra pressure,” added Schwanitz.
She will have to miss the next Diamond League meeting with a Shot Put on its programme, in Paris on 6 June, as it clashes with the German Championships, but having turned around her fortunes with new-found confidence and an ability to cope with pressure, Schwanitz now finds herself in the unlikely position of applying pressure to her rivals.
“The victory in Oslo was more important than breaking 20 metres, but it’s good to throw 20 metres again,” she said. “It puts pressure on my rivals and makes them aware of what form I’m in.”
No doubt her opponents, Adams included, will be all too aware of the great form Schwanitz has showed so far this season when the World Championships kick off in August.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF