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Stockholm, SwedenThreetime World Heptathlon champion. 2004 Olympic gold medallist and twice-European champion. With 7032 points, the World all-time No. 2 and European record holder. Those are just a handful of superlatives that Carolina Klüft collected over a decade-long international career, one which officially came to end with her retirement from the sport earlier this month.
Renowned Swedish athletics journalist A. Lennart Julin, who has been following Klüft since her days as a teenager on the national scene, looks back on the phenomenal career of the woman who returned the spotlight to the Heptathlon for much of the past decade.
To say that Carolina Klüft revolutionised the Heptathlon is probably an exaggeration but she certainly rejuvenated the event and brought it into the spotlight for even the casual sports fans. And she did that not through some cunning plan but by simply being herself and so visibly demonstrating her own enthusiasm and enjoyment for the event. And of course by being a brilliant athlete.
For a wider audience Carolina Klüft seemed to suddenly burst onto the World stage at age 19 when she sensationally defeated the then current World senior elite at the 2002 European Championships in Munich. Those two days of intense competition seemed almost unreal when the playful youngster with her "This is really fun!" attitude upset that slightly "stiff-upper-lipped" establishment.
Breakthrough in Munich 2002
Some people got irritated – probably the same that a few years later reacted in a similar fashion to Usain Bolt – and thought that her playing with the TV cameras was some deliberate way of trying to steal the attention. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Klüft only did what came naturally to her, and as the 19-year-old said at the press conference afterwards: "Remember that I am just a child!"
There is also an actual parallel to Bolt in that to avoid burning out mentally during a long competition by keeping maximum concentration all the time she had found out that it was better to relax as much as possible between those competitive moments. It also helps during these moments that you really need to be 110% focused on the task. Being able to switch on and off like that is most probably a valuable ingredient in a recipe for success.
Also the Heptathlon "establishment" ought to have realised well before Munich that Klüft indeed was someone they had to seriously consider as a main contender. Actually she had done just about everything to make everyone aware of her extraordinary potential. Two years earlier - still very much just 17 years old - she had won the World Junior title in Santiago displaying an amazing all-round ability (she placed in the top-3 in all seven events!) and scoring over 6000 points.
In the article, "Carolina - the complete all-round talent", then published on the championship website the opening of the final paragraph read: "And the combined events community should beware: Carolina is still only 17 (born 2 February 1983) so she will be eligible also for the 2002 WJC in Kingston!"
That warning to the combined eventers proved very appropriate. At the 2002 World Juniors in Kingston she not only defended her title but also by scoring 6470 surpassed the World Junior record that at 6465 had belonged unchallenged to Sybille Thiele (GDR) since 1983, the year Klüft was born.
The World Juniors was her main focus for 2002 but if everything felt OK afterwards she had plans to take on also the European seniors in Munich merely three weeks later – just as a "bonus". But it so happened that she did it as the current World leader for the year. So the others certainly had to take this young upstart into consideration.
However, they probably didn’t believe that even more was to come in Munich, but it did: A new World Junior record of 6542 which gave a healthy winning margin of 108 points over former double World champion Sabine Braun who made her farewell appearance after almost two decades in the world elite.
Phenomenal figures - 6791 average score
So at age 19 Klüft was the undisputed World No 1 , a position she wouldn’t relinquish for the next five years. Actually her dominance and consistency during that period 2003-2007 was almost incredible. Some numbers and facts as an illustration:
* She competed in 14 international heptathlons winning them all, mostly by giant margins: It was less than 200 points only twice and the average reached an astounding 329 points! For example she took the 2004 Olympic title by 517 points!
* Her average score in those 14 heptathlon was 6791 points, a total only fifteen others have ever (to this date) managed to surpass even once!
* Those 14 competitions consisted of five major championships (average winning margin 268 points), four European Cups (average +464 points) and five times in Götzis (average +281).
* Her top four scores were achieved in Osaka 2007, Paris 2003, Athens 2004 and Helsinki 2005 - when taking her Olympic and three global titles.
She made it look so easy during those golden years that you as an observer tended to always take her winning the Heptathlon for granted. We all seemed to forget that every meet is always new and to win it you have to be the best at that very moment, previous achievements counting for nothing.
And it certainly wasn’t always smooth running although her extraordinary competitive spirit still managed to get her through successfully. In Paris 2003 for example she began her Long Jump with two fouls but in her third and last attempt produced a distance that gave her not just a legal mark but also the event win. And in Helsinki 2005 she sprained her ankle in a training accident the day before but still won and actually produced her best ever second day score!
Silencing the critics in Osaka 2007
Those that still thought of her as someone who was just "fooling around" must by then have realised that she also harboured one of the fiercest competitive instincts there ever has been. This was also clearly displayed in what would become her final Heptathlon in Osaka 2007. Feeling increased pressure (and thus less joy) of being in the situation of having everything to loose and almost nothing to win ("Ho-hum, just another gold for Klüft") she went into that meet with a different attitude.
Now the ambition was to put up a score that would silence those critics that had said that she was on a downhill slope as she hadn’t improved her PB since 2003. It was quite clear that she went about this meet with a very strong determination of ticking off the events one-by-one without any exuberant celebrations even if the marks where very good.
Which they were indeed, as she was ahead of her 2003 PB series all the way: +5 points after the 100m Hurdles, +18 after High Jump, +59 after Shot Put, +19 after 200m, +75 after Long Jump, +38 after Javelin Throw and finally +31 after the concluding 800m. And it was not just a new PB but also a new European Record which moved her into second place all-time behind Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
However, still Klüft’s own reaction was more of relief than of overwhelming joy: She had accomplished what she had set out to do, in the most affirmative way proving that she was not a has-been. But being an athlete who had built her whole career on passion and joy – not on collecting the greatest number of medals and records possible – she had come to the end of the road as a Heptathlete despite being just 24 years old.
A change of course
There was quite a lot of consternation in athletics circles the following winter when she – with the Beijing Olympics coming up in just a few months – announced that she was quitting the Heptathlon and instead would pursue the Long Jump and the Triple Jump. People just couldn’t understand how she could "throw away her Olympic Gold" and some were speculating that this was just a publicity ploy to create more attention.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Becoming a sports legend or a general celebrity had never been Carolina’s ambitions, rather she was always trying to avoid the spotlight as such. Of course she enjoyed and fed from the support from the crowd when competing but outside of the arena she was a person saying "no" to most offers of appearing in TV shows and similar situations.
She competed because she truly enjoyed it and when that spark was gone as far as the Heptathlon was concerned she had to re-invent herself in one way or the other. As she still loved the athletics environment she went for starting all over in another event well aware of the fact that she almost certainly never would achieve the same status there as she had had in the Heptathlon – but that didn’t bother her.
It did, however, seem to bother lots of others and as she didn’t become a better long jumper than she had been as a non-specialist the media voices urging her to return to the Heptathlon became stronger. It seemed that most people never understood her way of thinking even though she always was very honest and upfront in what she said. At a press conference in Sweden after the announcement a journalist even asked, "But can’t you see it as just a nice reasonably well-paid job?"
That question perfectly summarised what athletics never ever had been for Klüft. That journalist and all the others obviously never realised that she meant exactly what she said already at the press conference in Munich 2002 when asked about her future plans: "I don’t have any such plans. I do this now because I love it. But If I don’t think it is fun anymore I could stop already tomorrow."
Thankfully she didn’t stop her Heptathlon career that next day in 2002 - instead she went on for five more brilliant years to become a sports superstar and icon known all over the world also outside the athletics circles. A status "Carro" always will retain even though her second career as a Long Jumper didn’t bring real success (but don’t forget she still was fifth at the Daegu Worlds 2011) as she fought a couple of major injuries – a severe hamstring pull and stress fracture in her lower leg.
But she will – with her unique combination of physical talent, competitiveness and fun-radiating personality - always be remembered as the perfect marketing officer of the women’s Heptathlon bringing it from the fringes into the centre of attention at the major championships.
By the way: Had it ever happened pre-Klüft that not just the top-three but all the competitors after completing the final 800m at a championship had joined up for that jogging-walking-dancing lap of honour to thank the crowd for the continuous support during two long days of the competition? Now this type of celebration is an integral part of even the men’s Decathlon!
So the Klüft legacy lives on and will continue to live on even though she is now officially retired from competitive athletics.