It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. A tale of two capital cities witnessing contrasting chapters in the history of Venezuela.
On 7 August 2017, Caracas was in the grip of bloody street protests against Venezuela’s leadership. Four-and-a-half thousand miles away, in London, under the lights of the Olympic stadium, Yulimar Rojas was winning triple jump gold to snare Venezuela’s first ever world title in athletics. She prevailed in a ding-dong contest with 14.91m – a spring of hope in her country’s season of darkness.
At 21, Rojas was the youngest field event athlete to win gold in the London Stadium (she has since celebrated her 22nd birthday). Her ecstatic reaction was the unfiltered joy of a young athlete with the world at her feet. But, as she completed her lap of honour, draped in the three colours of Venezuela’s national flag, Rojas’s thoughts couldn’t help but stray to events in her home country.
“My World Championships title came at both the best and the worst moment for Venezuela,” she says. “For me, it was the best moment, because it gave a lot of hope to my country in this moment that it was going through.
“The worst because while I was winning there were people dying. There was almost a civil war. So, for me, emotionally, it was extremely important. It made me feel that it was even more special, that it was something that really helped, to return to Venezuela as a triumphant athlete.”
Rojas’s desire to represent her country was what drove her to take up sport. She originally wanted to pursue volleyball, after seeing Venezuela’s men’s and women’s teams qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and feeling “an emotional impulse to be like them, to have that great pride of wearing my country’s colours”. But Rojas’s stepfather, Pedro Zapata, a former professional boxer, encouraged her to take a place at a specialist sports school and pursue athletics.
“I didn’t have a choice!” she laughs. “I started to dabble in it, to train, and began to get into this wonderful sport.”
Aged 17, she was competing in the high jump under the stewardship of Cuban coach Jesus Velazquez.
“I won lots of competitions. But people said to me that the high jump was not the best discipline for me,” says Rojas, who set a South American U20 record of 1.87m in 2013.
“One day, in a national championships, we decided to include the triple jump to see what I could do. I managed a national record. It was a surprise to me because I hadn’t done anything in the triple; no training, no technical work. I only knew what I’d seen on the television.”
Bound for glory
At the tail end of 2015, Rojas moved to Guadalajara, in central Spain, to train under Cuba’s nine-time long jump world champion Ivan Pedroso, with whom she quickly “established a chemistry”. Her progress since then has been relentless.
Within four months she won gold at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016. Recording just one legal mark from her six efforts, Rojas’s major talent was plain to see. It inspired her to work on her technical shortcomings and to invest “absolute trust” in her new coach.
“That’s when I knew that I could achieve great things, that I have talent in these legs,” she says. “In Portland I only needed one valid jump. I couldn’t believe it! Almost, almost!
“From then we started, bit by bit, to increase my muscular strength because, while I am very tall, I am slim, and I find it quite difficult to tone and increase muscle on my legs.”
Consistency remained a problem through the 2016 outdoor season. Though she broke the 15-metre mark for the first time with a 15.02m leap in Madrid, her inexperience showed at the IAAF Diamond League meetings in Rome and Rabat, where she was almost a metre short of her best.
What she could do at the Rio Olympics – win gold, exit in the qualifiers – was anyone’s guess. As it happens, she produced 14.98m for silver behind incumbent triple jump queen Caterine Ibarguen. Recalling the moment, Rojas’s face illuminates.
“Rio de Janeiro. Wow,” she says. “It’s where I got to wear my country’s colours and it gave me a beautiful emotion.
“Venezuela isn’t a country that can win lots of medals, such as the US. But for the few that we do have, the feeling we hold dear in our hearts. From that moment I knew I wanted to be a heroine to my land.
“It was a great duel. It was a fantastic night for me. It was a dream to have an Olympic medal on my chest – a day I will never forget. But it gave me a goal: to hear the Venezuelan national anthem in Tokyo in 2020.”
There are plenty who would back her to achieve that: at the IAAF Athletics Awards 2017 in Monaco, Rojas was named winner of the IAAF’s Female Rising Star Award, recognition of her talent and of her character. Rojas says she likes to unwind by singing in the shower and enjoying a glass of wine on her off days. Her effervescent, confident nature shines through in competition, something she has learned to nurture, in part gleaned from the example set by Ibarguen.
“She is an athlete who shines,” Rojas adds. “I have learned a lot by competing against her. How to manage my impulses, manage the rhythm of competition, how to control the crowd and to use them to push my jump further.”
Rojas describes her momentous London win as the “start of a new era”, insisting she knew gold was within her grasp after defeating Ibarguen for the first time in her career at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Rome. As Ibarguen provided an example to her, Rojas hopes to inspire young women in Venezuela and across the world.
“I fight so that the sport grows in my country, so that children get involved and the new generation say they want to be like Yulimar Rojas,” she beams. “This is my job. I will always try to give joy to the people of Venezuela.”
Rojas’s potential appears as rich as her national pride. Her jump phases remain inconsistent, while physically she still has work to fill out her imposing six-foot frame. She is the youngest ever triple jump world champion and the youngest woman ever to jump beyond 15 metres and she describes the world record as “part of my priorities”. Her appetite to achieve her lofty goals, and to elevate the profile of Venezuela, should not be underestimated.
“To win at a World Championships or Olympics requires effort,” she admits. “I have had to make sacrifices.
“Being far from my family is difficult. I always need a hug from my mum, advice from my dad and the warmth of my family; the sun and beaches of my country. But when you are so concentrated and have an objective, this gives you strength.”
Thomas Byrne for the IAAF