When she crossed the finish line first in the 100m hurdles race at Lima’s Videna Stadium, Andrea Carolina Vargas made history.
She had become the first woman from Costa Rica to win a track and field medal of any colour in the history of the Pan American Games. After two weeks of intense competition, hers was Costa Rica’s only gold at the Games.
The 23-year-old was also probably the only Pan-American track and field champion who still trains on a cement track with home-made implements.
The oldest of three siblings, Vargas showed her love for running early on. She entered a local competition at the age of four and finished second in the 50m, so her parents decided to channel her passion and she started some informal training at the age of eight under Sergio Chavarria’s guidance.
She had her first international experience at the age of 10 during the Central American Age-Group Championships in El Salvador. Although her coach could not travel with her, Vargas won gold medals in the 60m, 800m, high jump and long jump.
That event marked a turning point in her career. “I cried because I could not get any guidance to jump higher or farther,” said Vargas. “My mom (Dixiana Mena Torres.), who travelled with me, decided to learn how to coach me.”
As she grew older, she continued to try many events, from sprints to hurdles, high jump to long jump and the throws. She also ran road races and excelled at 800m, clocking 2:20 at the age of 13. It was only at the age of 15 that she decided to focus on sprint hurdling.
“I used to run the hurdles in a bizarre way, it was more like jumping between and over the hurdles,” she recalled. “But at a training camp in El Salvador, coach Ernesto Selva taught me to run between the hurdles.”
She soon enjoyed success at the 2012 Central American and Caribbean Age-Group Championships in The Bahamas, where she won the 60m hurdles. A year later, she had her first test at a major international competition at the World Youth Championships in Donetsk.
“It was a very different atmosphere,” says Vargas. “I learned a lot about the flow of an international event, the various steps prior to stepping on the track. I grew a lot as an athlete and how to manage these events.”
After running 14.34 in Donetsk, she ended the year with her first sub-14-second run, clocking 13.92 in Guatemala.
More success ensued in 2014, when she equalled the senior national record twice at 13.72, the second time when taking silver at the Central American and Caribbean U20 Championships in Mexico. Three weeks later, she made it to the semifinals at the World U20 Championships in Eugene.
“I had the experience from the previous World (U18) Championships,” she says. “I felt more focused and relaxed and that helped me manage the pressure.”
She had a break from the sport in 2015 to give birth to her daughter Abril, but returned in full force in 2016. She took the Central American gold and improved her national mark to 13.60 en route to a sixth-place finish at the NACAC U23 Championships in San Salvador.
The following years marked her busiest season, both on and off the track. One particular competition at the start of the season marked another turning point.
She set two national records on the same day at the Barrientos Memorial in Cuba, running 13.59 and 13.53. “It showed me that I can aim to run faster,” she said. “I had put limits on myself, but those times gave me the motivation to train harder.”
And that effort paid off as she lowered her national mark to 13.12 to win gold at the Central American Games in Nicaragua.
“It was a great year,” she says. “Weeks earlier, I had passed my exams to work as a lawyer following my graduation at Universidad Panamericana. I studied hard and then ended the year with that gold and my acceptance in the national bar.”
Senior global debut
In 2018 Vargas competed at her first senior global championships. At the IAAF World Indoor Championships Birmingham 2018, she clocked 8.34 in her heat of the 60m hurdles, just 0.15 shy of the national indoor record she had set just three weeks prior.
“I stalled at the gun,” recalls Vargas. “It was very hard due to the weather, but I have fond memories of seeing my idol Sally Pearson (Australia’s 2012 Olympic champion) up close.”
After breaking the 13-second barrier for the first time (12.95) at the Central American Championships in Guatemala, Vargas was reassured she could aim for a podium finish at the Central American and Caribbean Games in Barranquilla three weeks later.
A wind-assisted 12.75 (2.8m/s) in the semifinal paved the way to Vargas’s 12.90 victory in the final, becoming the first woman from Costa Rica to win gold in the history of the Games and second overall after Nery Brenes’ 400m title in 2010.
“Arriving in form in Barranquilla was a challenge,” she says. “Looking after my daughter and practicing law part-time was very time consuming. I didn’t believe I was capable of winning gold, but it showed me that anything is possible.”
She added more success with a bronze medal at the NACAC Senior Championships in Canada and gold at the Iberoamerican Championships in Peru.
Within the space of six weeks, the 22-year-old mother-of-one and part-time lawyer had managed to pick up three gold medals and one bronze from four international championships. Vargas was finally starting to realise what she was capable of.
Biggest title yet
Vargas headed into this year’s Pan-American Games off the back of a string of sub-13-second performances: a windy 12.78, a wind-legal 12.93 and a windy 12.79. She was ready to rise to the big occasion in Lima.
She ran a national record of 12.75 (0.1m/s) in the semifinals before securing another historic gold for Costa Rican athletics in the final with 12.82, beating the likes of NCAA silver medallist Channel Brisset, two-time US indoor champion Sharika Nelvis, 2013 world U18 champion Yanique Thompson, Olympic finalist Pedrya Seymour and 2017 Jamaican champion Megan Tapper.
Vargas was only the third Spanish-speaking athlete to take the continental gold and her country’s third athletics medal ever in the history of the Pan American Games.
“My initial goal was to make it to the final,” she said. “Once I ran 12.75 in the semis, I thought I could aim for a podium finish, but nothing is taken for granted. I just wanted to trust in myself. I felt the pressure but focused on my technique and my race. I could not believe it when I crossed the finish line first.”
“This is a family effort,” she added. “My mom is my coach, my youngest sister and my brother help me in my training, my father makes hurdles for me to train with, and my husband supports my daughter and me.”
Building blocks of success
Behind this new high in her career are six double sessions a week, many on a cement track with home-made hurdles at Luis Angel Calderon stadium in her native Puriscal, and some on a synthetic track at the National Stadium in San Jose, 50 kilometres east of her hometown.
Inspired by her older sister, 19-year-old Noelia Vargas is also bringing lots of success to her family and Costa Rica in race walking. She finished ninth at the 2018 World U20 Championships and claimed her country’s first ever medal (bronze) at the Pan American U20 Championships on home soil earlier this summer.
A national record of 1:33:09 to finish sixth in the 20km race walk at the Pan American Games was also inside the qualifying mark for the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019. Both sisters are now looking forward to their first outdoor senior World Championships.
“I will do my best and we will see how far I can advance,” says Vargas. “It will be a privilege to represent Costa Rica at the event and I am sure it will give me the opportunity to test myself against the best in the world.”
Javier Clavelo Robinson for the IAAF