When Anita Wlodarczyk took off on her victory lap in the Olympic Stadium 12 days ago, having just broken the world record and won gold in the women’s hammer, she was exhausted, elated, but also highly emotional.
For spectators in Rio, that was nothing new, given the tidal wave of emotion that washes over every champion, but for the Polish 31-year-old this appeared extra special.
The reason for that could be found on her left hand.
There, tattered and grey, was the throwing glove of the late, great Kamila Skolimowska, a close friend of Wlodarczyk’s and gold medallist in the hammer at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She passed away in 2009 at the age of 26 after suffering a pulmonary embolism at a training camp in Portugal.
To this day, Wlodarczyk wears her glove as a way of remembering and honouring her friend.
“For all competitions, she is with me,” said Wlodarczyk, speaking through a translator. “It’s very beautiful for me and I’m so proud I could maintain this tradition.”
Wlodarczyk entered the Games as one of the most overwhelming favourites for gold. She hadn’t lost a competition for more than two years and held the world record at 81.08m, but in truth, that was a distance she knew she could surpass.
“During the training camp in Poland, I threw 89 and a half metres,” she said. “I beat all my personal bests using these bigger, power hammers.”
At the training camp, there was a tree at the far end of her throwing field, more than 80 metres from the hammer circle, and Wlodarczyk made it her mission to throw past it in preparation for Rio. “The hammer landed behind the tree, so that gave me resolve before the Games,” she said. “Next time I think I will throw on the street.”
As a two-time world champion, and someone who has dominated her event for much of the past seven years, Wlodarczyk was experienced enough not to underestimate her competitors in Rio, so when she stepped into the throwing circle in brutally hot conditions last Monday morning, she did so with caution.
“I wanted to start easy, slowly, to make my first throw about 76 or 77 metres to make sure I made the second half [of the competition],” said Wlodarczyk, who opened her competition with a throw of 76.35m. “After the first throw I knew I would have the medal, so on the second throw I went for maximum power. I started thinking about the world record.”
Wlodarczyk launched her second effort to an Olympic record of 80.40m, a throw she knew would be good enough for gold. Despite that, she entered the throwing circle as determined as ever for her next throw, unleashing with a roar the longest throw in history. “I could feel the power,” said Wlodarczyk. “I knew it would be the best one.”
The hammer hit the ground 82.29m away, smashing her world record by more than a metre.
“I thought maybe I should resign after that throw, but I said ‘no, don’t stop, because this could be the best day in my career’, so I fought on to improve my result. My coach said even that throw was not perfect, that I was too high up and needed to push my hips more.”
Though she didn’t manage to surpass her record mark, she proved just as peerless for the remainder of the competition, with Wlodarczyk churning out efforts of 81.64m and 79.60m to close what will be remembered as the best ever series by a female hammer thrower.
Afterwards, the toll of such exertions in the extreme heat were clear to see on the face of Wlodarczyk, who was unable to stand as she spoke to assembled media.
“I’m extremely tired and I couldn’t move after the lap around the stadium.” she said. “Today’s competition was extremely hard because of the heat. The circumstances were exhausting. The only time it’s the same is on training camps in South Africa. I had to pour lots of cold water on myself between throws and all I’m dreaming of now is spending one hour in cold water.”
Then there were the tears.
“The greatest emotion was after the world record,” she said. “I cried a little bit. It is an absolutely amazing feeling after so many years of hard work, an explosion of happiness.”
That work, says Wlodarczyk, has been the key to her success.
“It’s very hard, monotonous training,” she said. “I’m a professional sportsperson and care about every aspect such as eating and sleeping. I sacrifice many things in my life to achieve such big results.”
Wlodarczyk winces as she recalls some of the more difficult aspects of her training this year, such as interval runs and endless hours of strengthening work to combat previous injuries in her back, hips and ankle.
“For me it’s terrible to do interval training when I’m about 100kg, but I knew it was necessary,” she said. “I closed my fist and pushed on.”
She didn’t need any extra incentive to win the Olympic title, but when she saw what date the final was scheduled for – 15 August – she had it.
“In Poland we don’t celebrate birthdays the way other countries do; instead we celebrate name days of those we love,” explained Wlodarczyk. “Today is the day of my mother, so this is my gift to her.”
It was also a national military celebration day in Poland, which meant a lot to Wlodarczyk as she is also a soldier. “For that reason, it’s even more fantastic,” she said. “This is a gift to all our nation and people.”
Having done it all, it would be understandable if the 31-year-old decided to walk away from the sport at the end of this season, but the good news for fans of athletics – and fans of the best exponent of the hammer throw in history – is that she plans to return.
“I can’t promise I will go until Tokyo ,” said Wlodarczyk, “but I’ll definitely be back next year.”
It can’t come soon enough.
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF