When Mateusz Przybylko was 17, shortly after finishing 11th in the high jump final at the 2009 IAAF World Youth Championships, he made a promise to his coach.
“I will only stop once I have a medal,” he said. And in the years since, the German has stayed true to his word.
Later that year, Przybylko sat down with his parents at their home in Bielefeld and together, they decided what needed to be done to achieve his goal. The teenager would move 180 kilometres away to join the renowned athletics club Bayer Leverkusen near Cologne where day after day, week after week, year after year, he would train under the guidance of coach Hans-Jorg Thomaskamp.
“It was difficult to leave home because I’m a mummy’s boy,” admits Przybylko. “But I moved for sport, to change club and get better.”
And last week in Birmingham, the 25-year-old finally woke up to his dream, rolling over and spotting a beautiful bronze medal resting nearby.
After an inconsistent series of jumps in Thursday night’s final at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Birmingham 2018, the German hoisted himself over 2.29m at the second attempt, enough to edge Erik Kynard of the US to a place on the podium.
“My first medal,” he says proudly. “It was my dream.”
In many ways, it was almost inevitable that Przybylko would end up at the sport’s top tier.
His father, Mariusz, was a prominent football player in Poland, while his mother, Violetta, was a sprinter and long jumper. They moved to Germany before Mateusz was born, but they knew early on that they were bringing up a family with talent flowing through its veins.
A year after Mariusz was born, Violetta gave birth to twin boys, Jakub and Kacper, who today are professional footballers in Germany. Anytime he can, Mateusz gets to their games, changing his loyalty as a fan depending on which teams they’re playing for each year.
He speaks with glowing pride about their relationship, and to demonstrate as much he shows a tattoo on his inner bicep, ‘Mi Familia’, which sits above the symbol for infinity. “My brothers have the same tattoo,” he says.
On Friday night, the whole family was watching from various locations when he claimed bronze, and afterwards they gathered online for a group video call to celebrate his achievement.
It was the culmination of almost a decade’s work, turning the tall, skinny teenager that Przybylko was into, well, a tall, skinny but far more powerful jumper; one who can clear 2.35m at his best.
Weak as water
He laughs when he thinks back to his arrival at the new club in Germany, how awful he was in the weights room.
“It was like a hobby for me before, and when I came to Leverkusen I was shocked,” he says. “The girls were stronger than me and I was like, ‘how is this possible?’ It was a lot of work to get this strength and power.”
Przybylko actually weighs the same now, at 25, as he did when he was 19, but the difference is that his power-to-weight ratio is off the charts.
In 2015 he cleared 2.30m for the first time, but the following year his Olympic experience was marred by injury, Przybylko bowing out in qualification in Rio with a best of just 2.22m. But the hamstring injury that plagued him that summer soon cleared up, and last year he added five centimetres to his lifetime best in one fell swoop, soaring over 2.35m at the second attempt at a meeting in Bottrop, Germany.
“It just happened,” he says. “Like switching on a button in your head.”
At the IAAF World Championships London 2017, he cleared a best of 2.29m in the final on his third attempt. Syria’s Majd Eddin Ghazal also had a best of 2.29m, but cleared it on his second attempt, meaning he claimed the bronze medal on countback, a tough blow to take for Przybylko.
But at the Arena Birmingham on Thursday night, Przybylko felt the pendulum of fortune swing back in his favour, his second-time clearance at 2.29m giving him the bronze medal over Erik Kynard, who cleared it at the third attempt. “That’s sport,” says Przybylko, aware he could just as easily have missed out.
To celebrate, he sank a couple of beers in his hotel bar, tried to get his head around the achievement and perhaps consider how to spend his $10,000 prize money.
Motorcycling is a long-running obsession of his, and when he secured a professional contract last year one of Przybylko’s first purchases was a high-powered bike, which he occasionally rips along the German Autostrada with – where there are no speed limits – alongside his group of friends.
After Birmingham, he plans to take just four days off before beginning preparations for the outdoor season, where all roads will lead to Berlin for the European Championships, Przybylko likely to again square off against the gold medallist on Thursday, Danil Lysenko.
“He is really strong so my hope is second place,” says Przybylko. “But you never know, maybe I can jump the [German] outdoor record, do 2.38m. Everyone will be there, family, friends, the whole club, so maybe I can win gold.”
Which leads us back to what Przybylko said to his coach all those years ago, that he will only stop once he has a medal. Does that mean his race is run?
“Now,” he says with a laugh, “I’m not stopping.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF