It couldn’t have been more fitting when this year’s Rising Star Yulimar Rojas described receiving the trophy from last year’s winner Nafissatou Thiam as a “big motivation”. After all, the latter was crowned Athlete of the Year just minutes later at Friday’s (24) IAAF Athletics Awards.
A meteoric rise to athletics stardom and inspiring the next generation is a theme that has stretched through 22-year-old combined events star’s life over the past 18 months. A whirlwind for the young Belgian, who admits she’s never been “someone who’s really comfortable in the spotlight”.
In 2016, after a surprise victory at the Olympic Games, everyone wanted to know more about not just Thiam the standout athlete, but also the person behind the performance.
“At first I was really afraid because I didn’t want that,” she explains. The transition to overnight superstar in Belgium stretched beyond just personal pressures and began to make Thiam question her athletic abilities.
“After the Olympic Games I didn’t know really what more I could do,” admits the Olympic champion.
“I was really surprised with my achievement there and I was thinking maybe I’m 21 and maybe I have reached my maximum already. Maybe I will never be that good again. There were a lot of questions and doubts on my mind.
“It was strange, I never used to worry about things like that before. I think after Rio I was just doing a bit too much, it was all new for me and there was a lot of attention on me suddenly. That was not easy, but it is part of the game now I had to learn to deal with it and that I have to perform despite all that.”
An outstanding 2017 campaign
To the outside world none of this was visible when she first waltzed through this year’s indoor season taking the European indoor pentathlon title with 4870 points, before going on to make history at Gotzis’ prestigious HypoMeeting in May.
There, Thiam continued her quest for multi-events world domination and raised the bar to another level, scoring 7013pts in the most competitive heptathlon competition in history and climbing to third on the world all-time rankings. It was then that the Belgian recognised how much of her potential was still hidden.
“I went to Gotzis and I did something amazing and realised I can still improve a lot and I can still do great things in the years to come. It has given me a lot of confidence.”
Thiam carried that new-found confidence to the IAAF World Championships in London and, not fazed by the pressure of entering a championships as the favourite, delivered yet another world-class heptathlon to take gold with 6784 points. Her status as one of the biggest talents in the sport further cemented.
Still the “same Nafi”
Yet, the world and Olympic champion remains down to earth. In her Twitter bio Thiam describes herself as a “Geographical sciences student” first and a “heptathlete from Belgium” second. At university she’s just a regular student like everyone else. While other athletes arrived in Monaco a day or two prior to the Awards, Thiam did not want to skip any classes and only flew in on the day of the event. She then performed what can only be described a heptathlon of media commitments, from TV interviews to press conferences and rehearsals like a true professional. No sign of airs and graces.
Sport, she says, has been a key factor in her learning to deal with those everyday life pressures.
“I think for young athletes, girls and boys, sports can teach you a lot of things about life. Dedication, hard work, to go after your goals – those are all things that aren’t just useful in sports, but in school, at work and in your personal life.”
Yet, despite those benefits, Thiam recognises that sports – especially on an elite level – brings its own set of challenges to young women in particular.
“I know some girls might not find it very feminine, but I think everyone can find a sport that really fits them and their person – athletics is great because there is something for almost everyone.
“For me especially, I think I would be a very different person if I wouldn’t have done athletics. I was so tall, I was super thin, I found it really difficult to control my body and I had problems with my articulation. Sport really helped me fix all of those problems and to feel good today in my body.”
New UNICEF ambassor’s role
As well as feeling comfortable in her own skin, Thiam has learnt to embrace the positive effects that come with her status. She recently accepted an ambassadorship with UNICEF to promote the right of school education for children everywhere.
“Outside of athletics and university I haven’t got much time, but for the next few years UNICEF really want to focus on education for kids,” she says of her involvement in the cause.
“They came to me and explained the project and what they wanted to do and I thought it was really fitting to how I see life, because education is really important to me. I always wanted to get a degree and that has always been the mind set I have been raised in.”
Despite the limelight, when she talks about her – admittedly limited – spare time, it becomes clear that she’s not too different from any other woman her age. She likes to spend time outdoors, loves fashion and values time with family and friends. She recently got to design a jewelry range in collaboration with a Belgian brand and enjoyed the creative challenge out of her comfort zone.
“I did some drawings, showed them what I liked, my ideas, because I really wanted it to be jewelry I would personally like to wear – something really delicate, small things – and that’s how I wanted the collection to be,” she says as she points at two finely crafted cacti shaped gold earrings she’s wearing.
Limited winter training at home
As we sit down for a media breakfast the morning after the Awards, we talk about what’s next for her.
“First,” she laughs,” it’s off to training” at the Stade de Louis II. The sunshine is a welcome change in scenery. Back in Liège her training schedule is very much determined by the weather conditions.
“In the winter it is really hard because in Belgium I haven’t really got the facility to train for an indoor championships. I don’t have any facilities that I train in, so I can’t jump or I cannot throw during the winter. I can do a little bit, but when it starts snowing or it gets really cold we are really limited.”
It is why she and her coach, former decathlete Roger Lespagnard, will escape for a training camp to Tenerife in January. After that she will decide whether to compete at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Birmingham 2018 in March.
Perfecting heptathlon balance
Getting the balance right across all events in training is key for her. “Of course I want to improve overall, but I don’t want to work too much on my weaknesses and forget about my strongest points because it’s in the high jump and in the javelin where I really make a difference.
“Since I was a kid I remember not being really strong in [the running events] and I really want to limit the loss of points in those events and improve the points I get in my strongest events. Already in the 800m over the last few years I improved quite a bit. I can still do a bit better in the 200m.”
With that realisation it becomes clear that Thiam has set herself some lofty goals for the coming seasons, the details of which she is keeping to herself for now. What she is making clear, is her underlying passion for the sport and the impact it has made on her as a person.
“I have met a lot of people through athletics, I have made friends for life. In competition you experience a new sensation that you would never experience in any other walk of life.”
Michelle Sammet for the IAAF