In the third round of the long jump at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019, Malaika Mihambo’s dreams almost came crashing down.
The German had dominated her event all year and was undefeated heading into the Qatari capital, having won most of her competitions with seven-metre jumps. But here she was, after two rounds, sitting in seventh place with just a 6.52m opening jump followed by a foul.
Had she fouled again or failed to improve on her opening mark, she would have eventually finished ninth and her night would have ended after three rounds.
Thankfully, though, she kept her composure and produced the leap of her life, cutting the sand at 7.30m – the best jump in the world for three years and good enough for 12th on the world all-time list.
Mihambo lived up to her status as pre-event favourite and became the first German woman to win the world long jump title since 1993 when Heike Drechsler won her second gold medal for the event. Mihambo’s 7.30m also moved her to second on the German all-time list, again behind Drechsler, and is a jump that has been bettered by just one person in World Championships history: USA’s Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
“It’s an honour to be the next German long jumper to win the world title after Heike Drechsler,” said Mihambo, who ended her series in Doha with leaps of 7.09m and 7.16m. “She really left an indelible mark on the sport in Germany. I am very proud to be the second German world champion in the long jump. We have a good relationship and we are in contact from time to time.”
Having won at the 2018 European Championships at Berlin’s Olympic stadium in front of her home fans, the gold medal in Doha marked the 25-year-old’s second major title in as many years.
“At the start of the final I was nervous,” she said. “On my first attempt I had too many quick steps and the 6.52m was not enough. The second attempt was a fault. I stepped on the board. I told myself, ‘You have to make this one valid, no matter what’. On my third attempt I was trying to make a secure jump to get to the next round. And it worked.
“7.30m is amazing. I definitely wasn’t trying to jump 7.30m, but in the end it happened. I am speechless. I’ll need time for this to sink in. This jump does not happen every day. In training I do not remember having managed a jump like that. I don’t know if I will ever jump that far again in my life.”
The 25-year-old jumper from Heidelberg crowned a successful season in which she jumped beyond seven metres in seven competitions and won her first IAAF Diamond League title with wins in Rome (7.07m), London (7.02m) and in the Brussels final with 7.03m. She also jumped 7.16m at the German Championships in Berlin and won at the European Team Championships in Bydgoszcz with a wind-assisted 7.11m in August.
All of this has been achieved despite the fact that, since April this year, she has been studying for a master’s degree in environmental science in Hagen and has been working on a social project for children.
One of the key factors behind her improved long jump form is her increased speed. In Mannheim in June she clocked a 100m PB of 11.21 and a wind-assisted 11.13 (2.4m/s). She then matched her wind-legal PB to finish third in the 100m at the German Championships.
“I knew that I was in good shape during the whole season. I was the world leader,” she said. “The Brussels Diamond League final was good and I knew that my physical level was about 7.20m. Here, I aimed to jump so far, but my coach told me, ‘You can jump further’, and I just did it.
“I’m very happy that I was able to get the gold medal and stay the world leader. I showed that I was capable of such a great jump and I really enjoyed the atmosphere in the Khalifa Stadium. I am over the moon.”
Mihambo, born in 1994 to a German mother and Tanzanian father, dabbled in gymnastics, ballet and judo from about the age of eight. She joined a local sports club, TSV Oftersheim, in the LG Kurpfalz and it was there where she had her first taste of athletics. She has been coached by Ralf Weber since the age of 11 and studied at the International School in Heidelberg.
Six years later, she had her first taste of a major international event when she competed at the 2011 World U18 Championships in Lille. She finished ninth in the final with 5.81m, some way off her best at the time, but she rebounded a few weeks later to leap a lifetime best of 6.40m.
Her first big success came at the 2013 European U20 Championships in Rieti, where she won gold with 6.70m. Still an U20 athlete, she represented Germany at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow later that year and placed 17th in qualifying with 6.49m. That would be the last time she missed out on making a major championships final.
In 2015 Mihambo won the European U23 title in Tallinn with 6.73m and placed sixth at the World Championships. She followed it in 2016 with European bronze in Amsterdam and a fourth-place finish at the Olympic Games in Rio with 6.95m, a personal best at the time.
Having achieved her goal at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Mihambo now has her sights set on her second Olympic Games next year in Tokyo where, based on this year’s form, she will be one of the medal favourites.
First, though, she will take a well-earned break. “I’m going on a four-week holiday to Thailand,” said Mihambo, who flew out to Bangkok the morning after her long jump final. “I just want to discover this country.
“The Olympic Games are my next goal,” she added. “Hopefully I will stay healthy.”
Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF