Antonietta Di Martino delights the home crowd with a 2.00m victory in the High Jump in the Rome GL 2009 (Getty Images) © Copyright
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From brink of retirement, Di Martino finds new motivation

Italian high jump record holder Antonietta Di Martino produced the comeback of the year in Italian athletics.

The jumper from Cava de’ Tirreni, near Naples, crowned a successful year with a solid fourth place at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin with 1.99m in one of the most dramatic finals of the nine-day championships in the famous Olympic Stadium in the German capital won by Croatian Blanka Vlasic (2.04m) over Ana Chicherova (2.02m) and German local heroine Ariane Friedrich (2.02m).

The result achieved by the Di Martino was quite remarkable after a difficult 2008 season in which she finished tenth at the Olympic Games in Beijing. She admitted that she was on the verge of retirement at the end of 2008 following a serious toe injury problem in November 2008.

“I was going to retire but thanks to the support of National Team High Jump Coach Angelo Zamperin and my husband and personal coach Massimiliano Di Matteo, I found again the motivation to carry on,” said Di Martino.

New coach, new husband

The turning point was the decision to change coach in January 2009. Di Martino decided to leave her lifetime coach Davide Sessa who guided her throughout her career helping her to win the world silver medal in Osaka with a national record of 2.03m. Di Matteo and Di Martino married at the end of September 2009.

“During 2008 I made some mistakes in my preparation, although I learnt a lot from that season. It was very useful because you often learn from defeats. Negative experiences have made me more mature. Last year I did a lot of strength training and I always felt tired,” said Di Martino.

Despite a short period of preparation Di Martino managed to clear a winning 1.96m at the 2009 Italian Indoor Championships at the Oval Lingotto in Turin, the warm-up event for the European Indoor Championships at the same venue. Unfortunately bad luck struck her again on the eve of the championships when she was sidelined by a bout of flu. It was a pity for Italian athletics fans especially because a clearance of 1.96m turned out to be enough for a bronze medal, a result within the reach of the Italian high jump star.

Di Martino has been used to setbacks. She grabbed the headlines in 2001 when she cleared 1.98m at the Italian Championships in Catania. Following this result Di Martino was mentioned in the same breath as legend Sara Simeoni, the Olympic champion in Moscow 1980 and World record holder during a legendary 1978 season in which she broke the World record twice at 2.01m and won the European title.

This was going to be the start of a great career for Di Martino. Unfortunately bad luck was on her side in 2004 when she underwent a career-threatening ankle operation but managed to bounce back thanks to her extraordinary power, will, and her deep religious faith. In 2007 she broke the Italian indoor record with 2.00m improving the previous national indoor record held by Antonella Bevilacqua who cleared 1.98m in 1994.

Di Martino, who became the second Italian in history to clear 2.00m after Sara Simeoni, won the European Indoor silver medal in Birmingham. It was just the beginning for Di Martino who won the World silver in Osaka with 2.03m and set three Italian records during the 2007 season. It was a sensational achievement for the 1.69m tall Italian athlete who jumped 34 centimetres above her head, one of the greatest differentials by a female high jumper.

Golden Gala victory a lifelong dream fulfilled

Di Martino started her 2009 season in her lucky meeting, the Primo Nebiolo Memorial meeting where she cleared her first Italian outdoor record with 2.02m in 2007, a result which she improved twice by one centimetre later in the same season, in both Milan and Osaka. In the Turin stadium named after the late IAAF President, Di Martino won with 1.98m. Two weeks later she managed to clear 2.00m for the first time in 2009 finishing third at the European Team Championships in Leiria (Portugal) on 21 June. She repeated her 2.00m clearance at the Golden Gala meeting in Rome in front of enthusiastic crowd in the Olympic Stadium in Rome. With her win in Rome over world champion Blanka Vlasic who cleared 1.97m in a rare sub-2 metres performance, Di Martino fulfilled a lifetime dream.

“It’s a dream come true to win at the Golden Gala,” Di Martino said about her win in Rome. “Jumping two metres was more important than beating Blanka Vlasic. I have always dreamt to compete here since I was a child when I watched this meeting on television. I have always been thrilled to compete in front of a home crowd. I remember that the first time I jumped at the Olympic Stadium in Rome my parents were attending and I jumped only 1.80m. I was too emotional to jump in this big stadium in front of my friends and parents.”

One week after Rome she cleared a solid 1.97m finishing third in a rain-soaked Paris Golden League meeting in the Stade de France in her final competition before Berlin.

In Berlin Di Martino cleared 1.99m on her second attempt before failing her three attempts at 2.02m in one of the highlights of the entire programme of the World Championships. The clash between Vlasic, Chicherova and local favourite Friedrich in front of a nearly sold-out stadium, was laced with drama and will not soon be forgotten. Di Martino finished fourth with a near miss at 2.02m.

This result was welcomed in Italy as a great achievement not only because it was the best result by Italy which left the German capital empty-handed for the first time in the history of the World Championships, but also because it marked a great comeback for this Italian athlete who is appreciated by fans for her determination to recover from major setbacks and for her smile which makes her one of the more popular national sportswomen in Italy not only in athletics but also of all sport disciplines.

“This year I could not take part in many competitions because of some physical problems,” Di Martino said in Berlin. “I was less confident this year at heights over two metres. The track in Berlin was a bit soft. I prefer jumping on harder and faster surfaces. I consider 2009 as a transitional year. The fact that I managed to jump two metres twice makes me very happy.”

Di Martino ended her season with a good third place at the season-capping IAAF World Athletics Final in Thessaloniki where cleared 1.97m.

Two weeks after Thessaloniki Antonietta married Di Matteo, a lawyer with great experience as an athletics coach of youth and junior athletes. Di Matteo is now her coach and manager with the training supervision of Angelo Zamperin when she trains at the National Athletics School Training Centre SNAL in Formia. Antonietta invited among the others two close friends from the athletics world to her wedding, 800m world championships finalist Elisa Cusma and Italian Shot Put record holder and 2007 world finalist Chiara Rosa.

Successors waiting in the wings?

Italian high jumping can look to a bright future. The 2009 season will be remembered for the gold medal won by 16-year-old Alessia Trost at the World Youth Championshipships on home turf in Bressanone.

Trost, who cleared 1.87m to become the first Italian to win the World Youth title, and who added the European Youth Olympic Festival gold medal title won in Tampere, represents the future of Italian athletics together with Elena Vallortigara, a World Youth bronze medallist in Ostrava 2007 in the high jump and fourth placer at the European Junior Championships in Novi Sad in 2009. 

“Alessia is a very talented athlete. She has a good technique and is only at the beginning. She has great potential to continue her progress. When I was 16 years old I only jumped 1.72m. Alessia cleared 1.87m. At her age I trained only three times a week and I was often injured,” said Di Martino. 

Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF