Tia Hellebaut clears 2.05m on her first attempt to secure high jump gold (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Hellebaut, Olympic High Jump champion, announces retirement

Brussels, Belgium2008 Olympic High Jump champion Tia Hellebaut announced the end of her athletics career at a press conference today in Brussels.

At the age of 30, the Belgian star said that she has achieved more than she had ever dreamed of in her athletics career. Now, Hellebaut wants to concentrate on family matters. Surprisingly Hellebaut also announced that she is three months pregnant, expecting her first child with her coach and partner Wim Vandeven.

Olympic gold was the biggest achievement

“A few days after winning the gold in Beijing I realised that it would be difficult for me to set new goals,” Hellebaut said. “I always wanted children and I got pregnant very soon after we decided to be ready for it. I have achieved much more than I ever dreamed of when I was a youngster. This is the right moment to stop and to choose a new direction in life.”

Indeed, her family and friends and the press agreed that, despite the fact that Hellebaut still has great potential as an athlete, this is a fairy tale end and quite likely the best way to put an end to an exceptional career.

Bob Verbeeck, CEO of Golazo Sports and Hellebaut’s manager, announced that Hellebaut will join the firm as an account manager. She will be involved in the organisation of the KBC Flanders indoor and the Brussels Ivo van Damme ÅF Golden League meetings. She will also start a project on talent development in athletics through training multiple skills.

Besides being a great champion Hellebaut was very much appreciated by her fellow athletes. She brought the familiar atmosphere of the multiple event to the High Jump scene. Hellebaut also won the popular vote on the IAAF website for the Female World Performance of the Year in 2008.

“I will have no regrets. I won’t miss the sports as an athlete. 2008 was so exceptional for me that I know that I will never experience the same involvement and drive as I had now.”

Hellebaut also thanked everybody who had supported her throughout he career. “I’m very grateful of athletics. The sport has offered me a lot of opportunities and it shaped me as a person, it has contributed to who I am today.”

Coach change was a decisive step

Hellebaut took up athletics at the age of 10 as Tia Van Haver. As a pre-teen she was already a rangy athlete who showed talent for hurdling and jumping. She went through a difficult period when her parents divorced. Her mother then started a new life with Joris Hellebaut who took up interest in Tia’s sporting ambitions and lent his full support. Respectfully Tia chose to change her surname to her stepfather’s and was known as Tia Hellebaut since.

Hellebaut made her first international appearance at the European Youth Olympic Days in 1995 in Bath in the High Jump. She competed in the Heptathlon in the European Junior Championships in 1997 and in the European Under 23 Championships in 1999 where she finished sixth.

In 1999 she decided that it was time for a change and took up training with Vandeven, a jumping and hurdling coach. The training regime for Hellebaut changed gradually but dramatically. Haphazard training was replaced by a systematic and exacting program that required a lot of discipline and dedication from Hellebaut.

In 2001 she earned her selection for the World Championships in Edmonton. In her first major championship she finished 14th in the Heptathlon.

2004 Olympics were a turning point

From 2003 on her talent and her potential began to develop fully. She then broke 6000 points in the Heptahlon in Götzis and she set a PB of 1.91m in the High Jump. Increasing focus on her High Jump training led to a PB of 1.95m and a place in the Olympic final in Athens in 2004, a turning point in her career.

“I was in tears after finishing 12th in that final. When I left the stadium I looked at the Olympic flame and I told her that I would come back in 2008,” Hellebaut said.

In 2006 she broke the 2.00m barrier at the Paris Golden League and she won gold at the European Championships in Göteborg with 2.03m, her first major title.

In 2007 Hellebaut had a great indoor season. She scored a massive 4877 points in the Pentathlon and became the European High Jump champion in Birmingham with a PB of 2.05m. Unfortunately her outdoor season was disturbed by injuries and she could only place 14th in the final of the World Championships in Osaka in 2007.

In 2008 Hellebaut won gold in the Pentathlon at the World Indoor Championships in Valencia and then fully concentrated on her preparation for the Beijing Olympic Games. Throughout 2008 Blanka Vlasic from Croatia dominated the High Jump, head and shoulders above her competitors, but Hellebaut was gearing up her form to be at her best at the right time and in the right place.

In one of the greatest female High Jump finals ever Hellebaut battled with Vlasic and Russian Anna Chicherova to win the Olympic gold in Beijing. Six athletes remained in contention at a height of 2.01m, with Hellebaut in the bronze medal position. With a first time clearance at 2.05m Hellebaut went into the lead and took the gold after Vlasic failed at 2.07m.

Setbacks and opportunities for Belgian Athletics

Hellebaut is the second high profile Belgian athlete to hang up her spikes this year. Just before the start of the Olympic Games, sprinter Kim Gevaert had already announced the end of her career.

“This is a serious setback for Belgian Athletics indeed,” says performance director Tille Scheerlinck. “We are still very excited and proud about the huge success in Beijing. Winning gold in the High Jump and silver in the women’s 4 x 100m was one of the biggest moments in Belgian sporting history.”

“Kim Gevaert and Tia Hellebaut were great personalities in their sports and a role model for the young athletes,” Scheerlinck continued. “We must now put our hopes on a new generation. 20 –year-old twin brothers Kevin and Jonathan Borlée were very impressive at their international debut in Beijing and it is likely that they will take over the baton.”

“But we are confident on the future of Belgian Athletics: the popularity and the participation in athletics has grown massively over the past years, mainly thanks to Kim and Tia. It is our challenge now to develop the young talents into future champions.”

Ivo Hendrix for the IAAF