Caterina Ibargüen soars to the Pan-Am Games title (Eduardo Biscayart) © Copyright
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Ibargüen’s transformation reaps historic dividends

All throughout her athletics formation, Colombian Caterine Ibargüen saw herself as a jumper. A product of the region of Antioquia, Ibargüen grew up as a High Jump specialist, with good enough results to earn medals and titles in South American and Central American competitions – even to the extent to compete at the 2004 Olympic Games.

However, to fulfil her extraordinary potential, Ibargüen needed to transform herself, and that’s what she did under the guidance of Cuban coach Ubaldo Duany. That transformation into a Triple Jump specialist is what landed her onto the global scene and to a previously unexpected World Championships podium.

On the evening of 1 September 2011, in Daegu, South Korea, when Ibargüen captured third place in the Triple Jump final, Ibargüen gave Colombia its first track and field medal at the IAAF World Championships. A historic feat in track and field events, after the bronze obtained by Ximena Restrepo in 400m at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games – Colombia’s only Olympic medal.

Roots in the High Jump as pre-teen

Ibargüen was born at Antioquia’s sub-region of Urabá on 12 February 1984, an area that’s well known for its banana plantations. Ibargüen began practicing athletics at a young age at her hometown of Apartadó, but then was invited to move to the capital of Antioquia, Medellín, to continue training there, where more resources were available.

“My first coach was Wilder Zapata. He discovered me at my school. I began at High Jump in 1996, when I was moved to Medellín’s “Villa Deportiva” - a high performance centre. There I began training under a Cuban coach named Luis Alfaro, who was also training Gilmar Mayo – Colombia’s and South America’s record holder. So, at the time High Jump was my main event. In 2000, coach Regla Sandrino, also from Cuba (who had coached Ioamnet Quintero, a former World Champion), arrives, and then I begin to train with her, back in Medellín. And I guess that’s when I consolidated myself at the event.”

In those days, Ibargüen became Colombia’s best high jumper, setting the national record and equalling the South American junior record with 1.86m (2003). On top of that she competed at the 2004 Olympic Games at the age of 20.

South American titles in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009, and a national record of 1.93m (2005) followed, but a change of event was in the horizon for the talented Colombian.

Coaching switch to Duany the key

“When I failed to qualify for the 2008 Games, I felt depressed, like I wanted to quit the sport. That’s when I move to Puerto Rico – at the end of 2008 – to study at the “Universidad Metropolitana”. The idea was to set the focus in the Triple Jump and Heptathlon, under the guidance of Ubaldo Duany.”

Duany saw that Ibargüen’s potential in the High Jump was limited, due to how her body had changed over the years.

“I remember meeting Caterine at a youth meet in Cali, when she was doing several events, and we could see she had potential,” recalls Duany, Ibargüen’s actual coach, and a former Long Jumper from Cuba, with a PB of 8.32m (1986) and a seventh place at the 1989 World Indoor Championships to his credit.

“I recall observing – later in time – that although she was a good high jumper, she would be able to perform much better at Long and Triple Jump. But since she wasn’t working with me, I kept my opinion to myself. When we obtained her scholarship for Puerto Rico, I sat down to trace a plan for her, more according to her potential. I knew it would be hard to keep improving in the High Jump, as she had developed more muscular mass in her lower extremities. I figured that she would have to loose weight in order to jump higher. So, with that in mind, I understood she would do much better at long and triple, even with the chance of competing at high level,” adds Duany.

“When I decided to move to Puerto Rico, I was determined to make the most of it. I wanted to study (Nursing School), and I wanted to work hard with Coach Duany. He knew me well, and although I had done Triple Jump before, we needed to correct the major technical mistakes I was carrying. We had to start from scratch, and I used to wonder, ‘When am I going to dominate this event?’ It was pretty hard for me, but I always remained optimistic, thanks to the support of a great coach, who is very positive.”

2010 was a turning point for Ibargüen’s career. “The Campeonato Iberoamericano was the first major event I encountered as a ‘fulltime’ Triple Jumper. I ended second to Yargelis Savigne with a personal best of 14.29m, but I felt much more confidant than at the High Jump. Then I also took the silver medal at the Central American Championships, and I guess that left us (my coach and myself), much more positive for the future.”

As a complement, or a second option for Ibargüen, Duany introduced her to the Heptathlon, where she registered an impressive personal best of 5742 points (2009), without putting a total dedication into the combined events. “I felt it was a great preparation for me, but right now I don’t see myself coming back to them,” she says.

Nine national records, six Area marks, in 2011

But 2011 brought a major breakthrough for the Colombian jumper. Taking part in 13 finals, Ibargüen improved the Colombian record on nine occasions, and the South American mark on six. The rollercoaster of records began in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on 5 March (14.30m NR). Also covered were Colombia, Brazil, France, Sweden, and ending in Bogotá, on 13 August (14.99m NR).

In the middle of all those improvements, Ibargüen captured the national title, her second South American crown at triple jump in Buenos Aires, the bronze in Daegu, and the gold at the Pan-American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico – Colombia’s first ever at a field event in the Games. All those achievements meant that Ibargüen was named Colombia’s sportsperson of 2011 by the national newspaper “El Espectador”.

“It was truly a great year. I felt more eager after each improvement, which was also a confirmation of the great work we were doing. And I was also thinking that I always had more margin to continue to better my marks. However, the goal for us was to better the technique, and to reach a certain level of consistency; we weren’t just focusing on the marks. The season was great from the first until the last competition. I couldn’t have done it without the great coach I have, or without the great conditions in which we train.”

Daegu confidence booster

“Obviously, the best moment of the year was the bronze in Daegu. When we got there I felt I was at the same level as the best - Yargelis Savigne, Olha Saladuha, Olga Rypakova. I knew that in spite of having the world leading mark, I know I would have to really work hard to get to the podium. First, it was important to qualify without suffering (14.52m on her first attempt). Then, in the final, I was a bit anxious, since it was the most important competition of my life. However, I was very confident of my strength. My first jump was already good (14.64m), so I started to dream to even reach the victory, but sadly, it wasn’t possible. Still, I was very proud of myself. I was facing very experienced athletes, and there I was, yet unknown at Triple, and competing at a level I had never reached before. The result was very good.”

With 14.84m, Ibargüen was 10cm short of the winner Saladuha, and just five centimetres behind the silver medallist Rypakova. Being in the podium was a historic achievement for Colombian athletics, just a few days after the country’s first medal at the IAAF World Championships, the bronze by Luis Fernando López in the 20km Race Walk.

“I receive great support from the National agency “Coldeportes”, from the NOC, the Athletics Federation, the Antioquia Department, however, I still don’t feel that athletes in my country receive the aid that they need. In my case, I still don’t have a confirmation of the support I will receive in 2012. I know I will have resources, but still don’t know how much. Things are better since I began a few years ago, but they still need to improve. In my region of Urabá, conditions are especially hard, but seem to be improving. We were promised two tracks (we have none), and apparently they will be delivered. Maybe I have contributed to all that, so I hope conditions will get better for those younger emerging athletes”.

Off the track, Ibargüen is hoping to finish her career at nursing school in 2012. “I live in Puerto Rico with my boyfriend, Alexander Ramos (Colombian), a hurdler at the Universidad Metropolitana who also trains with Ubaldo Duany. Alexander is a great part of my life, and gives me a great deal of support.”

Duany knows that 2012 will be crucial to amend small details in Ibargüen’s technique, in order to reach the Olympic podium.

“We were expecting to jump beyond 15 metres in 2011. Our projections were pointing to that range, but for minor problems, we couldn’t get there. For 2012 we will have two important training camps, one in Germany, where we will try to polish some of the technical problems she still has – mostly on the step. The idea is to work on that, and to do some more long jumping. I feel Caterine could be in position to do something big in the next few years. She has the talent, the attitude, and we feel she is ready to leave a much more important mark.”

Eduardo Biscayart for the IAAF

Caterine Ibargüen Mena

Apartadó, Antioquia, 12 February 1984. 1.81m/65Kg

Coach: Ubaldo Duany (CUB)

Six South American records at Triple Jump (14.58, 14.59, 14.66, 14.70, 14.83, 14.99) in 2011. National record holder at High Jump (1.93), and Long Jump (6.63).

At TJ/HJ/LJ: OG: ’04- /q; WCh: ’05- /q, ’09- /q, ’11- 3; WJC: ’02- q; PAmG: ’07- /4, ’11- 1/-/3; SAmC: ’05-3/1/3, ’06- 2/1/2, ’07- -/1/3, ’09- 1/1/-, ’11- 1/-/1; CAG: ’02- 2/3, ’06- -/2/2, ’10- 2/-/4. Won South American junior 2001 (HJ), and 2003 (HJ/TJ).

Progression at HJ/LJ/TJ: ’01- 1.79A/5.87/12.90A, ’02- 1.83A/6.08A/13.38A, ’03- 1.86A/6.18A/13.23A, ’04- 1.91/6.42A/13.64A, ’05- 1.93/6.54A/13.66A, ’06- 1.90A/6.49A/13.91A, ’07- 1.87/6.22A/6.23Aw/12.66A, ’08- 1.88A/6.54A/13.79A, ’09- 1.88/6.41A/13.96A, ’10- 1.80/6.34w/6.29/14.29, ’11- 1.85/6.63A/14.99A. Other PBs: 100mh: 14.09 (’11); SP: 13.71A (’08); JT: 44.81 (’09); Hep: 5742 (’09).