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Kajsa and the Lisbon Connection

A. Lennart Julin for IAAF

With the exception of her hometown Stockholm there now probably isn’t any other place in the world that Kajsa Bergqvist would rather have an all-important athletics competitions in than Lisbon. Because sporting success seems more or less inevitable for her in the Portuguese capital.

The World Junior Championships in 1994 was Kajsa’s first ever experience of worldwide competition and after having improved her personal best considerably she almost came away the winner. Despite being a just 17 years old debutant, Kajsa only missed the gold medal very narrowly after a nail-biting jump-off.

And now when she returned to Lisbon almost seven years later for the World Indoor Championships the competition was just as intense and spectator captivating. The difference, a very positive one indeed, being that this time it was Kajsa who got the gold – her first ever at world level!

In those intervening years Kajsa had steadily made her presence felt in the international elite of female high jumpers. This was actually her third World Indoor Championships appearance, beginning with a 13th place in Barcelona 1995, continuing with a 8th place in Paris in 1997 before now culminating with triumph in Lisbon.

This pattern of consistent rising through the ranks could also be seen in Kajsa’s record from the European Indoor Championships (6th in 1996, 1st in 2000) as well as that from the World Outdoor Championships and Olympic Games (eliminated in the qualification in 1995, barely eliminated in 1996, 5th in 1997, 4th in 1999 and 3rd in 2000 – and Edmonton is coming up soon ...)!

But of course her high jump career didn’t start in Lisbon. Coming from a family where sports always have been a part of life – her father Gunnar was a national level hurdler and her maternal grandmother had success in the high jump while in school – it was natural for Kajsa to get involved. In the beginning, however, she was more of a cross country runner than a jumper.

Actually her initial experiences at age 11 of high jumping were not at all of the "love at first sight" character because she - like many kids - at first was afraid of the bar. However, she managed to overcome that mental barrier fairly quickly, but she still remained an all round athlete for some years.

Actually it wasn’t until Kajsa at age 15 improved from 1.61 to 1.77 in just one year that she was recognised as an extraordinary high jump talent. That the physical talent was matched by competitive ability was proven already the following year by her win at the European Youth Olympic Days with a big new PB of 1.84.

The move into prominence as a high jumper in 1992 co-incided with her starting to be coached by Bengt Jönsson, who has remained her coach ever since. Even when Kajsa went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 1995 for four years of combined studies and athletics it was Bengt who planned and devised her training.

A number of NCAA titles and collegiate records are ample proof that this kind of transatlantic "remote coaching" can work out very successfully, at least for athletes like Kajsa. But it should also be noted that Kajsa’s move last year into the uppermost echelon of international women’s high jumping came when she had returned home to Sweden with her college degree in marketing and was able to work with her coach on a more or less daily basis.

When you see Kajsa in action at a meet really thriving on the attention and adulation received from the crowd you might believe that she is the kind of person who always wants to be the centre of attention. Nothing could be more wrong. While the high jumper Kajsa clearly enjoys and gets inspired by being in the spotlight the person Kajsa has shown no desire of becoming a celebrity.

After her successes last year with the gold medal at the European Indoor Championships, the conquering of the magical two metre barriers both indoors and outdoors and, of course, the Olympic bronze medal Kajsa was sought after by basically every Swedish TV show, magazine and newspaper but she said no to just about everything.

This guarding of the private sphere has not hurt her general popularity in any way. It is an interesting fact that the Swedish TV viewing during the Sydney Olympics peaked for the women’s high jump final. Despite getting "only" the bronze in Sydney she was also nominated in no less than four categories at the Swedish all-sports awards gala held in January.

When the top athletes of the evening were introduced to the crowd at the recent Globen Galan indoor meeting in Stockholm Kajsa won the unofficial "applause competition" by a wide margin. And as she rewarded the 10,000 hometown fans in the Globe Arena that evening with a win and a new world leading mark one only wonders what the reception next year might be.

Just as one now wonders what will happen the next time Kajsa Bergqvist returns to her new "athletic hometown", Lisbon ...