For the first time since the 1980's a European long jumper ended the outdoor season as the world leader with a leap of 8.53m, Spain’s Yago Lamela.
Lamela also topped the 2003 World Indoor list with 8.43m but he would have exchanged both these seasonal leaderships for at least one gold medal at last year's two IAAF World Championships, where he collected the silver both in Birmingham (indoors) and Paris (outdoors).
Different event and foreign experience
Born on 24 July 1977, Lamela begun his international career as early as 1994, taking part in the World Junior Championships held in Lisbon...in the Triple Jump. Competing against jumpers two years older, Lamela failed to make the final but, still 17, he produced a fine performance of 16.27 the following year.
Then, Lamela travelled to the US early in 1996. “The idea of joining the great American jumpers had always appealed to me. I also wanted to study computing and my stay at the Iowa University allowed me to do both things”.
It was there in the US that he changed his specialist event to the Long Jump, “my coach was more knowledgeable in the Long Jump than in the Triple,” and he placed fourth at the 1996 Sydney World Juniors when the last jump of fellow countryman Raúl Fernández, the future 2002 European Indoor champion, relegated Lamela from the podium. “It was a hard time, but a fourth place is quite good at that level”.
First 8.00 plus effort
“After one and a half years in the US I realised it was going to be better for me to return to Spain. Everyone treated me really well, I had no problems combining studies and athletics but I was not fully satisfied with the technical methods they used.”
Lamela’s first senior international appearance came at the 1998 European indoor Championships in Valencia (Spain) where he was fifth in a then-lifetime best of 7.95. Still 20, Lamela exceeded the 8 metres barrier for the first time on 30 May with a 8.14 legal leap in Seville, and later that year settled for eighth at the Europeans outdoor championships in Budapest (7.93).
Drama in Maebashi
In 1999, Lamela was in the form of his life in January-February when he twice broke the national indoor record with 8.20 and 8.22 efforts, the later being his entry mark for the World Indoor Championships in Maebashi (Japan).
In Japan, Cuba’s Ivan Pedroso, then 3-time World Indoor champion, was the undisputed favourite and his 8.46 opening jump seemed enough to snatch gold. However, this was not counting on the 1.77m tall Spaniard who reached 8.29 and 8.42 in the third and fifth rounds respectively to narrow the gap and seriously threaten Pedroso's supremacy.
The final round could not have been more dramtic. With his last jump Lamela landed clearly beyond 8.50m and the white flag was raised and after a brief suspense filled pause the jump was confirmed at 8.56, a new European indoor record and more importantly at that moment, the lead in the World final!
However, it was not to be Lamela’s moment as with all eyes on Pedroso, the Cuban responded magnificently with a leap of 8.62, his best ever indoors, to deny Lamela the gold medal.
Following his outstanding performance in Maebashi, Lamela immediately became a celebrity in Spain and all the media, regardless of their chosen sport, were looking for an interview with the man who had challenged the great Pedroso.
…and a repeat silver in Seville
Prior to the big event of the summer - the IAAF World Championships in Seville, Spain - Lamela leapt to a winning 8.56 in Turin (24 June), but once in Seville he again couldn’t manage to dethrone the Cuban maestro, and this time Pedroso’s winning margin over Lamela extended to 16 centimetres (8.56 verses 8.40).
Yet performing on home soil, Lamela had still thrilled a packed stadium by being at the top in the first two rounds and eventually taking the silver medal behind one of the greatest jumpers in the history of the event
Two years in the doldrums and back out again
2000 & 2001 were years to forget for Lamela. At first, a series of persistent injuries hampered his emerging career but even being far from his peak he still managed to qualify for the Sydney Olympics bounding out to 8.22 in late August, and so hopes of making the Olympic podium one month later remained realistic, though in the end he missed the final.
Injuries put him out of major action for much of 2001, marking his lowest point. “My injuries also affected my mind so much and the problem became bigger and bigger. I really didn’t know how to come out of it.” In fact, Lamela missed the 2001 Edmonton Worlds, his anxiety just didn’t let him jump...
December 2001 marked a much awaited turning point in his career; after leaving his long-standing coach Juan José Azpeitia - and following an unsuccessful one-year-stay in Madrid - it was then that Lamela joined Rafael Blanquer’s training group in Valencia. Blanquer had became the first Spaniard to land beyond 8.00m 27 years ago, and led Niurka Montalvo to her 1999 World Long Jump title.
“I enjoy athletics again and I’m now a full-time athlete; it means demanding trainings, a strict diet, enough rest in my free time...but all these thing pay off in the end. Blanquer is easily the best jumping coach in the world”.
The ‘new Lamela’ soon was back on form and had a profitable haul in 2002, with silver and a bronze medals from the Europeans Championships in Vienna (indoors) and Munich (outdoors).
The following year at the World Indoors in Birmingham, Lamela finished runner-up to America’s Dwight Phillips who overtook him in the final round by one centimetre (8.29 verses 8.28), “I’m quite satisfied because I suffered a muscle injury in round two and I wasn’t at my 100% in the remaining jumps; that silver medal is a success for me under those adverse circumstances”.
As had already happened indoors, Lamela entered the Paris outdoor World Championships as the world leader with a 8.53 performance set eleven days prior to the key day.
On a wet runway which kept distances down Lamela took the lead in round five with a 8.28 leap. However Phillips and Jamaica’s James Beckford produced efforts of 8.32 and 8.28 respectively to sneak in front of the Spaniard. “My only fear in the previous days was the rain, and it appeared but even so I should have jumped much further so I’m very disappointed with that performance”.
Asked about the man who prevented him winning two World titles in 2003, Dwight Phillips, Lamela says: “I would underline his competitiveness, that’s what really matters in a major event and two gold medals can’t be a fluke; performances are a different matter and he has never leapt beyond 8.50, but he’ll always be a rival not to be discounted”.
Lamela is scheduled to compete at the World Indoor Championships to be held in Budapest (5-7 March) on his way to the primary goal for this coming year, the Athens Olympics.
“I’ve already won four medals at the last major Championships I’ve taken part in (Vienna, Munich, Birmingham, Paris) and that’s not an easy task. I know that the gold medal has eluded me so far but with four silvers and two bronzes already to my credit I’ll fight to win gold to the death in Athens”.
Asked about what distance needed for the Olympic crown, Lamela is adamant “8.50; and to make the podium it will be compulsory to be in the region of 8.30m”.
“I’m dying to improve my PB of 8.56. It’s now five years since I first achieved that measure and it’s time to better it”.
Technique, records and idols
Who is best technician among the top long jumpers? “Iván Pedroso by far,” and the fastest, “if I can answer that question, it’s probably myself.” What about Powell’s World record of 8.95, is it reachable for any of the current aces of long jumping? “You never know, but whoever does will need to be consistently over 8.60.” Could it be you? “I don’t think about that for now as have short-term targets”. Who is your idol in athletics? “Carl Lewis since I was a kid, I have read his biography, and have a poster in my room, and would like to get to know him”.
Lamela, who is very keen on the Internet, announces surprise mid-term intentions, “I would like to tackle other events such as sprinting, Triple Jump, at least at European level. It would be interesting.”