Champions have an extraordinary ability to pull out all the reserves and come through under pressure. Winning the gold medal on the final jump of the competition and with a personal best performance was a miraculous moment for Panama’s newest national hero Irving Saladino.
His rival Andrew Howe had thought he had won with a leap of 8.47m - which it so happens is an Italian national record. But the 24-year-old Saladino reached deep, and out of a hat he magically produced a South American record of 8.57m.
“I knew I could do a good jump in the last round,” he said later, with his Brazilian coach Nelio Moura serving as translator. “This jump came from the heart.”
Overcomes anxiety and nerves
“It was a very good competition but actually it was most competitive and when Andrew made a good jump in the last round that gave me the power to pass his distance and helped me gain my victory.”
“Andrew made an excellent jump of 8.47m and that made me anxious and nervous and my coach advised me to start my approach half a foot behind. My approaching speed was too fast. Therefore at the last moment I should slow down my speed however I made a good job and I could achieve this victory.”
Saladino celebrated immediately. As the Nagai stadium scoreboard displayed the word “Congratulations” he wrapped himself in the Panamanian flag and set off on a victory jaunt while Howe and reigning Olympic champion Dwight Philips, whose opening leap of 8.30m led all competitors through the first round, bemoaned what might have been.
First Panamanian gold
The gold medal is a first for Panama at the World championships. Two years ago he could place only sixth at the Helsinki World championships. As he passed through the mixed zone Saladino was handed cell phones by several Panamanian journalists so he could take calls from his homeland.
“Everybody in Panama was waiting for this medal, the first ever gold medal by a Panamanian athlete,” he says proudly. “Everyone in Panama supported me. They watched it on television and now they are celebrating with me.”
Surrounded by journalists from across South America, his managers Ellen Van Langen and Jos Hermens of Global Sports Communications, his coach Moura and other well- wishers, he was all smiles. Asked questions in English he immediately turns towards his coach for help. Moura says his athlete is very quiet - hard to believe if you saw his reaction to the gold medal-winning jump.
“He is a very quiet person,” Moura insists, “He likes to surf the internet, watch movies. Sometimes he goes out with Keila (Costa, the Brazilian long jumper/ triple jumper). He is a very quiet person and it is something that helps him to this level.”
Baseball’s loss in the athletics world’s gain
Born in Ciudad de Colon, an hour from the capital Panama City, at one point Saladino tried his hand at baseball, a very popular sport in his country.
Indeed he remains a fan of the New York Yankees. Although he might well have been a successful player, he instead fell into the hands of a track and field coach.
“I made an effort to play baseball however my elder brother David was in track and field,” he explains. “That was the reason I started in track and field. My coach in Panama, Florencio Aguilar, found my talent to be in the Long Jump. He started to coach me and that’s the reason I started in the Long Jump.”
It was during the Athens Olympics that Saladino and Moura first connected.
Shortly afterwards the Panamanian federation contacted the South American federation to request a place and a scholarship for Saladino at the IAAF High Performance Training Centre in Sao Paulo, Brazil. At first Saladino lived in a house with other athletes at the training centre. But a year ago he rented his own apartment close to the training facilities.
In Osaka they stayed at different hotels - Moura with the Brazilian team and Saladino with the Panamians - so Moura had to rely on the Panamanian coach to keep him informed as to the frame of mind his athlete was in.
Celebration will wait until after women’s Triple Jump
Moura was pleased to hear that Saladino went to bed very calm the night before the long jump final. Moura had concerns about Saladino’s approach on the runway and so he likely didn’t sleep as well as the athlete.
“I was a little bit worried about his run up,” says Moura. “He was not so confident as we have seen. It was changing a little bit. We tried to keep it simple just like we did last week. It was better today but he has things to do.”
While Panama may well be celebrating and he is ecstatic with his gold medal, there was to be no major celebration tonight, other than perhaps a dinner with Moura. That’s because his girlfriend is competing in the women’s Triple Jump final on Friday evening. He will be in Nagai stadium to support her. So, for now the celebration must wait.
Paul Gains for the IAAF