Retiring is one of the biggest challenges any elite athlete faces. It has taken Croatia’s double Olympic medal-winning high jumper Blanka Vlasic more than two years of fighting fear, anguish and doubt to be at peace with the prospect. It is a journey she hopes might help others and even allow her one more shot at the big time…
Blanka Vlasic has always convinced herself she would somehow keep jumping for ever. A high jump junior world champion and an Olympian at the age of 16, she has spent two decades picking up major championship titles. But, finally, the Croatian has taken the painful decision to listen to her body.
“It started when I realised I could not even force myself to think about quitting,” the now 36-year-old Vlasic said. “Then I realised, this is not healthy, this is not good. I realised I needed to work on it, dig deeper and see what was there. I could not just have that blockage in my mind.”
Vlasic had progressed from being a “fearless” and “innocent” teenager at the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 to dominating women’s high jump from 2007 to 2011. In that five-year period she won two World Championship and two Indoor World Championship titles and a somewhat unlucky silver medal at Beijing 2008 – she jumped 2.05m, enough for gold at every other Games before or since with the exception of Athens 2004.
She managed it all despite having her thyroid removed in 2005, following problems with it and illness at the Games in Greece. Serious injury hit again in 2011/12. Vlasic was diagnosed with Haglund’s deformity, a condition in which a bony structure forms where the Achilles tendon attaches to the heel.
For Vlasic it meant two bouts of surgery and a long lay-off, forcing her to miss London 2012. And then, after a couple of pain-free years, she learned she needed to go through the whole thing on the other foot.
She felt “crazy” at the diagnosis but decided she was not going to miss another Olympic Games. And that is when everything came to a head despite a “miracle”.
“I had surgery in February  and I compromised my recovery. By the time I went to Rio, I couldn’t even jump in practice. It was so painful after [training] I would wake up unable to move my foot. I decided though I would do everything I could,” Vlasic explained with half a grin and half a grimace. “I cut my approach from 10 steps to six steps because it was four steps less pain. But I couldn’t practise it because of the pain. So I just thought about it and did my jumping sessions in my head.
“Qualifications went well. I had the injection and couldn’t feel my leg from the knee down. In the finals, I think the doctor didn’t get my injection deep enough. When I started with my warm-up in the stadium the pain returned completely. By the start of competition it was like a knife was in my foot, tearing apart my Achilles. I was jumping and crying.”
But, against all the odds, she pushed herself through to grab bronze.
“I don’t know how it happened. I know at least five girls were ready to jump over 2m, but 1.97m was enough for third place,” Vlasic said. “I don’t know where I got the courage. After, I was happy it was over, I can’t say I enjoyed it, and I said to my coach, ‘This is the end of me jumping with an injury, in pain. This is not the sport I love. This is not how it should be’.”
Vlasic got home from Brazil and “shut down”. It took months to recover from the physical and mental exertion of pushing her body way beyond the limit. Eventually she realised she really did have to change everything about her approach to the sport she adores.
“It took me maybe two years, it’s a long process,” Vlasic said. “I have been struggling since the beginning with this but I knew, to move on either way, I needed to accept that it is very possible that my last competition was in Rio.
“It took me some time until I was even able to say it out loud. I think that was a very healthy step forward. You cannot live your life with only one acceptable outcome. You need to give yourself space that things might not turn out the way you want them to.
“Just facing, in my mind, the end of my career [there were] so many emotions; fear – what will happen in the future, what will I do – the unknown, I have been living this life since I was 10. It’s hard to let go and say, ‘I’m OK with wherever life takes me’.”
Without feeling compelled to compete, Vlasic has been able to look forwards for the first time.
“I am thinking in several directions,” she explained. “I am very interested in working with children, helping a generation of young athletes – they don’t even have to be athletes – to teach them how to take care of their bodies, how to exercise properly, how to deal with all the issues they might face. Even going into details like how to sit during school and to help them find motivation that will drive them through life.”
But just as Vlasic, who jumped 2.08m – the second-highest leap by a woman ever – in 2009 came to terms with the next stage of her life, a chink of sporting light reappeared.
“Of course I wish it didn’t happen. I was thinking about this virus and what was going on, we were fighting for our existence. But after, when things settled down, I did think, ‘Well this definitely gives me breathing space, gives me time’,” Vlasic said of the 12-month postponement of Tokyo 2020, forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I talked to my coach and we said if I could be injury-free by January 2021 we could work something out. It’s quite exciting.”
Her foot is not “100 per cent” yet but, as she has always done, she is working hard on it, travelling two hours per day, four days a week for treatment. She will not push it, but the fantasy of “being able to jump, get off the mat and say goodbye to people in a proper way” is still alive.