Heptathlete Nafi Thiam travelled to Rio in 2016 as a precocious young talent; one likely to wow the watching world at a Games edition or two in the future. Sixteen days and five personal bests later, she left as an Olympic champion. The Belgian, who has since added the world and European crowns, believes she has her ingrained appetite for self-improvement, and her mum, to thank for such a startling rise to the top.
Belgium’s Nafi Thiam won Olympic, world and European championship gold in the space of two years and is one of only four athletes in history to break the heptathlon’s symbolic 7,000-point barrier. It has been quite a ride and, in direct contrast to most athletes, the journey started in earnest at the Olympic Games.
“It was a real surprise to get a medal, and to get a gold medal. I was really not expecting that,” Thiam said, with an endearingly shy smile. “The personal bests were not such a surprise. I had known for a while that I was able to perform like that, but the surprise was to do everything on the same two days.
“It is what every heptathlete wants, to do it all the same two days, but it doesn’t happen often.”
The women’s heptathlon at Rio 2016 was meant to be all about defending champion Jessica Ennis-Hill. The Briton was in fine form and seemingly ready to repeat her London 2012 triumph but, right from the gun, Thiam – six days before her 22nd birthday – showed that she was ready to rip up the script.
First up, the Belgian recorded her best time in the 100m hurdles, traditionally one of Ennis-Hill’s strongest events. By the time she had subsequently leapt to the highest mark ever recorded in a heptathlon high jump (1.98m) and comfortably won the shot put, Thiam’s name was spreading like wildfire around Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic Stadium.
Two more personal bests followed, in the long jump and the javelin. Her performances, along with a solid 200m run, had left Thiam way out in front with just the closing 800m to come. An incredible fifth personal best of the Games ensured that no one, not even the legendary Ennis-Hill, could catch the youngster.
Thiam had won gold in one of the biggest shocks of Rio 2016 and, most surprisingly of all, she had done it while carrying a potentially crippling injury.
“I am most proud of the fact that I didn’t feel physically that good, and I was really scared of what was going to happen,” said Thiam, who damaged her elbow so badly in competition six weeks before Rio 2016 that the doctors urged her to have surgery, or at the very least consider focusing on just the high jump.
But no one and nothing was going to stop Thiam competing in her beloved heptathlon, even if it meant restricting herself to just one throw and no warm-ups in the javelin.
“Months after Rio, thinking about it in my car, I would still be crying about it because the way I felt there and the way I was able to conquer the pain and be so strong mentally – I never thought I was so strong before I went to Rio,” she said.
“It gave me so much confidence for the competitions that came after – for London [where she won the 2017 World Championships title], for Berlin [where she won the 2018 European Championships title], I was able to think, ‘You are stronger than you think, you can do it again’.”
On further reflection, Thiam, whose parents split up when she was young, hands all the praise for such resilience to her mother.
“She has been a great example for me,” Thiam said. “I always saw her as a very strong woman, and when it gets hard I think about her and everything she faced and I think, ‘OK, this is only sport, you can do it – it’s easy compared to what she did’.”
Fittingly, Thiam’s mum was on hand in Rio de Janeiro to see her second youngest child reach for the stars.
“It was the first time my mum was able to come and see me in competition,” Thiam explained. “Since I have been a senior, the championships have always been too far and too expensive for her to come to. So, for Rio, my sister and I, for her birthday, bought her a ticket.”
While the major championship titles have flowed since Thiam blasted open the floodgates in front of her mother at Rio 2016, the heptathlete is adamant that she is motivated by something far more personal than gold.
“Since I started to train seriously as a professional, my goal was never really medals or rankings. I always focused on me,” she explained. “I always wanted to reach the maximum level I could, be the best athlete I can be, and that is still my objective.
“Gold medals are not what obsesses me. What pushes me in training is that I think, ‘OK, I can throw X much further this year’ and I really want to do that.”
It is this kind of talk that fuels expectations that Thiam is likely to achieve something special at the forthcoming Olympic Games in 2020. After all, this is the woman who in 2017 recorded the third-highest heptathlon score of all time, hitting 7,013 points at a meeting in Goetzis, Austria. While she baulks at the idea that she might beat one of the most famous of all athletics records – American Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s extraordinary 7,291 mark – Thiam concedes her ambitions have changed since she breached the 7,000-point barrier.
“It really proved that I could really do big things. My mindset changed with that,” she admitted. “I am now much more confident, and I am not putting limits on what I can do any more.”
It is a statement which must be worrying for all Thiam’s rivals.