In Olympics, Sports

Note: This story is part of the new upcoming book, Rings to Cubicles. You can read the rest of the stories of inspiring Olympians here.

This story of Caterine Ibarguen, a Colombian athlete, has an important life lesson for us. In our quest to succeed in life, there could be different paths, and the trick is to choose the one that gives us the greatest chance to succeed. 

Catherine was a high jump athlete who had earned a name for herself in Colombian sport. She holds the Colombian record for the highest jump, which is good even to date. She went on to win many regional and national championships. 

She reached this level despite a challenging childhood. Her parents got separated due to armed conflict in her town. Her father moved to Venezuela, and her mother moved to Turbo, a coastal town in Colombia. She was raised by her grandmother, who struggled to make ends meet. It is these struggles that made Caterine determined to succeed in sports. 

Having been the top high jumper in Colombia, it was no surprise that she qualified for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. It’s a huge high for any athlete to represent her country at the Olympics, the pinnacle of sporting events. However, for Caterine, that high was short-lived. The competition was intense, and much to her disappointment, she could only manage 1.85m and was placed a disappointing 30th in the competition. It’s a far cry from her personal best of 1.93m. 

In the very same game, Yelena Slesarenko went on to create an Olympic Record by jumping 2.06 m (6 ft 9 in). That difference is stark. 

After the disappointment of the 2004 Olympics, Caterine continued to win medals at various South American championships. But disaster struck four years later. Shockingly, she failed to qualify for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. For a national record holder to not represent your country is very odd. It was a major blow to her confidence that plunged her into depression. 

This personal disaster turned out to be a blessing in disguise, albeit a harrowing one. 

Caterine knew that if one day she wanted to win Gold in Olympics, then she must switch to another sport where she stands a realistic chance of winning it. 

Under a new coach, she changed her sport to Triple Jump, a less glamorous sport than high jump but one with a greater chance to succeed. Making this switch is not an easy one. It means letting go of a sport she had mastered all her adult life and picking a brand new one, and starting from scratch. This daring move turned out to be in her favour. She qualified to represent her country in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, a dream that once again came true eight years after her first Olympics. She did very well in the competition, and this time she went past the qualifying rounds and into the finals. The competition was intense and with her last big run, she jumped 14.80m which won her the silver medal. 

Now that she tasted blood, she wanted to press on for greatness with her eyes set firmly on gold. This is what she said in an interview after the games. 
This silver medal is for all Colombia. I am extremely happy about this achievement. It is the reward for many years of sacrifice, leaving Apartadó, moving to Medellín and then Puerto Rico. But I honestly believe I could have jumped farther”. She trained very hard and went on to sweep many medals in multiple championships. She claimed a triple jump gold in Argentina at the South American Championships in 2011. In 2013 Ibargüen made Colombian history by winning gold at the World Championships in Moscow, a feat she then repeated in China at the 2015 Championships.

With Caterine on a roll, she was the hot favourite to win gold at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio. The disappointment of 2008 was still fresh in her mind, and she was thirsting for redemption. She gave it her all and jumped a whopping 15.17m in her final jump that was over 20 cms greater than the next competitor. With that monster jump, she went straight into history books by winning the first-ever Olympic gold in athletics in the entire history of Colombian sports.

Caterine’s story has a strong significance in every professional’s life. In one’s quest for greatness, the trick lies in picking up an area of expertise that has a stronger chance to succeed. 

Had Catherine stuck with the high jump, her shot at success could have been a lot tougher. She had a major gap to fill. She realized this shortcoming and made the switch. 

This is something for us to introspect as well. What is the glory that we are vying for? Is it money? Is it fame? Is it happiness? No matter what it is, is there a field where you could have a greater chance of successfully achieving that?

Had Catherine qualified for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, things could have been totally different. She could have continued to stick with the high jump making marginal improvements. But she needed a major setback (not qualifying for the 2008 Olympics) to totally reset her life and start afresh with another sport. 

Many times, a major setback in our life is a clarion call for us to make a big change. Catherine’s story is an inspirational one for us to not only learn from but also consciously put into practice.