IAAF World Female Athlete of the Year Caterine Ibarguen (© Giancarlo Colombo)
Caterine Ibarguen had an unpleasant surprise on Tuesday as she discovered that, while she had safely arrived at Nice airport, her luggage had not.
A few hours later – just long enough for her to race around the centre of Monte Carlo in search of a suitably glitzy dress and then to attend a last-minute press conference – Colombia’s golden girl of the jumps had a surprise of a different kind as she was presented with the IAAF Female Athlete of the Year award.
"I am struggling to stand up because my legs are shaking so much," said the 34-year-old who won the IAAF Diamond League and Continental Cup titles in triple jump and long jump during another unbeaten season. A year after losing her world title in London, she is now back on top of the world.
Nothing exhibited the continuing drive and ambition of an athlete who has won two world titles and added 2016 Olympic gold to her 2012 silver better than her efforts to take part in the IAAF Diamond League finals that took place on consecutive days in Zurich and Brussels. And her performances once she had managed it.
Ibarguen regained her IAAF Diamond League triple jump title in Switzerland, finishing a centimetre clear of Jamaica’s Shanieka Ricketts with her best of 14.56m.
A 7:00am flight out the next day enabled her to contest the Diamond trophy for the long jump in Belgium, where she won with an effort of 6.80m.
She had already won the triple jump and long jump titles at the Central American and Caribbean Games. And she finished her season in September by winning both events at the IAAF Continental Cup in Ostrava.
She ended the season top of the listings in the triple jump with a best of 14.96m, and a best long jump effort of 6.93m at the Continental Cup in Ostrava that was good enough for fifth on the 2018 list.
It looks like a superbly martialled athletics campaign – but speaking a couple of hours ahead of the IAAF Athletics Awards at the Grimaldi Forum, Ibarguen revealed it was one that developed as it went along as she and her coach Ubaldo Duany adapted to changing circumstances.
They had started with the idea of doubling up with the long jump at the Central American and Caribbean Games, which were held in Barranquilla, Colombia.
“When we saw that it was actually going really well we thought it would worth having a shot at the Diamond League title,” she explained.
“But the long jump was only secondary. Triple jump is my priority with next year’s World Championships in mind. My main focus will be on one event and doing it very well.
“I have two difficult years coming up – Doha, and then the Tokyo Olympics – and I am already preparing myself carefully for these two major championships.
“But that doesn’t mean I won’t be doing any more long jump competitions. We will just have to see how that plays with the calendar because the World Championships are so late in the year.”
There will be no indoor competition for her next year – instead she plans to spend time at her training base near Ostia, in Italy.
Asked if she regarded 2018 as her finest season, she responded: “2018 was definitely one of my best years. But I didn’t set a PB (in the triple jump) so let’s say it’s among my best years.
“The credit goes first and foremost to my coach, who has given me so much help and guidance during my career,” added Ibarguen, who was raised by her grandmother after her parents had separated during a time of armed conflict in Colombia.
A couple of hours before the IAAF Athletics Awards at the Grimaldi Forum, Ibarguen had been diplomacy itself when she was told that many athletes believed she would win the women’s award: “It’s a great honour for me that so many of my colleagues see me as a possible winner. It’s already great to be here among so many fantastic athletes. All five finalists have achieved some extraordinary performances. I am very happy and lucky that God gave me the possibility to be here – if I am chosen tonight, it will be a great source of pride for my country.”
Just how proud her country is of her becomes clear when one listens to Juan Carlos Bejarano, Europe correspondent of the Winsports Colombia TV channel.
He explained that her long jump adventure this year caught the public attention.
“Part of the reason was that it was a surprise for her. She told me, and her coach told me, that they started long jumping this year because they wanted her to be ready for the Central American Games. Because there were a lot of gaps, there were fewer competitions in the Diamond League in triple jump.
“So she said I’m going to do maybe two or three long jump competitions to be ready for those Games, which were in Colombia. As she progressed and saw that she was doing well, she and her coach decided they should continue. But it wasn’t something they planned.
“It was an incredible achievement, especially after last year, which was a difficult season for her. She came second at the World Championships – she lost the crown, and that was a big upset for her. She also lost the Diamond League final.
“Those two competitions she has been dominating for a long time – she lost them, so people thought, ‘OK, that’s it, her time is over, time for her to retire.’
“But I always said, she’s not young any more, but she looks after herself very well, she hasn’t had any serious injuries, she has a good team around her, she’s going to come back better – and she did.
“Mentally and physically she is strong. And she is one of these athletes that is blessed. You have to be blessed sometimes to not get injured so it was a surprise for a lot of people – a happy surprise.
“She is a big star in Colombia. You have footballers who are famous, like James Rodriguez, like Radamel Falcao. Caterine is up there with them. In fact she has just been chosen as the best sportswoman in Colombia. That was from all sports, not only athletics. When she goes there to the ceremony there were hundreds of people asking her for a photograph, for an autograph. She’s a big star.
“When she won the world title in Moscow in 2013, my channel decided to buy the rights to the Diamond League. We had bought the rights for the World Championships, and it was a huge rating. The President was in a conference, and he stopped to see the final jumps in Moscow. And from there she became a household name.
“We had the Diamond League rights, but the triple jump is done before the main programme, so we as a channel have to pay for a satellite feed, and we have to pay the Diamond League to produce the triple jump for us. So this is how important she is. It costs a lot of money for a Colombian channel – it costs a lot of dollars. But it’s worth it for us.
“The other thing is that Colombia is six hours behind Europe, so a lot of these competitions are in the morning, or around midday, but we still get a high rating.
“South Americans, we love a winner, we love a champion. And she’s a champion. But also there is her personal story. She came from a difficult background, an area that was affected by violence and poverty. And then you see her, it’s her attitude, she looks like a champion, she is beautiful, she is confident, and she is always focused when she competes.
“And I think anyone, it doesn’t matter where you are from, loves that. She is so good at competing. Often she is losing, she is losing, and then in the final jump – wow! – she comes out a winner. We saw it this year in the Diamond League and the Continental Cup.
“People love that. She’s an excellent role model. I just spoke to the President of the Colombian Athletics Federation and asked him if we have more athletes than 10 years ago, before she was famous. And he told me, ‘Yes, definitely. The Ibarguen effect is there, and we are seeing more young girls – which is not easy – training in athletics.’ ”
Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF