Yulimar Rojas after winning the triple jump at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016 (© Getty Images)
Yulimar Rojas will always remember Portland as the city that marked a turning point for her career and the history of athletics in Venezuela.
The tall 20-year-old made history on Saturday by becoming Venezuela’s first world champion in athletics with her 14.41m victory in the women’s triple jump at the Oregon Convention Center.
“I am happy, proud of what I have accomplished, the best achievement in my sports career,” said Rojas after her historic performance at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016. "This was the goal since I started the preparation for the indoor season. It’s been four months of hard work with my coach Ivan Pedroso and my long-time coach Jesus Velazquez. I believed in myself and my talent.
“I received a lot of messages of encouragement since I arrived in Portland, people believed in me," she added. "Thanks to my family. I need them always around me and I think of them in every jump. Thanks to my federation and sponsors. This medal is for the people of Venezuela."
Despite her young age and relative lack of international experience, Rojas managed her favourite status well on the runway, following her world-leading and South American indoor record of 14.69m earlier this winter.
“Since I have started working with Pedroso, he has insisted on the importance of staying calm and focused,” said Rojas, who has been based just outside Madrid in the town of Guadalajara since last autumn. "He gave me a lot of confidence from the stands. He, and the psychological work I did in Spain, helped manage the pressure in a world class event like this one."
Jumping through the disciplines
Born in the Venezuelan capital Caracas but raised in the eastern state of Anzoategui, Rojas first enjoyed some international success as a high jumper and then the long jump, collecting South American titles both events, but she soon decided that it would be in the triple jump where she would take her athletics career to new heights.
“Since I started in athletics, people kept telling me I could be a good triple jumper, considering my height. One day (in 2014), I asked my coach Jesus Velazquez to try the triple in minor competition and I jumped 13.57m, only eight centimetres shy of the national record.” Later that year she equalled the national mark.
“It proved to me this would be the event where I could accomplish great things in athletics,” she recalled.
However, Rojas still continued with the high jump and the long jump as complementary events. In the latter, she qualified for the final at the 2014 World Junior Championships in Eugune, just up the road from Portland.
“The World Junior Championships was a great learning experience. I arrived there in the top eight, but I could not peak when it mattered most. It motivated me to keep working hard. I just needed someone to help me polish my talent.”
Such a person came a year later. Watching her career closely from Spain was Cuba’s 10-time global long jump champion Ivan Pedroso.
“We connected via Facebook after the Pan American Games (in Toronto last July, where she finished fourth)," said Pedroso. "I was impressed when I saw her jump 14.37m with ease at the Pan American Games. She spoke to her federation and we arranged for her to join me in Guadalajara. We started working together last October."
Pedroso picks up on the finer points
“Her technique was off today but more so as a result of a bouncy track," Pedroso added of her performance in Portland. "I did not insist on her technique but just focus on jumping 14.41m, which she can manage easily. She had a good jump in the fifth round, but it was foul."
Looking forward to the outdoor season, Rojas believes that Portland is only the beginning for greater things to come in her career.
“Things are only starting now," she said. "I look forward to the outdoor season. This win has given me a lot of confidence in my abilities. It showed I can stay consistent around 14.50m. My potential has no limits. I will focus on getting my body ready, improving my technique and my run-up to reach the Rio Olympics in the best shape possible."
“In the past four months we have been putting emphasis on improving her strength," added Pedroso. "It takes longer because she is a very tall athlete. We will then focus on the technical aspects to create a solid base before competing outdoors."
Rojas plans to compete regularly on the IAAF Diamond League circuit as well as the Iberoamerican Championships in Rio de Janeiro in May, which will serve as the test event for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Coincidentally, it was the triple jump that gave Venezuela its first Olympic medal in any sport, and its only athletics medal to date, when Arnoldo Devonish earned the bronze at the 1952 Games in Helsinki.
“Devonish has been a great motivation in my career," said Rojas. "I would love to bring a medal for Venezuela in Rio."
Javier Clavelo Robinson for the IAAF