Elite athletes are used to dealing with setbacks. Injury, loss of funding, a change in coaches; it’s all part and parcel of track and field.
But when German steeplechaser Antje Moldner-Schmidt went warm-weather training in Spain in January 2010, her world was rocked by something much bigger than the usual difficulties athletes have to face.
“I noticed a pain on my collarbone, which developed into a swelling,” she said. “When I was back in Germany, I had it examined and a biopsy revealed lymph node cancer."
The timing was hardly ideal. Having switched from the 1500m to the steeplechase in 2008, she was on the verge of a breakthrough.
She broke the German record in her first 3000m steeplechase race, then won the national title to book her spot on the Olympic team. Although she didn’t make the final in Beijing, she took another five seconds off her national record in the heats.
Her success continued in 2009, winning the European Team Championships and reducing the national record three more times throughout the course of the season, culminating in a ninth-place finish in 9:18.54 at the IAAF World Championships on home soil in Berlin.
Moldner-Schmidt had been looking forward to more improvements in 2010. Instead, at the age of 25, she found herself undergoing radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
It was about nine months before Moldner-Schmidt was able to begin any type of physical activity, but her immune system was so weak that initially she could only jog a few hundred metres every three days.
Unsurprisingly, she took most of 2011 out from competition to regain her strength, but she participated in a 10km road race, a 1500m and the steeplechase at the German Championships, where she finished fourth.
Just one year later, she regained her German title, took bronze at the European Championships and finished seventh in the Olympic final. She was back.
The 30-year-old feels strongly that the illness has given her a balance in her life that she didn’t have before.
“When I was diagnosed, the priority was to get healthy as quickly as possible, whether that be with sport or without,” she said. “I received different prognoses from different doctors. Some told me to give up sport; others told me I could do sport again. In the end, I took my own journey and I feel I have shown what is possible when you keep the faith and have a good team around you.”
Her comeback continued this year when she won her first international gold medal, winning the steeplechase at the European Championships in Zurich.
After taking the bronze in 2012, she described her 2014 victory as “the high point of her career” after a strong finish saw her cross the line first ahead of Sweden’s Charlotta Fougberg and Spain’s Diana Martin.
“It was a completely unexpected gold medal,” she said, modestly. “I didn’t start running until January as I had a bad achilles from 2013, so with this in mind, 2014 was completely crazy for me.”
As a result of what she has been through, Moldner-Schmidt has adopted a more relaxed approach to training. “I train more balanced and listen to my inner voice. We are not machines,” she said. “I feel I have been given a second life, so I want to enjoy it to the full.”
Athletics is in the genes
Almost everyone in Moldner-Schmidt’s immediate family has been involved in athletics. Her father was a race walker, so too was her older brother Olaf, who represented Germany at two editions of the IAAF World Race Walking Cup. Her twin sister Berit and older sister Silke were both middle-distance runners too.
But it soon became clear that Moldner-Schmidt was the most talented athlete in the family. She represented Germany at the 2001 World Youth and 2002 World Junior Championships. In 2005, she made her first major championships final, finishing sixth in the 1500m at the European Indoor Championships. Later that year, she took bronze over the same distance at the European Under-23 Championships.
A few years later, she switched to the steeplechase and never looked back.
Coached by Beate Conrad since 2001, Moldner-Schmidt does most of her training alone in Cottbus. “I’m from a small club, where the younger athletes are the priority,” said Moldner-Schmidt, who likes to go riding, walking or travelling with her husband in her spare time.
“I don’t have any training partners, but that is not a problem for me. I like training on my own. I like to run according to feeling.”
Like many German athletes, Moldner-Schmidt is employed in the sports sector of the German police force, which means she can earn a living while focusing on her sport. “My athletics training is my job,” she says. “I am exempt from active service, but usually do a four-week placement at the end of the season. After I finish athletics, I can work as a policewoman.”
Moldner-Schmidt has a motto – ‘Enjoy each day as much as you can, as you never know if it may be your last’ – that she likes to live by, never looking too far into the future.
“Every competition is a highlight,” she said. “My aim is to stay healthy. I no longer set myself long-term aims, as things can change so quickly.”
Her current goals go as far as next year’s IAAF World Championships in Beijing, and possibly even the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016, providing her health permits.
Having been through what she has been through, athletics is no longer the be-all and end-all for Moldner-Schmidt. But, as she says with a smile: “It’s always worth fighting for.”
Emily Moss for the IAAF