When Caterine Ibarguen competed at the inaugural edition of the IAAF World Youth Championships in 1999, that she would one day be sitting on the sport’s longest win streak as an elite athlete and a reigning world champion was the furthest thing from her mind.
“I was very, very scared,” she said, laughingly remembering her visit to Bydgoszcz in Poland as a 15-year-old, where she competed in the high jump.
She cleared two heights in that competition, 1.60m and 1.65m, and finished 15th and last in her group, the eventual winner being Russia’s London 2012 Olympic Games champion Anna Chicherova.
Even now, carrying a 26-meeting win streak into the Pan-American Games next week as the reigning Olympic silver medallist, that memory looms large.
“It was a very important competition for me, where I competed against so many athletes and gained a lot of experience,” she said.
“That’s the same experience that the Colombian team is experiencing here in Cali. It’s going to help them with their ambitions, it will help them realize that we Colombians can be at the same level as athletes from other countries; that we can be ambitious. That’s where my ambitions came from, from the World Youth Championships in 1999.”
Her next taste of international competition came three years later at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Kingston where she competed in the triple jump but produced a similar result: a ninth-place finish in her qualifying group and a seat in the stands for the final.
As frustrating as those experiences must have been to the teenaged Caterine, they were necessary.
“It was a good time,” she insists. “It was a time where I had to gain experience. Everyone should take advantage of every opportunity they are given.”
For the Colombian team, she said, that means beginning with the one before them this week.
“I am very proud of the Colombian team here in Cali. We have selected the best in their age groups and they are giving the best of themselves.
“Each one of them wants to demonstrate that Colombians can go to the next level. You saw Anthony José Zambrano in the 400m. He gave me goose bumps when he won the semi-final. I am very proud of him.”
What Zambrano and his teammates need now is more immediate support.
“I’ve had a chance to spend time with them, have lunch with them, speak with them, and I felt the same as them when I was younger, when I was told to try athletics,” she reflected.
“They need to know that the whole country is supporting them. And I invite all the people from Cali and from Colombia to come to the stadium and support them because they need to feel the warmth of the crowd.”
Bob Ramsak and Laura Arcoleo for the IAAF