Having undergone serious shoulder surgery, elbow and achilles issues as well as a cancer scare, there is little wonder Maria Andrejczyk has had to draw upon her 'warrior' spirit after several years of turmoil.
Yet the Pole, who emerged as a world-class thrower at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games when topping the qualifiers and going on to finish fourth in the final, remains stubbornly focused on a return to the pinnacle of the sport.
The postponement of the Olympic Games has without doubt given Andrejczyk the opportunity to regroup and prepare for next year’s Tokyo Games – but quitting, even during the darkest times, was never an option.
“I’ve had some difficult times when I thought I wasn’t able to come back,” she explains. “But after missing out by two centimetres on a medal at the Olympic Games, I still have a job to do. I can’t stop, I still hope to fulfil my Olympic dream.”
Born and raised in the tiny village of Kukle in north east Poland – five kilometres from the Lithuanian border – Andrejczyk describes her upbringing in the rural setting as idyllic.
The eldest of five children – and with four younger brothers – sport was always a central part of her life.
Volleyball was her first love, although she also had a passion for athletics, encouraged by her mother, Malgorzata, herself a former 15-metre shot putter.
“I started out playing volleyball and I loved that game,” she says. “But I also competed in track and field and started with running, jumping and the basics before first trying javelin aged 11 or 12.”
Andrejczyk was no superstar thrower from the outset, but, excited by the thought of chasing medals and improving, she persisted with javelin.
However, throughout high school she continued playing volleyball and she insists her time playing the popular team game formed an important part of her future javelin success.
“Volleyball is largely about having a fast arm and flexibility and both are also very important in javelin,” she says.
It was also Andrejczyk’s good fortune that once she started to attend her high school she met Karol Sikorski – the man who has successfully guided her for the past 11 years of her career.
A former biathlete, Sikorski learned the javelin from scratch and has over time earned a reputation for developing a raft of top regional javelin throwers.
Andrejczyk quickly established a rapport with Sikorski and the partnership has thrived in good times and bad.
“He always listens to my thoughts and feelings, we have a great communication and that is why the cooperation works well,” she adds.
2015 European U20 title
Andrejczyk made her international debut at the 2013 World U18 Championships in Donetsk, finishing 26th overall with a best of 45.14m.
Motivated by the experience and determined to reach the final of the 2014 World U20 Championships, she was good to her word, finishing fifth in the final in Eugene with a best of 53.66m after having led the qualifiers with a 56.23m effort.
In 2015 she secured the European U20 title in Sweden and set a Polish U23 and U20 record of 62.11m. But a little overwhelmed by her first senior World Championships appearance in Beijing, she struggled to reproduce her best, finishing down in 28th.
After graduating from high school, she took a gap year to focus on the Rio Olympics. Training free from distractions, she started her 2016 campaign in great form, setting a national record of 64.08m in Warsaw.
However, she suffered a blip in her preparations for Rio, placing 13th – one place shy of a spot in the final – at the European Championships in Amsterdam with a best of 57.93m.
“I could normally throw 60 metres in my sleep and I don’t know what went wrong, but my coach told me not to worry, that Amsterdam was not the priority and the most important goal was Rio,” she explains.
“The disappointment also motivated me. There was no way I was going to fly thousands of kilometres across the Atlantic Ocean for just three qualification throws.”
67.11m national record in Olympic qualifying
Fuelled by a huge determination to deliver on her vow, she launched a mighty national record effort of 67.11m – a PB by more than three metres – to head the qualifiers.
“It was a big surprise, and even today I love to watch the throw,” she says of the huge PB. “I was really happy but I knew it was not the final and I had to deliver again.”
As a relatively inexperienced 20-year-old athlete at the time, she perhaps understandably found it hard to maintain her composure in the final.
“I was so hyped up, I was almost out of control,” she says. “I wanted to conquer the world but my emotions probably killed me.”
Andrejczyk briefly climbed into bronze with her fifth-round effort of 64.78m – a mark which still remains the second longest of her career – only for world record-holder Barbora Spotokova to quickly slam the door shut on her medal hopes with a 64.80m hurl.
“Even though I did not throw with a cool head, I still think I did a good job,” she admits. “It just wasn’t my time. I did not have as much experience as Barbora.”
Post-Rio injuries sends her to the sidelines
Yet if the Olympics had raised the Pole’s profile to a new level, her world was to quickly come crashing down after the very next day she awoke with shoulder pain.
She initially dismissed the problem as a minor muscle injury, but it was later discovered she had sustained damage and so she underwent surgery in December 2016.
The injury was serious and she acknowledged she faced a long road to recovery. Complications during rehab further lengthened the process. She was forced to sit out the entire 2017 season but returned to the competitive arena 2018 – albeit still struggling with the injury.
“The 2018 season was really difficult for me,” she says. “I still had a lot of pain in the shoulder but mentally I felt I needed to compete. I competed at a very low level and maybe it wasn’t wise but I found it gave me motivation, especially when I was up against the girls who were throwing over 60 metres."
In eight competitions that year, Andrejczyk registered a modest best of 54.24m and was clearly way short of her best.
Besides the shoulder issues, she was suffering from persistent headaches and nasal issues which made sleep difficult. In October of that year a sinus X-ray discovered she has an osteosarcoma – a form of bone cancer.
It was a shock to the Olympic fourth-place finisher, but she adopted a positive attitude from the outset.
“It was not something very dangerous and I knew I could make a quick recovery,” she insists. “It was a soft cancer and I didn’t have to go through chemotherapy.”
Andrejczyk underwent surgery and was back in training just three weeks later. No longer suffering headaches and sinus issues, she could focus more attention on the shoulder injury and through a combination of research and her own astute improvisations she put together a programme of exercises to strengthen and improve flexibility in the troublesome shoulder.
Over time the plan worked and by April 2019 she was throwing pain-free once again.
“I carried out the exercises twice a day,” she says. “That consistency was really important. I am proud to have worked hard to make my shoulder feel better.”
Last year the 24-year-old could finally start to show the form which had taken her within two centimetres of the Olympic podium.
She hurled a season’s best of 63.39m to place second at the European Team Championships in Bydgoszcz, but a nagging elbow injury made it difficult to perform to her best at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, where she finished 22nd with a modest best of 57.68m.
Hit by another injury, Tokyo postponement a delight
Based out of her home village, Andrejczyk currently trains at her local gymnasium and helps build speed and shoulder strength by using an axe to strike logs of wood in repeated reps.
Unfortunately for Andrejczyk, her injury curse struck once again in January as she picked up a nagging achilles tendon injury. So when the decision was taken to postpone the Olympics until 2021, Andrejczyk was given a reprieve.
“When the information came that the Olympics was postponed, I was delighted,” she says with a smile.
A graduate in both English and Russian Philology, Andrejczyk’s achilles issues have cleared during lockdown in Poland – where she was forced to carry out some throwing session in her 50-metre long front garden.
Returning to training as part of her group – which includes younger brother, Adam, a 50-metre javelin thrower – she is determined to put the difficult past three years or so behind her.
However, given her varied health issues of the past, her immediate goal is clear.
“I just want to be healthy first,” she says. “If I stay healthy I can then show what I’m capable of.
“I still love that feeling of improving through training. Javelin has made me a better person. It brings me joy.”
Steve Landells for World Athletics