María Vicente loves athletics so much that even the combined events isn’t enough for her.
Along with her three major age-group titles in the heptathlon, including the 2017 world U18 gold, she has also won international medals in the triple jump – a discipline not included in the combined events.
But it wasn’t love at first sight. There was a time when Vicente had no interest in athletics and it was only when, at the age of 11, she was tricked into trying it by her mother that her eyes were opened to the full range of disciplines.
“I’ve always practiced sports,” recalls the 19-year-old Spaniard. “My mum, who is an athletics official, always thought athletics would be a good sport for me, but I thought it was boring and tiring because I believed it was just a matter of running.
“One day my mum and aunt told me they were going to take me to the cinema and I was delighted with the plan, but instead they took me to an athletics track to my surprise. Everything changed that day; I realised there was a great variety of disciplines, such as hurdles and jumps.”
When her training mates began to specialise in specific events at the age of 15 or 16, Vicente decided not to follow suit. “I just wanted to keep on doing everything,” she says with a laugh. It marked the beginning of a successful career, with the first chapter coming at the World U18 Championships Nairobi 2017.
“That was an unforgettable experience,” she says. “Firstly because of the venue itself; it was my first trip outside Europe. And competing for two days in front of a capacity crowd stadium was really exciting.”
Vicente wasn’t expected to win as she trailed the leading entrant by 234 points going into the competition, but her competitiveness is one of her biggest strengths. After massive career bests in the high jump (1.73m) and the 200m (24.00), she became a clear overnight leader with an impressive 186-point advantage.
“I remember the local fans cheered me on and that encouraged me a lot. My confidence grew and I went out wanting to run the 200m as fast as I could. Of course, I kicked off the second day fully aware I had a great chance to make the podium and hopefully win the gold medal.”
Another PB in the long jump (6.05m) extended her lead to 270 points over her closest pursuer, Germany’s Johanna Siebler. But Vicente’s weakest event, the javelin, was up next and her best throw ended up being five metres shy of her PB.
It meant Vicente’s lead over her German rival was reduced to just 10 points going into the final discipline, the 800m. Siebler’s PB in that event was five seconds quicker than Vicente’s, which translates to more than 60 points in heptathlon terms.
“Those six hours between the javelin and the 800m were never ending and really tough for me,” she remembers. “I felt a lot of pressure and I knew my lead – and even my place on the podium – was in jeopardy as the 800m was not one of my strongest events.
“I ran right behind the German from the gun to the line and managed to hold on to the gold medal by 10 points.”
Vicente ended the competition with a winning PB of 5612, becoming the first Spanish athlete to win a global combined events title.
Unprecedented double in Gyor
Her 2018 campaign was even more successful.
Following a 4371 indoor pentathlon PB – the best ever score by an U18 athlete – Vicente set a world U18 best of 6221 to win the European U18 title in Gyor, Hungary, winning by 600 points. One day later, she lined up for the triple jump qualifying round and eased her way into the final with just one jump.
In the final the next day, Vicente led for most of the way but was overtaken in the final round by pre-event favourite Aleksandra Nacheva, who jumped 13.88m. “I realised she had passed me,” says Vicente, “but I preferred not to know her performance so that I could focus on my closing effort.”
With her final attempt of the competition, Vicente bounded out to a lifetime best of 13.95m to take her second gold medal of the championships.
Her latest international success came at the European U20 Championships last year in Boras. In a high-quality and competitive contest, just 15 points separated Vicente, Ireland’s Kate O’Connor and Switzerland’s Annik Kalin going into the final event with the Spaniard sandwiched between her two main opponents. In the pouring rain, Vicente produced a huge 800m PB of 2:16.29 to take the gold medal with 6115, a senior Spanish record.
Across the age groups, Vicente has now set 51 national records across a range of events, including the hurdles, long jump, triple jump, high jump, 150m, 200m and even the 4x100m. Combined events aside, though, the triple jump remains her second love.
“I love that event and enjoy a lot whenever I compete,” says Vicente, who in March moved to San Sebastian to begin training under the guidance of former national triple jump record-holder Ramón Cid, having been coached successively by Pere Suñé, Álvaro Javier Fernández and Fernando Martínez.
“I’ll continue to focus on the combined events, but I’ll also train for the triple jump because that makes me happy.”
Medal collection on hold
Vicente had been set on returning to Nairobi this year for the World U20 Championships, but now the event – like many international athletics competitions – has been put on hold due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, Vicente is reassessing her short-term targets.
“I would have liked to go back to Nairobi, but I perfectly understand the situation and the decision is the right one,” she says. “I’m taking the lockdown well, better than I expected. Of course some days are tougher than others, but I’m busy enough doing my daily training, studying my degree in marketing and digital communication and spending a lot of time with my mother and my sister so the day-by-day routine is enjoyable.
“I’m trying to stay in good shape so that when the lockdown is over I don’t have to waste a lot of sessions to recover my physical condition, but I can work on technique aspects as soon as possible.”
Inspired by the greats
Vicente has just as many role models in the decathlon as she does in the heptathlon.
Nafissatou Thiam and Jessica Ennis-Hill, the 2016 and 2012 Olympic champions respectively, are her favourite heptathletes, while she also admires USA’s two-time Olympic decathlon champion Ashton Eaton and Spain’s European indoor champion Jorge Urena. Beyond the combined events, she also idolises Jamaican sprint legend Usain Bolt, Qatar’s world high jump champion Mutaz Essa Barshim and Spain’s Olympic 110m hurdles silver medallist Orlando Ortega.
And because the seven-discipline heptathlon and the triple jump aren’t quite enough for Vicente, she says she’d be happy to take on even more and try a decathlon one day – albeit a modified one.
“I wouldn’t mind trying the 100m, pole vault and discus, but I’d only try a decathlon if I could keep on running 200m and 800m, and not 400m and 1500m!” she says. “I’m aware, though, that if the women’s decathlon becomes a regular event, the 10 disciplines would be exactly the same as the men’s.”
Unsurprisingly for someone who is willing to take on additional challenges, Vicente likes to dream big.
“I would like to get the triple-crown and become Olympic, world and European champion,” she says. “Of course, for now I have other short-term goals, but that’s my dream in athletics.”
Emeterio Valiente for World Athletics