It’s no secret that the heptathlon is challenging.
Negotiating the physical, mental and logistical demands of training for seven events simultaneously will always bring a level of difficulty that only the strongest minds would consider tackling. But for Nafissatou Thiam, there were added obstacles to overcome on the path to success.
The Belgian athlete made a decision when she was 14 years old to train away from her home town of Namur in Belgium, commuting to Liege on a daily basis so she could work with combined events coach Roger Lespagnard, a three-time Olympian in the decathlon between 1968 and 1976.
It was a decision which significantly altered her teenage years, but this period of sacrifice came to fruition on Saturday night at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games as the 21-year-old claimed the heptathlon title, setting a Belgian record of 6810 in the process.
Having set four PBs in the first six events, including a world heptathlon best of 1.98m in the high jump, Thiam held a 142-point lead over defending champion Jessica Ennis-Hill of Great Britain going into the final event, the 800m. The Belgian needed to finish at least nine seconds ahead of the Brit to hold on to her overall lead.
It proved to be a tense finale, with Thiam’s 2:16.54, another PB, proving good enough to hang on by a slender 35 points.
“I knew I had to stay within nine or 10 seconds of Jessica,” she said. “I just tried to do my best so that I wouldn’t have any regrets and I would leave the track knowing I did all I can. I’m really happy I managed to do that.”
Training trips come to fruition
Thiam grew up in Namur, a small city in the centre of the country. Having discovered a passion for combined events, she decided that if she wanted to succeed in this discipline, she would have to train with Lespagnard, who was based in Liege, more than 60 kilometres away. Daily round trips on the train after school were the price to be paid in exchange for his specific combined events expertise.
“I started to train with Roger when I was 14, when I was still at school,” she explained. “After I left school each day I would take the train to Liege. I would train there and then afterwards take the train home. I would do my homework for school on the train, and would get home around 10pm. All my family would already be gone to sleep by the time I would get back. I did that every day, but it worked, and I don’t have any regrets for doing that.”
Combined events run in Thiam’s family.
Her mother, Danielle Denisty, is an accomplished heptathlete and competes internationally in the event at masters level. She has claimed European titles both indoors and outdoors in her age group, and has set multiple Belgian records.
Her daughter’s maturity in making such a life-altering choice in her youth is a trait Denisty believes that separated her from other aspiring athletes during her teenage years.
“From a very young age she was very serious about the sport and was convinced that she wanted to be good,” said Denisty. “She didn’t want to just play around. She was focused. She didn’t just want to be with her friends all the time. She was really dedicated from a very young age, especially when she realised that she had the talent to be great.”
Thiam’s dedication to the sport during her teens has not wavered as she progressed to senior level. Thiam’s manager for the past few years, Kim Vanderlinden, echoed Denisty’s sentiments regarding her dedication to athletics.
“She’s super down to earth and is very focused," said Vanderlinden. "People may think she’s very quiet, but she’s a hard worker. She will not scream from the top of the mountain about what her ambitions are and what she wants to achieve, but you could tell that she always wants to give her best. As a teenager she made a very mature decision.”
The long daily journeys to the track continued for more than four years. After finishing school, Thiam opted to go to university in Liege and rent a studio apartment nearby so she could be closer to her coach. She is currently studying geography, and believes this gives her life an important level of balance, preventing her from becoming overly consumed in athletics all the time.
“Getting my diploma at university is really important for me,” she said. “It is important that I have something else to focus on besides athletics, so I don’t always have it on my mind.”
Late injury scare
There have been more recent challenges for the 21-year-old.
Six weeks ago she incurred an elbow injury while throwing the javelin at her national championships, and it was doubtful that she would be able to recover in time to compete in Rio.
“At first the doctor was not very optimistic about it,” she explained. “I was told that it would be better to focus on the high jump for the Olympics. But I did a lot of work with the physio and had to go through a lot of pain in the process, but thankfully it worked out okay in the end.”
Having achieved the pinnacle of the sport at her debut Olympic Games, Thiam is adamant that her triumph will not go to her head and that her drive to succeed will not be affected over the coming years.
“Winning the Olympics is an absolute dream and it has happened really soon in my career," she said. "But I still want to improve and stay focused on myself in future years.”
Judging by what those closest to her have to say, that should not be a problem at all.
James Sullivan for the IAAF