The sport of athletics rarely stands still and this is no more evident than when we scrutinise the journey undertaken by Olympic javelin throw hampion Sara Kolak.
Since the powerful Croatian caused a major surprise to snag gold in Rio, courtesy of a national record 66.18m, the 25-year-old has undergone many changes and experiences.
Now living in a different country with a different coach and having undergone elbow surgery in the intervening period, her success inside the Estadio Olimpico seems like a lifetime ago.
Yet the quest for self-improvement never stops and in August last year Kolak relocated from Slovenia and moved to Oslo to be coached by Norway’s two-time Olympic champion Andreas Thorkildsen.
The switch demanded resourcefulness and enterprise but it was one made with the confidence it will enable her to improve and perform more consistently at the top level.
Yet to fully understand the journey the woman, who originally hails from the small Croatian town of Ludbreg, has undertaken over the past four years we need to rewind back to 2016.
Back then in the hazy glow of her Rio success she admits winning Olympic gold ‘changed everything’. Overnight she became a celebrity name in her homeland and it took time to adapt to her changing profile.
“The way people now looked at me and having also to deal with the extra attention from media and sponsors was a big shock,” admits Kolak. “I had to quickly come to terms with the fact this was part of the job but also to understand that sometimes when this became too much, it made me tired. Throughout I always had to remember to remain the same person I always was.”
Coached at that time by the Slovenia-based Andrej Hajnsek, she went on to enjoy some memorable moments in 2017.
At the Lausanne Diamond League meeting she claimed top spot with an impressive national record mark of 68.43m and also struck gold at the European Under-23 Championships in Bydgoszcz.
“Lausanne is one of my favourite meets along with Zurich because of the atmosphere,” she explains. “The 68-metre throw felt good, it is hard to find the perfect sentence to describe it, although I know I made a little bit of a mistake because I lost the tip of the javelin.”
Yet at the World Athletics Championships in London she had what she describes “as a bad day at the office”, finishing fourth with a best effort of 64.95m, 31cm shy of the bronze medallist.
Nagging injuries appear
It was also in London when issues with her right elbow surfaced for the first time. Kolak climaxed her season with a third place finish in the Diamond League final in Zurich and second spot in front of adoring home fans in Zagreb but the elbow problem did not subside.
For three months or so her training was badly compromised and after some thought she took the decision in January 2018 to commit to reconstructive surgery on her medial collateral ligament.
Undergoing the specialist surgery in Minnesota, USA, Kolak knew from experiencing of shoulder surgery in 2014 she faced a long road ahead.
“In some ways the surgery is the easy part, the difficult part is the recovery,” she explains. “Post-surgery it is important to stay focused on the rehab, not push it too hard and stay patient. Although compared to the shoulder surgery, it was probably a little easier because after elbow surgery I did feel pain.”
Learning to be patient
Throughout 2018 the Croatian diligently employed a patient attitude. Determined not to rush the rehab process she first opted to throw with a tennis ball and then a lighter 400g javelin. She avoided the temptation of trying to squeeze in any late-season competitions and focused her efforts on being 100% ready for the 2019 campaign.
It was not a road without its bumps and she recalls the torment of watching the women’s javelin final at the 2018 European Championships in Berlin.
“Watching the competition was horrible,” she admits. “But then minutes after it finishes I cooled down and said to myself, ‘everything next year will be good’. One positive of 2018 is that it made me hungrier for success.”
In June 2019 she returned to the competitive javelin runway for the first time in 21 months, hurling the spear an impressive 64.45m to clinch victory in Ostrava.
Adjusting to a new coaching and training environment
Yet performing inconsistently last summer she made the courageous decision mid-season to leave Hajnsek to link up with Norwegian javelin great Thorkildsen.
Out of respect for her former coach, Kolak prefers not to go into details surrounding the reasoning behind the coaching switch.
However, she is delighted with the progress made under the influence of the 2009 world javelin champion.
“I’m really happy to have the chance to learn from the best and I’ve learned a lot over the past year,” she says. “I do a different type of training, but it is a good different.”
Moving to Oslo where Kolak shares a flat with Norwegian 63.28m international thrower Sigrid Borge, who is also coached by Thorkildsen, she says relocating has been a relatively straight forward process.
In fact, she has more sympathy with her coach and adds, “It was much harder on him than it was on me because he had to try to help me in the middle of the season.”
In their first competition together she fired the javelin out to a season’s best of 66.42m to win in Zagreb but the World Championships in Doha did not go according to the script.
Placing seventh with a best of 62.28m was not what she desired but despite not having “a good day” in Qatar, Kolak took the mature approach that it would take time to reap the benefits of the new regime.
“It didn’t bring me down, I was excited to learn more and become better and I needed time for my body to adapt to the new way of working,” she explains.
Hugely impressed with the training facilities on offer in Oslo – which includes in winter a large indoor throwing option – Kolak insists she has already made some big changes in her approach to training.
“I’ve learned the importance of quality over quantity,” she says. “Andreas understands javelin on a different level because of his success. He looks at javelin differently and I’m the result of what he’s taught me. When I throw the javelin it flies, I can feel it.
“I’m also improving in jumps, sprints and technique, but the technique is the most important part and that will be the main focus. We are a really good team together.”
The pandemic has created its inconveniences but Kolak believes being based in Norway has made the challenges easier to overcome. Drawing upon her rehab exercises learned during shoulder surgery to keep her body strong she adapted her training for a period by using a local park and her backyard to maintain fitness.
In late-June she returned to competition with a handy 62.42m in Oslo and is targeting the Zagreb meet alongside possible options in the Czech Republic in September.
However, for Kolak the longer term aim is the Tokyo Games next year and her pursuit of matching her coach as a back-to-back Olympic champion.
“At the time of the postponement of the Olympic it was a shock for everybody and we had to adapt as best we could,” says Kolak. “But the good thing is I can now take this time to improve and be the best I can by the time of the Olympics next year. One thing I can say for certain is, I will be ready.”
Steve Landells for World Athletics