On the first day of the athletics programme at the 2016 Olympic Games, the first event was the heptathlon. The first discipline was, of course, the 100m hurdles. And the first lane on the track in the Estádio Olimpico in Rio de Janeiro was occupied by a Brazilian.
As the starter sought to quiet the excited spectators, the crowd chanted “Va-ne-ssa! Va-ne-ssa!”
That “Va-ne-ssa!” was Vanessa Chefer, home favourite and the Brazilian heptathlon record holder. The first girl, in the first lane, in the first event, on the first day of her first Olympics. Four years later, and 25 years after she first told her mother that she wanted to run, Vanessa is preparing for her finale. A final heptathlon, in a final season, at a final Olympics.
Two lives on two continents
Chefer’s preparations for the 2020 season entailed training both in Brazil, where her coach and much of her family lives, and in Europe where she is now based. But it’s not always easy living two lives across two continents. The pros include proximity to high quality competition in Europe, including those in the World Athletics Combined Events Challenge. Chefer won the Arona Meeting in 2015 and Multistars in Florence in 2016, and has also competed twice in Götzis.
As the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold, the cons came into focus. Chefer was in Brazil, seeking to secure an Olympic qualifying score.
“I was planning to be in Brazil for 3 to 4 months,” she explains, “to try to get a good result. My plan was then to compete in Lana (Multistars) then the Brazilian championships in May, and then stay in Brazil until the last day of qualification for the Olympics.”
As travel restrictions closed in she hurriedly booked a plane ticket to get home to her wife Gabriela in London, but was unable to say goodbye in person to her grandmother. “I’m such a family girl, and it was so hard” she recalls. “I called my grandmother to say, ‘I can’t come to see you, but I will be back.’”
Life continues, even with a false start
Straddling athletics seasons in two hemispheres has long been a key element of Chefer’s approach, and she has an impressive suite of championship performances to her name. She has been South American heptathlon champion twice (2009 and 2011) with bronze in 2019, and she won bronze at the Pan-American Games in 2015 and finished fifth in 2019. She competed at the World Championships in Beijing (2015) and London (2017), and of course at the Olympics in 2016, just 6 weeks after winning the Brazilian championships with a national record of 6188 points.
“I really like the big competitions,” she says. “For shot putters and sprinters, it goes so fast that they can’t enjoy the stadium. The heptathlon is two days on a huge track with lovely people cheering you on, so it’s really nice. This is the life!”
A decade of championship experience has helped Chefer develop a cool head to complement her insatiable energy. Managing emotions and focusing on the next step, rather than the “what ifs” of events yet to come.
“Heptathlon can be a rollercoaster, up and down. When I was 20, if I ran a good hurdles I would pressurise myself: I ‘need’ to jump higher or ‘if’ I jump this. If, if, if! I don’t do that anymore. A good hurdles? Just keep going, one step at a time, and keep focused, because every heptathlon is different.”
Competing to inspire
Chefer’s most recent competition at the Brazilian championships in August 2019 was very different. This time, she false-started in the hurdles.
“I thought…man, I’m really experienced, and I false-started! To keep going was really tough. But I’m the Brazilian record-holder, and there were girls there hoping to compete with me. I couldn’t disappoint them. Because life continues, even when you false start.”
While Chefer provides leadership to Brazil’s future combined eventers, her own early inspiration came from the 2004 Olympic champion, Sweden’s Carolina Klüft. “She was super competitive, but she was always smiling and happy to be on the track. She was the one.”
Chefer describes herself as an energetic child, begging her mother to let her do athletics. “I was five when I remember saying to my mum, ‘I want to run a marathon!’ When I was nine, it was ‘Mum, I want to compete! Please, please, please!’”
Her mother Selma is a police officer, and Chefer studied at the military school where she worked. The school had a track. After lessons she ran with the police officers, until she decided that she needed competition her own age.
“My first competition was when I was nine,” she recalls. “I ran 400 metres. Then I did sprints, then long jump. I saw guys throwing the shot and I wanted to throw. I was so competitive, and I started doing everything. My coach said to me, ‘Vanessa, maybe you can do the pentathlon’. I did my first heptathlon when I was 14 or 15 and then I never stopped."
“To be honest, I think that if there was a decathlon, I would be better at that than heptathlon. I like to do everything. I mean, the pole vault would be very scary but that’s the game!”
View this post on Instagram
5th lugar nos Jogos Pan Americanos. A medalha ficou por pouco mas batalhei até o final e to com sensação de dever cumprido! Feliz demais , obrigada a todos pela mensagem de carinho e suporte. Obrigada meu clube @ecpinheiros por manter esse sonho comigo e a @gabimmatos por ser minha base ❤️.
“Sometimes girls come up to me and say, ‘Oh, it’s been my dream to compete with you’. But,” she says, pausing, “it’s just me. I’m just a girl who loves being on the track. And they think – I can be like Vanessa. She’s just a hardworking girl, so everyone can do it.’ And if I can inspire girls to improve, we get a higher standard of combined events in Brazil.”
One final year
After celebrating her 30th birthday in March, Chefer is turning her mind to life after athletics - life that doesn’t involve training on Christmas Day and constant attention to diet and recovery. Whether that life is on the cold damp streets of London, or in the warm sunshine of Brazil, it will involve basking in the memories of that Olympics in Rio.
“I finished the heptathlon, and I was on my vacation, drinking my beer and I was so happy. I watched Thiago Braz win the gold medal (in the pole vault) and I was so overwhelmed.”
The passion of the football-mad home crowd was evident in Braz’s pole vault competition, and in the heptathlon where the chants of “Va-ne-ssa!” followed Chefer’s every move.
“I was the first girl, in the first heat, in the first day of competition, in the first lane. And they wouldn’t stop calling my name!” she laughs. “It was super special for me, a dream come true, in my own country. But I have two lives, in Brazil and here in London. In the future, I need to choose one because I can’t live like this forever. I wish!”
“If I get to the Olympics, I would be very happy. I want to finish my career at the most important competition, or retire trying my best to qualify. I don’t want to finish my career not doing heptathlon,” she says, referring to the truncated 2020 season. “So I said to myself, ‘Vanessa, just one more year. Just one more.’”
One more year, one more season, and with just a little more of the energy and hard work that embodies the Brazilian record holder, one more Olympic Games.
Gabriella Pieraccini for World Athletics