This year has been dubbed by many as the ‘Year of the High Jumper’ and though much of the attention has been focused on Mutaz Barshim and Bohdan Bondarenko, lurking in the background during 2014 has been Zhang Guowei.
Although ranked equal eighth this year’s world list after his personal best of 2.34m this summer, it’s worth noting that no one younger than Zhang – other than Barshim who is just 20 days Zhang’s junior – jumped higher than the emerging Chinese talent in 2014.
Not surprisingly, many see Zhang as an outside contender for a place on the podium on home soil next summer in Beijing, perhaps ending a Chinese medal draught in this event at the IAAF World Championships that stretches back to the inaugural edition in 1983, when Chinese high jump legend Zhu Jianhua took the bronze medal.
In fact, Zhu is the only male high jumper from China ever to place in the top eight at the World Championships.
Since starting to train in high jump at the age of the 15, Zhang has seen Zhu as his idol.
In his mind, the best way to honour his role model is to break Zhu’s long-standing national record, and former world record, of 2.39m which has stood since 1984.
“When I started to train in high jump, my coach asked me, ‘Do you know who Zhu Jianhua is?’ And I said no. Then he told me about Zhu’s national record of 2.39m. I was like, ‘What?!’
“But since then I have known deep inside myself that I will follow the footstep of Zhu,” said the 23-year-old Zhang.
Born in China’s coastal city of Penglai, Zhang had a great interest in various sports from his early age and trained at football and table tennis before switching to athletics in 2003.
Accidents and atavism
However, his high jumping career started by accident.
“I am not very talented at football or table tennis so after I graduated from elementary school, I began to train in the long jump and triple jump,” explained Zhang.
“Two years later, I participated in a city sports meet. After I had competed in the long jump and triple jump events, my coach said, ‘Why don’t you give a try in high jump? Just for fun.’”
“I took his suggestion and it was the first high jump competition of my life. I cleared 1.70m and since then I have become a high jumper,” said the gangling 2.00m-tall jumper.
“I think I have actually got great genes. My parents are only of medium height, but my grandfather is 2.02m. My mother told me it is atavism!”
After only one year of systematic training, Zhang quickly improved his personal best to 2.00m but the ambitious young man was not satisfied with the speed of his progression.
He wanted to find a short cut to success.
“I know Zhu Jianhua was a great jumper, so I took it for granted that if I copied the way he jumped then I could jump as high as he did,” Zhang recalled.
“In 2009, I started to literally imitate Zhu. I imitated the way he approached, took off and crossed the bar.”
Short cut leads to dead end
In the end, the shortcut turned out to be a detour. “It took me almost two years to realize that imitating Zhu is a dead end!
“In those two years, my PB did not rise as fast as I expected. I could seldom jump over 2.20m. I start to understand that my own way is the best way for me.”
Once returning to the right path, the progress continued.
He improved his best to 2.28m at the national indoor championships in 2011 to claim his first senior title at a national level and went on to clear 2.31m in the qualifying round of 2011 IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, where he finished tenth in the final.
The following March, Zhang finished joint fourth on the 2012 IAAF World Indoor Championships, equalling the Chinese national indoor record of 2.31m set by Zhu Jianhua back in 1986.
In 2013, Zhang broke the record with a clearance of 2.32m at the national indoor championships before further improving it to 2.33m earlier this year.
“I think 2014 was a special year for me. After I cleared 2.33m in the indoor season, I also improved my outdoor PB to 2.34m in July and leaped 2.33m to win a silver medal at the Asian Games,” said Zhang.
“It seems I have overcome ‘a bottleneck period’, especially outdoors. Since my clearance of 2.31 at the 2011 Worlds, I didn’t improve my outdoor PB for almost three years.
“But I have found my rhythm this season. And I believe the momentum will continue next year.”
Zhang plans to continue with his record-breaking streak in 2015 and is aiming to clear 2.34m or 2.35m indoors, if not higher.
At the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing, he also has eyes on a podium finish.
“I know there are five jumpers who have cleared over 2.40m outdoors this year, and I know my best is only 2.34m, but I have nothing to lose,” said Zhang.
“I have competed with all of them. It is impossible for them to jump over 2.40m in every competition. If I can clear 2.35 or 2.36m with my first attempt, I think I will have a good chance to fight for a medal.”
Even if he failed to make it, Zhang said he would not be too disappointed because his ultimate goal is to break the 2.39m national record.
“Centimetre by centimetre, I am marching on towards the 2.40m barrier.
I am still pasting the poster of Zhu Jianhua in my dorm and I am still following in his footsteps. Most important of all, I am still young,” added a determined Zhang, who leaves for an extended training stint in the USA later this week.
Vincent Wu for the IAAF