A silver medallist at the Moscow World Indoor Championships, Irving Saladino went on to experience the best outdoor season of his career with a share of the lesser Golden League Jackpot, a World leading jump and a new Area record to his credit.
By Javier Clavelo Robinson
When Irving Saladino went through the mixed zone of the Helsinki Olympic Stadium in 2005, the slender Panamanian jumper assured he would be the next World Long Jump champion in 2007.
A World title maybe a very high goal, but no-one can doubt Saladino’s abilities to deliver after the Panamanian became the third Latin American athlete to earn a share of the IAAF Golden League Jackpot.
The 23-year-old native of Colon has placed Panama back on the athletics map and with an impeccable campaign, has risen to the top of the men’s Long Jump, an event traditionally considered a US property.
“Excellent, fabulous,” that’s how he described his road to the top, winning 15 of the 16 finals he entered in 2006, including five of the six Golden League meetings, and eight legal jumps over 8.40m, including a World leading performance and Area record of 8.56m.
He ended the year on a high note, winning the IAAF World Athletics Final and the IAAF World Cup. “It is a dream come true. I am very proud to represent Panama and Latin America.”
“I am surprised by my results this year. I have been training hard. I wanted to be the no.1 in the world and I have made it. I have to keep up the good work to stay where I am now.”
A good start is usually a positive sign for a happy end. After making his season debut with a 8.29m (equalled national record) in São Paulo on 18 February, he set his first Area standard with a 8.29m silver medal leap at the World Indoor Championships in Moscow, just 1 centimetre behind Ghana’s Ignisious Gaisah. It was Panama’s first ever medal at an IAAF World Athletic Series event.
Two months later, he improved his South American record to 8.56m in Rio de Janeiro, a performance which would remain the best in the world, in the first of three IAAF World Athletic Tour wins in Brazil.
Saladino continued on a high note as he claimed the gold and broke the event record (8.42m) at the Iberoamerican Championships in Ponce, Puerto Rico, before starting his Golden League campaign.
Showing his early season form was not a fluke, Saladino beat World and Olympic champion Dwight Phillips at the Golden League opening meeting in Oslo with an 8.53m effort.
He backed it up with his longest leap ever, a windy 8.65m at the Athens Super Grand Prix, but fell ill and lost to Gaisah (8.31-8.29) in the Paris leg of the Golden League. The Ghanaian would remain the only man to beat him in 2006.
That loss left the Panamanian with no other choice, but winning the remaining four legs of the Golden League to aim for a share of the Jackpot. The third stop, Rome, was probably the toughest challenge as he prevailed over Gaisah by just two centimetres (8.45 to 8.43), with Italy’s 2006 World Indoor bronze medallist Andrew Howe a close third with 8.41m.
Saladino returned to the Americas to take part in the 20th Central American and Caribbean Games in Cartagena, Colombia, where he clinched his country’s first CAC athletic gold since 1959.
It was the first time that Saladino was competing against his idol and multiple World and Olympic champion Ivan Pedroso since the qualifying group of the Helsinki World Championships. Saladino was a clear winner with a 8.29m leap, but fell short of Pedroso’s CAC Games record of 8.45m.
“There is a special person in my career: Ivan Pedroso. I admire him a lot. I saw him jump on TV once and I took up the Long Jump thanks to him. I saw how easily he jumped and I told myself I wanted to be like him. I hope to improve his marks,” the 23-year-old stated.
Commenting on his Panamanian successor, Pedroso said: “Saladino is in great form and needs to be consistent around 8.40m in order to be among the world’s greatest jumpers. We are both happy to have competed together. It was the same feeling when I beat Mike Powell at the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg.”
Back to Europe, Saladino added another Golden League win in Zürich (8.36m), followed by 8.43-metre win in Linz. He was dominant again in Brussels (8.31m) and sealed a share of the Golden League Jackpot with another victory in Berlin (8.35m).
“I was sick in Paris, but was able to win the remaining four meetings with such strong fields,” he said.
Saladino joined Mexico’s Ana Guevara and Dominican Republic’s Felix Sanchez - the previous GL winners from Latin America in 2002.
“I made history. I joined legends like Guevara and Félix Sánchez. It took a great effort and it now tastes good,” he added.
Already feeling the demands of a long and intense year, Saladino had two more goals to attain. In Stuttgart, he became the first athlete from the South American Confederation to win at the World Athletics Final. It was a special gift for his parents David and Cristina.
“They came to Stuttgart to see me compete. I gave them a good surprise. It is the first time they see me jumping live, not on TV.”
A week later, he ended his season giving Panama its first win at the IAAF World Cup. “I was happy to end the year the way I started it and also to contribute to the Americas team result. It is a great feeling to team up with athletes and friends from other neighbouring countries,” he commented.
Saladino spent a few weeks in Brazil before arriving home on 29 September. He was welcomed like a national hero and Panamanian Sports Minister Ramón Cardoze presented him with the Manuel Roy trophy, the highest award given by the Panamanian government to a sportsperson.
“I am motivated to give joy to my people. It was a wonderful year. I never thought of going that far in the sport. I don’t even believe what I have achieved,” said a humble Saladino.
The Panamanian star waved to enthusiast people as he was driven around the main streets of Panama City and then taken to his hometown of Colón, 80km northeast of the Panamanian capital.
“The Panamanian people have reacted positively. I am the country’s hope for an Olympic gold medal. I don’t see it difficult. I devote myself to what I do. I will continue to be the same and I want to reach the Olympic gold as planned.”
Saladino took a break in his studies to focus on athletics. “I will resume my studies, I want to have a degree in electrical engineering.”
Off the track, “I am a quiet person. I don’t go out often. I lead a peaceful life as my girlfriend wants, at home. I want to focus on the future.”
Brazil’s 2002 World Junior Championships Triple Jump bronze medallist Keila Costa, his girlfriend, declared: “He has made great progress in just two seasons. I have learned a lot from him. We have been together 10 months. I hope to jump as well as he does!”
Saladino is also very close to his father, David, an electrical engineer and his mother Cristina a housewife. His eldest brother David is the one who introduced him to athletics when Irving was a teenager while his younger brother, Abdul, also practised some sprint and hurdles.
“I was once very close to becoming a baseball player. I was spotted by some scouts of US major league teams. I was a good centerfielder, with great speed. Not such a great hitter. But track was already in my heart and I decided to stick to it,” recalls Saladino.
Saladino’s first coach was former Panamanian sprinter Florencio Aguilar. The young athlete excelled in sprint, but Aguilar converted him into a long jumper. He made his international debut in 2002, when he claimed the Long Jump title at the Central American Junior Champs in Guatemala City breaking the national senior record with an altitude-aided 7.51m.
He then won the bronze medal at the CAC Juniors in Bridgetown, Barbados, but he could only manage 7.30m and failed to qualify for the 2002 World Junior Championships in Kingston.
In 2003, he achieved 7.46m, well enough for bronze at the South American Senior Championships in Barquisimeto, Venezuela.
In 2004, he finally reached the 8-metre mark with a 8.12m leap in Bogotá (2600m above sea level). That mark qualified him for the Athens Olympics, but the youngster could only jump a modest 7.42m in the qualifying round. He had also claimed the South American Under-23 crown in Barquisimeto.
After the Olympics, he moved to Brazil to train at the IAAF São Paulo Regional Training Centre, thanks to an Olympic Solidarity scholarship. He started to train under the guidance of Nélio Moura, who had coached great jumpers such as Jadel Gregório.
“Nélio Moura is like a third father to me. My Panamanian coach, Florencio Aguilar, is like my second father. I am part of their family.”
The results showed early in 2005, when he jumped over eight metres in eight of the twelve competitions he entered, including his personal best of 8.29m at the IAAF Grand Prix in Seville, a wind-aided 8.51m leap and a 8.20w for sixth at the IAAF World Championships. Saladino and Bayano Kamani (400m Hurdles) became the first Panamanians to reach a World Senior Championships final.
After a well-deserved holiday, Saladino will resume training with two main goals for 2007: the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in July, and the World Championships in Osaka, Japan.
“It has been a long season so I need a rest. I will prepare for the Pan American Games in Brazil, which I consider my second home. I find a familiar atmosphere, I know the country and I hope to give the gold to Panama, as well as at the World Champs in Osaka.”
“It is a big challenge to stay on top. We have fine jumpers in the circuit like Howe, Gaisah, who are improving and I am sure Dwight Phillips wants to regain the no.1 spot. Competition is very close. If you make a slight mistake, you lose. I am ready to take on the challenge and I will focus on setting up the basis for 2008 with the Olympic gold obviously on my mind.”
Published in 2006 Yearbook