Spikes27 Aug 2019

High Hopes


Mathew Sawe competes at the Paris Diamond League (© Matthew Quine)

by Mathew Sawe

In Kenya, like anywhere, most people follow the same path as those who went before.

If you see your father eat ugali, then you eat ugali, too. We are a nation of runners, so when children first get involved in athletics it’s only natural that we all believe we have to run.

But these days, that’s slowly changing. Because of Julius Yego the general sports fans now know the javelin and, slowly but surely, they’re also paying attention to the high jump.

When I jump around the world in Birmingham, London or Rabat, I go on my phone after the competition and see so many messages. They know my name, but many still don’t know me as a person.

It can cause some funny situations. I’ll meet athletics fans and tell them I’m a jumper so they ask where Sawe is jumping next. I just keep quiet and say, “I don’t know. I don’t know who Sawe is.”

But they’re beginning to understand that high jump can take you very far in life – just like running – so long as you have discipline.

It’s already taken me very far.

I grew up in a small village near Mosoriot, just south of Eldoret – the home to so many great distance runners. One of my good friends in the sport, Conseslus Kipruto, is from the same area so we always hang out when we’re travelling.

But unlike him, I was never going to be a champion distance runner.

Mathew Sawe competes at the Paris Diamond League

I first tried the high jump in 2009 when I was 21. At the time I was still running 800m and later I went to the All African Games in both events. I didn't make the final in the 800m, but won a bronze medal in the high jump. After that, my federation gave me a scholarship to become a high jumper.

A few years later, I got a different scholarship from the IAAF to travel to Senegal for a training camp and in 2013 I was there for eight months. But things didn’t go well: I trained too hard, pushing my body to its limit to try and get stronger and in the end I just got injured.

For the next few years I couldn’t get rid of the pain in my ankle, but I finally got healthy in 2015. The result was a national record of 2.25m. Maybe Kenya could produce high jumpers after all?

But if we do so, it’s still against the odds. The reality is there are no proper facilities for high jumping and even if you have them, it’s very hard to find the proper coaching in such a technical event.

A lot of the time, competitions are held without an appropriate landing mat – it might be a mattress, sawdust or sand that you’re falling on. Because of that, lots of young jumpers are afraid to use the Fosbury Flop technique and they jump with the old straddle technique. Most athletes who try the high jump will only try the flop when they’re 20 or older, and by then it’s very hard to master it.

I was afraid when I started, so I only used to jump over a small bar. But when I realised this cannot break my body, I started going higher.

I’ve been with my coach, Moussa Fall, since 2012 and I train in Montreuil, a suburb of Paris. There, it’s easy to see the difference facilities make: the French kids get drilled in the best methods from an early age, which leaves our jumpers in Kenya playing catch-up as seniors.

But despite that, the high jump is one of the most global events in athletics. My great wish is to see it expand further – that we can get proper facilities and coaches in all countries to attract more talent to our sport.

Mathew Sawe competes at the Paris Diamond League

It’s a great event – one that teaches you the value of discipline. The hardest part is keeping total concentration. You need stamina, as strange as that sounds. With running you can go out and switch off your mind and pass an hour and come home feeling refreshed, but when you go training for the high jump – and even more so in competition – everything needs to be switched on at all times. Total focus.

Getting it right is all about the last three steps. The rest is important, but if you get those three steps right the jump will usually follow. You have to feel free – to go up to that bar without any stress.

It’s why we don’t tend to talk to each other much as we wait around to jump. Away from the track we might be friends, but in competition if you talk to someone it might destroy their focus.

The older I get, the better I’ve got at controlling my thoughts. Last year that helped me clear 2.30m for the first time in my career, which put me into new territory. Now my role model, Mutaz Essa Barshim, is actually one of my rivals.

It’s hard to get my head around that, but it’s also exciting to think about. These days our event is wide open, and no one really knows who will win the medals in Doha – or next year in Tokyo.

I’ll give it my maximum to hopefully have a chance.  

Photography: Matthew Quine

Pages related to this article