As Blanka Vlašić limped around Estádio Olímpico Nilton Santos in Rio, there was a part of her that was elated to have come away with a medal.
After enduring unspeakable pain for nearly five years, and recovering from two surgeries, the fact that she was competing at all was nothing short of a miracle. To land on the podium was a blessing.
Yet the competitive side of her couldn’t help but formulate a mental checklist of all the things that might have instead gilded her bronze-medal celebration.
What if I had surgery sooner?
What if I had more time to recover?
What if the pain injection would have worked?
What if I squeezed just another 25 or 30 percent more out of my 33-year-old body?
What if I had listened to my body earlier in my career?
The cheering crowd did little to drown out the voices in her head. The Croatian flag draped around her shoulders could not shroud her disappointment.
“I was destroyed,” she said. “This was the easiest championships, an Olympic final, to win gold, in my career and I failed to do it.”
To hear Vlašić tell it, she was born with an unrepentant will to win, a motivation to succeed the source of which she cannot place.
She calls it, “her gift from God.”
And while her drive to achieve victory on the grandest levels of track and field may indeed be entwined in the fibers of her DNA, the same quality that molded her into one of the world’s generational high jump talents also contributed to her physical undoing.
Today, Vlašić finds herself motivated to give the Olympics one final go next summer, two decades after her debut, but uncertain whether her body will allow her to do so. Simultaneously, she wrestles with transitioning to the next phase of her life and distinguishing between what she does from who she is.
Not surprising, she has embraced that challenge like a champion.
“Let’s face it, I am 35, so I’m closer to the end than to the beginning of my career. That’s a fact,” Vlašić said. “The biggest challenge of this whole story for me isn’t accepting that, maybe, I will not compete ever again. It’s also the fear of losing my identity.”
When you peel back the layers of Vlašić’s public persona -- supremely-gifted athleticism, exuberant showmanship, runway-model beauty and physique -- you find a woman who at her core was born to win.
Her mother, Venera, was an accomplished basketball player and cross-country skier in the 1970s. Joško, her father and coach, was a Yugoslavian decathlete who won five straight national championships between 1979 and 1983, and won gold at the 1983 Mediterranean Games in Casablanca.
Vlašić’s name is inspired by the city of his greatest triumph as an athlete.
From the moment she began crawling faster than the other children her age, Vlašić became “a rough diamond,” in the eyes of her father. Those feelings were exacerbated as she got older and showed even greater competitive spirit.
“When I was a little girl, I couldn’t play board games with other kids unless I would win,” she said. “The moment I would start to lose, I would end every game. I couldn’t stand it. I was a sore loser. I was aware that that wasn’t a socially-accepted quality. But my dad said that it was good that you want to win. Now we need to polish that.”
After Vlašić was born, Joško remained in the sport as a coach with the ASK club team in Split. She would tag along with him to practices and meets and, before long, she became an active participant.
“Somehow it all came spontaneously,” Vlašić said. “First, I started to train in a group with other children, but later on my father took me under his wings. I tried some other events, mainly sprint and long jump. But I was the best at jumping. I was around 14 when I started to jump more often, and it was clear that I had huge potential.”
As a 15-year-old, Vlašić set a personal best of 1.80m/5-10¾ and competed at the inaugural IAAF World Youth Championships, finishing eighth. The following year, she improved all the way up to 1.93m/6-4, competed at the Sydney Olympics, and won gold at the IAAF World Junior Championships.
“When I first saw her, she was a kid like 16 or 17,” track and field analyst Dwight Stones, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist and 10-time world record holder in the high jump, said.
“Her first Olympics was Sydney and I remember seeing her in Zurich a couple of years later, maybe 2003. She had baby fat. She was tall, but she was not fit. I said, ‘God, if this girl ever gets her act together and trains properly, she is going to challenge the world record. She was doing a lot of stuff right.’”
Even as a teenager, Vlašić had aggressive goals for herself. When Joško tried to soften his daughter’s expectations, she scolded him.
“At one point, I said to him, ‘Dad, this is my goal and there are no excuses for not achieving them so you need to do whatever you can to help me achieve them,’” Vlašić said. “He approached me once and said, ‘Blanka, you need to accept that sometimes things might not happen the way you plan. You may not be the best, jump the world record, and win the World Championships.’ I said, ‘No, that’s not acceptable!”
In 2004, Vlašić competed at her second Olympics in Athens, but was not yet a medal contender. As she matured physically and gained more experience, the potential that Stones saw began to materialize. In 2006, she upped her personal best to 2.03m/6-8, won silver at the World Indoor Championships in Moscow, and finished just off the podium at the European Outdoor Championships in Gothenburg.
With winning being the only acceptable option in Vlašić’s eyes, the intensity and focus of her training and competition only ratcheted up from there.
There were physical danger signs early in Vlašić’s career.
During the 2007 season, she experienced stiffness and minor irritation after jumping that she paid no mind because it faded during warmups. She competed in 29 meets that year, winning all -- including the World Championship in Osaka -- but six en route to becoming the first high jumper to be named European Athlete of the Year.
Over the course of those 29 meets, Vlašić averaged six jumps per competition. That’s 174 competitive jumps in one year. Prior to 2007, Vlašić competed in 130 meets. Extend that math back to the start of her career in 1999, and that would up her total number of jumps in competition to 954 prior to her 25th birthday.
And that wear and tear does not count the thousands of more jumps taken in training.
“Up to that point, when you don’t have experience of severe pain, unfortunately, you don’t take much time to spend time with a physical therapist,” Vlašić said. “I wasn’t aware of all this maintenance our bodies actually need because, basically, I didn’t feel like I needed anything more than just a massage.”
Vlašić continued to brush off what she viewed to be minor job-related irritants as she fixated on jumping high and winning major championships. Her tunnel vision narrowed even further as she overcame the two biggest disappointments of her career along the way to establishing herself as one of the top track and field athletes on the planet regardless of discipline.
She went into the Beijing Olympics in 2008 as the overwhelming favorite but found herself locked in an unexpected battle with Belgian Tia Hellebaut, a strong jumper, for sure, but not one who had competed remotely as well before the Games.
With the bar at 2.05m/6-8¾, Vlašić missed her first attempt and Hellebaut cleared hers for a PR and the lead. Conventional jumping strategy dictated Vlašić should have passed her next attempt at that height and raised the bar to 2.07m/6-9½ to go for the win. However, Vlašić said that before she could make that decision, the officials started the clock on her second attempt at 2.05m/6-8¾, forcing her to take that jump. She cleared it, but when both women’s missed at the next height, it left Vlašić with the silver medal on a countback.
“Sometimes I think, what would have happened if I had enough time to rest, to focus on that 2.07 because I had that 2.07 in me. Maybe the peak of my competition was just that (second) jump of 2.05 but I spent it jumping 2.05, and not 2.07. In the end, I was disappointed because I was so close and I was ready to have the Olympic gold.”
After a poor performance at the 2009 European Indoor Championships -- she finished fifth at just 1.92m/6-3½ -- Vlašić found herself in, “a dark place.” She regained her motivation, however, during a trip to Los Angeles for a photo shoot with her longtime sponsor, adidas, and opened up the outdoor season with eight victories in 10 meets, all with clearances over 2.00m/6-6¾. At the World Championships in Berlin, she successfully defended her crown in a bar-for-bar duel for the ages against Germany’s Ariane Friedrich.
A few weeks later at the Hanžeković Memorial in Zagreb, Vlašić secured victory with a 2.05m/6-8¾ clearance and was presented an opportunity to raise the bar to whatever height she chose. She put the bar at 2.08m/6-9¾ and cleared it on her first attempt, registering the second-best mark in history behind only Stefka Kostadinova’s world record of 2.09m/6-10¼. She then moved up to 2.10m/6-10¾ but missed all three attempts.
“I’ve never told anyone this before, but the biggest regret of my career was not putting the bar right at 2.10 that day in Zagreb because I was ready for 2.10,” Vlašić said. “I don’t know why I put it at 2.08. Maybe in my head, I thought, ‘Let me get more familiar at this bar and maybe next time I will jump it.’”
That next time never came.
“I think she squandered some opportunities in 2008 and 2009,” Stones said. “Before she jumped 2.08 late in the season, I said on a Diamond League broadcast that if she didn’t jump the world record soon, that window was going to close. She responded not in a positive way. I said, ‘Hey, I’m just keeping it real. You only have so much time where you can do this.’
“That record is hanging over the event like an albatross. Blanka should have it.”
In 2010, Vlašić won the World Indoor Championship in Doha, the European Outdoor Championship in Barcelona and the Continental Cup title in front of her home crowd in Split. At the conclusion of the season, she was named IAAF World Female Athlete of the Year.
Between 2008 and 2010, Vlašić competed in 67 meets, winning all but eight. She jumped 402 times. Between 2003 and 2015, Vlašić cleared 2.00m/6-6¾ -- the benchmark for excellence in the women’s high jump --165 times, a total second in history only to Kostadinova’s 197.
“2008 and 2009 had to be mentally debilitating for her,” Stones said, “And then she starts getting injuries, which of course were inevitable. You can’t jump as many times as she did, especially as she big she is, and not to start to expect to have joint-related issues.”
Vlašić opened the 2011 outdoor season on May 15 with a victory at the Diamond League meeting in Shanghai and followed with wins in Rome and Rabat, but her clearances of 1.94m/6-4¼, 1.95m/6-4¾, and 1.97m/6-5½ were a far cry from the two-meter standard of excellence she had made routine. She was clearly suffering.
The remainder of the season saw its share of ups and downs. She finished second under cold, rainy conditions in New York, cleared a season-best 2.00m/6-6¾ in Split, finished sixth at just 1.90m/6-2¾ at Athletissima in Lausanne, triumphed in Birmingham and Monaco, and finished second in Eberstadt.
“It was a tough season because I am used to clearing the bar at two meters every time I have a go. I never thought I would end an event at 1.90 meters,” Vlašić said in 2011. “I’ve let myself down a bit with my form but I’ve struggled with injury.”
All of the jumping, though, took its toll. The pain of “jumping with a pebble in your left Achilles,” and developing knee pain from overcompensation became so intense in the weeks leading up to the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, that Vlašić actually contemplated pulling the plug on the season.
Her drive to win ultimately prevailed.
“A few days ago, I lasted only 24 attempts in practice and decided to pull out of the World Championships, but I could only live with my decision for 12 hours,” Vlašić said in a news conference in Split in August of 2011. “I changed my mind. I am going to the Worlds and I will either win or fall on my sword.
“The most important thing is to have no regrets when I end my career one day. I just can’t sit in front of the television on September 3 and wait for someone else to win the event. I would only make it easier for my rivals and pulling out now would also be unfair to my team and my fans. I’ll have three more practice sessions before we leave for Korea and if my muscle doesn’t snap in the next week or so, I’ll be there.”
Vlašić went to Daegu with the stated goal of simply proving that she had the goods to compete with the best jumpers in the world. Clearing 2.03m/6-8 and losing the gold to Russia’s Anna Chicherova on a countback would seem to have been mission accomplished. But her unusual brevity in front of the media -- her post-meet interview in the mixed zone lasted just 27 seconds -- indicated otherwise.
She raced out of Daegu Stadium like a woman determined to get healthy and conquer them all at the Olympics in London the following summer.
In the early 1960s, Dick Fosbury was struggling against his high school contemporaries using the standard high jump technique of the time and began experimenting with new methods.
Instead of jumping with his face toward the bar and going over face down while lifting his legs individually over in the straddle method, he turned and jumped with his back to the bar. This strange, new technique help him improve rapidly, and place second at the 1965 Oregon State Championships his senior year.
He continued to refine this technique at Oregon State and by his sophomore season, he cleared 2.08m/6-9¾. The following two years he won a pair of NCAA titles, the U.S. Olympic Trials and gold at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
And thus, the “Fosbury Flop” was born.
The science behind the technique lies in a physics concept known as center of mass.
For every object, we can locate the average position of all of its mass taking into account how the mass is spread around the object.
When a person stands stationary, their center of mass is located around their stomach. As they move, that center of mass moves with them and changes depending on how the body is positioned. When the body is bent, the center of mass is actually located outside the body, just below the bend.
Boiled down, the high jump is about the ease of launching center of mass over the bar.
To accomplish this using the old straddle method required jumpers to exert a significant amount of vertical force to lift their center of mass, still positioned within their body, above the bar by a few inches. The Fosbury Flop splits the jumpers’ center of mass from their body. By arching the back higher and creating a lower center of mass, a jumper needs to exert significantly less force to consequentially clear greater heights.
Here’s how it happens:
High jumpers run up to the bar on a J-shaped bend, quickly transferring horizontal velocity into vertical velocity or centripetal acceleration. To get the most acceleration in the short curve, the curve should be fast and tight. The best jumpers in the world typically sprint the curve at a 40° angle to maximize angular momentum.
To adjust to the centripetal force, jumpers run that curve leaning from their ankles with their feet not underneath the body but closer to the mat as the body leans toward the center of the curve. This ensures that their back will be facing the bar before they clear it, even though their back was facing away from the bar during their approach.
To generate optimum force at take-off, the jumper leaps straight up rather than leaning toward the bar because of their angular momentum and the angle of takeoff ensures a flight path in the direction of the mat. As they approach the bar, they arch their back pushing their center of mass below the bar.
Of course, all of this comes with a physical toll.
With each jump, Vlašić, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 165 pounds, is generating approximately 1200 pounds of force on her takeoff foot, which is pronated anywhere from 20° to 25°. “Obviously jumping and running the bend puts a lot of pressure in this unnatural angle,” Vlašić said. “It makes your bones defend themselves.”
According to world-renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, the list of long-term effects associated with high jumping is extensive.
“The long term effects include an increase in subtalar joint stress, premature arthritis, Achilles tightening over time, and traumatic tendon ruptures,” he wrote in an email. “Increased pronation can lead to excessive patellofemoral lat compression syndrome (pain in the knee due to the increased pressure.”
All of these risks exacerbate the more one jumps.
When Stones competed in the 1970s and early 1980s, chasing prize money was the only way to make a living, and competing 30-35 times per year was the norm.
“I was a competition whore,” he said. “I look at how many times I jumped in order to make a living and pick up $750 or $1,000. If I were in the situation that exists now and could have jumped only 15 or 20 times per year, there’s no question I would’ve jumped higher. I jumped 2.34 but 2.36 to 2.40 is probably the range I should have gotten to. But that and $4.75 would get me a vanilla latte at Starbucks.”
Although Vlašić’s competition calendar never approached the volume of Stones’, he feels that “she jumped way too much.”
“It’s like a baseball pitcher that has too many innings on their arm before the age of 25,” Stones said. “There are only so many Roger Clemenses out there and there are only so many people who can jump that much and not suffer injuries that are going to be problematic.
“Then she had surgery after which it seemed like everything went wrong. Those complications take away months and years. At the back end (of her career) when everything needed to go right and she needed to be healthy, she wasn’t. That’s tough.”
In preparation for the London Olympics, Vlašić broke habit and opened 2012 by escaping the cold, dreary winter of Croatia for the warmer January surroundings of South Africa. It was the first time in her career that she attended a winter training camp and she was looking forward to getting in a solid two to three weeks of work.
But those plans were upended by unbearable pain about one week in.
“In the middle of that camp, I was jumping and I felt so much pain,” Vlašić recalled. “It was like a knife stabbing my Achilles. I called my manager and said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t think I can keep going. We need to think of something.’”
Vlašić flew to Sweden for an MRI on her left foot which revealed that she had Haglund’s Deformity, a malformation that arises when the bony section of one’s heel, where the Achilles tendon is located, becomes enlarged. Typically, the soft tissue near the Achilles tendon becomes irritated when that bony enlargement rubs against shoes, leading to painful inflammation of the fluid-filled bursa sac between the Achilles tendon and heel bone.
In Vlašić’s case, the MRI showed something much worse. “The bone was already protruding so deep into my Achilles, it actually ruptured a part of it,” she said.
On January 30, 2012, Vlašić went in for surgery to remove the bony ridge that had developed on her left heel and repair the damage it caused to her Achilles tendon. But when they went in, the doctors uncovered more damage than had been revealed in her pre-op scan.
“They found a mess,” Vlašić said. “A piece of the calcaneus bone had broken off and embedded in my Achilles. They had to shave a lot more bone and some of my Achilles. My ankle was also very stiff and there was not a lot of space inside, so they made a whole reconstruction of the ankle.”
Even after the two-and-a-half hour procedure, doctors were confident that Vlašić would be recovered in time to compete at the Olympics. After three weeks in a non-weight-bearing cast and a few more in a removable weight-bearing boot, Vlašić was cleared to begin rehabbing her ankle, beginning with plantar flexion and dorsiflexion exercises.
One morning in April, Vlašić got out of bed and her left foot had swollen to double its normal size. Initially, she believed that she had pushed her recovery too hard but in actuality one of her stitches hadn’t healed properly and she developed a severe bacterial infection.
“The infection jeopardized not only my career but also my foot and my ability to walk again because it attacked the bone,” Vlašić said. “After that infection, I felt worse than before the surgery.”
Vlašić needed three months of antibiotics to treat the infection, setting the rehabilitation process backward while the clock to London continued counting down. By the middle of July, Vlašić postponed the inevitable as long as possible, she wrote a post on her website announcing her withdrawal from the Games.
“I was definitely devastated when I realized that I can’t go to London,” Vlašić said. “I had some dark moments, but it wasn’t like the decision was on the edge. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh well, maybe it’s smart not to go.’ I really couldn’t walk without limping, so what was the point?”
Facing that reality didn’t make watching the Olympics on television any easier.
“Yeah, I watched it,” she said. “Being an Olympic athlete is so much more than a job. It’s not just what you do but who you are. It’s your identity. When you’re not out there and everybody there is doing their best, it is definitely hard to watch. But the notion that I will come back and things will be good again kept me going.
“One thing I was sure of was that I didn’t want to quit. I had this feeling that there was still something for me in high jumping, something still out there I didn’t do that I still have to do. What was that? I didn’t know. But I didn’t feel in my soul that I was finished.”
While sidelined from competition, Vlašić continued moderate training and drills and by September of 2012, she was able to take jumps in practice with a four-step approach wearing training shoes. Eventually, she progressed to six steps and then eight.
But every time she tried jumping in spikes, she still experienced significant pain.
“There were times when I would cry and I would feel lost and insecure,” she said. “It was just a rollercoaster of emotions. I wondered, ‘Am I ever going to run without pain?’ But I said, ‘I need to come back. I miss it so much. I need to start somewhere.’”
Vlašić returned to competition on May 25, 2013, with a victory at the Diamond League adidas Grand Prix in New York, where she cleared a modest 1.94m/6-4¼. She jumped a smidge higher to finish third in Rome about a week later but managed to clear just 1.85m/6-0¾ in a fifth-place finish at the Bislett Games in Oslo on June 13.
While in Paris for the Meeting Areva, Vlašić met Anthony “Star” Geoghegan, an Irish physiotherapist who became well known on the international track and field circuit working with the likes of sprint world record holder Usain Bolt, and American sprinters Tori Bowie and LaShawn Merritt.
“I jumped 1.98 in Paris and he saw me struggling,” Vlašić said. “He approached me afterward and said, ‘I see you are using only one foot, one leg. I’m so amazed that you can jump so high.’”
Geoghegan urged Vlašić to get her ankle re-examined. He connected with her back home in Split in late July and conducted an ultrasound which revealed more tiny bone spurs forming around her Achilles tendon. He convinced her to stop competing and to come to his Realta Clinic in Carlow for treatment.
“In that one week, we did shockwave therapy every day,” Vlašić said. “It was the most painful experience of my life. I couldn’t even touch my heel with my hand without any pain and he was going with the shockwave on that spot, but we needed to make the calcaneus bone smooth to get rid of all of these bone spurs.”
Vlašić was forced to skip the World Championships in Moscow, but after a second shockwave treatment, she was pain-free.
In 2014, she competed indoors for the first time in four years, winning the European Indoor Championship in Prague with a 2.00m/6-6¾ clearance and finishing sixth at the World Indoor Championships in Sopot, Poland at 1.94m/6-4¼. Outdoors, she competed eight times with four victories, three runner-up finishes, and a season-best of 2.00m/6-6¾.
“Other than a small injury to my knee in Sopot, I was pretty much pain-free for most of 2014,” Vlašić said. “I was kind of like, ‘I’m out of the woods.’”
Until a familiar pain surfaced, this time on the opposite ankle.
In 2015, an MRI revealed damage to the inner side of Vlašić’s right foot as well Haglund’s Deformity in her right heel and Achilles, a likely result of overcompensating from the original injury to her left ankle.
“I was like, ‘No way. I’m not going through that again,’” Vlašić said. “I was so devastated. Just when I felt like I was finally done with this injury nightmare, another one comes. I didn’t have a chance to breathe and I was underwater again.”
With the summer schedule bringing another World Championships, Vlašić was determined to avoid going under the knife again at all costs. She made weekly trips to Ireland for treatments with Geoghegan. She began doing more Achilles strengthening and plantar flexion exercises.
“I tried to use all tools possible,” she said. “The time that I took for rehab and injury prevention it was equal to the time of which I spent in the practice.”
In an attempt to save herself for Worlds, Vlašić competed sparingly on the circuit, finishing second at Diamond League meetings in New York and Rome with 1.97m/6-5½ clearances at each. But even that pared down schedule didn’t ease the pain.
“I remember one practice, just one and a half months before Beijing, I was jumping and the day after I was unable to walk,” Vlašić said. “I couldn’t get up. It was so inflamed. I felt so much pain and I thought, ‘What do we do now?’”
Vlašić stopped jumping in training altogether, figuring she had, “enough years of experience, that (she) will not forget how to jump in this one month.” And that added precaution might just have been enough to salvage the season.
Vlašić arrived in China with not only her father, Joško, and technical coach, Bojan Marinovic, in tow but with her doctor also joining the team. She fully anticipated being in pain, the question was how would she deal with it?
An efficient run through the qualification round helped her cause as she needed just three jumps, one each at 1.85m/6-0¾, 1.89m/6-2¼, and 1.92m/6-3½ to advance. Having completely curbed her preparation, Vlašić knew she was not in the same she was six years earlier when she won the World title. That certainly gave her insomnia, but she was fairly confident she could still be a factor.
In the final, Vlašić made a first-attempt clearance at 1.88m/6-2, got over 1.92m/6-3½ on a second jump, then made first jumps at 1.95m/6-4¾, 1.97m/6-5½, 1.99m/6-6¼, and 2.01m/6-7. She missed all three of her attempts at 2.03m/6-8 but walked away with the silver medal behind Russia’s Mariya Lasitskene.
“I couldn’t do the stuff I had to do to be in top shape, but still, I managed to jump 2.01,” Vlašić said. “I was happy with how I dealt with the pressure, although I didn’t sleep at all those 10 days. But that was a piece of cake compared to what I went through before. The silver medal was a huge win. Afterward, I felt like, ‘I’m stronger than this injury. I’m going to beat it.’
“But I was in denial.”
There was no extinguishing Vlašić’s competitive flame, and she threw herself entirely into being prepared for the 2016 Olympics. So much so that every day after training, she would drive 55 miles north of Split to a clinic in Šibenik for physio therapy.
“I was full of energy and so determined,” she recalled. “Everything was around how to get healthy for Rio.”
Vlašić opened her season in January at a low-key indoor meet in Split. Her first-bar clearance at 1.95m/6-4¾ was enough to win and secure the Olympic standard, but she missed a lone attempt at 2.00m/6-6¾ and experienced an intense amount of pain in her right foot.
“The competition ended in tears because, again, I felt so much pain,” Vlašić said. “My doctor said, ‘You know you need to face it. You need to make a decision.’ But I said, ‘I’m afraid.’ It was like 2012 all over again. I was so burned by the surgery before that I was scared to make a decision.”
Together they settled on a compromise of sorts, opting against total ankle reconstruction, since her right foot was not her takeoff foot, for a simpler procedure to shave down the heel bone and clean up the Achilles tendon. The 20-minute procedure, done locally and not under heavy anesthesia, was a success.
However, at 32 years old and in her 11th year of treatment for hyperthyroidism -- she had surgery to remove her thyroid gland in 2005 and has replaced those naturally-produced hormones with two thyroxine pills daily ever since -- she knew recovery would be complicated.
She also knew the clock was ticking and rushed her recovery.
“Things didn’t go as quickly as I planned and it didn’t help that I needed to start working out,” Vlašić said. “I kept my recovery short. Yeah, I was still doing recovery treatments, recovery exercises, and everything, but I just couldn’t let that foot completely out of my training program because the Olympics were approaching. Let’s say I was all the time walking on the edge.”
With each corner that she cut Vlašić knew that she was likely surrendering bar heights, but she was determined to compete on the big stage.
She had adidas create her flat custom spikes without the lower heel plate that typically provides jumpers with an additional catapult but was causing her more pain. To reduce unnecessary pressure on her ankle, in practice, she would have her father wheel her from station to station on a mule. Ibuprofen after every session was a must.
All of the above was successful until jumping sessions in practice got more aggressive in late-May and early-June when “complete stiffness and unimaginable pain” returned.
“There were days I couldn’t even move my foot,” she said. “I would sit on the edge of my bed and call my coach and my dad crying. I said, ‘I don’t know how I can get up from this.’ I felt like my whole world fell apart.”
Pulling the plug on the whole idea of competing at a fourth Olympics was not an option. Vlašić and her team opted to forgo all competition prior to Rio, similar to how she approached the 2015 pre-Worlds run-up. In training, more precautions were taken in an attempt to maintain some semblance of health. Her jump approach was reduced from 10 steps to four.
“This approach was completely new for me,” she said. “I had to break all of the boundaries that I put in my mind. I had to go outside of every comfort zone that I had created during my 20-year long career. The things that always worked for me, I didn’t have access to under these new parameters. I needed to start believing that my way before was not the only way. I said to myself, ‘You need to believe this will work.’ It was like brain surgery.”
Completely unlearning everything she had learned, with no higher stakes than the Olympics on the line, was nearly an impossible task. Vlašić began working with a sports psychologist to help manage her insecurities.
As much as she tried to reconcile her new reality, no amount of therapy or prayer could help her shake the knowledge that in comparison to her three prior trips to the Olympics, she was physically unprepared. And that just further fed her doubts on the eve of the Games.
“I remember being in Split Airport on my way to Rio with all my team by my side,” Vlašić recalled. “I started to feel really strange just before I had to board the plane. I was short of breath and feverish. I thought, ‘Maybe I’m coming down with something.’ Us athletes, we are hypochondriacs because your bodies are our tools.
“Then, I called my sports therapist and said, ‘What’s going on? I’ve never felt like this.’ She said, ‘Blanka, I think you’re having a panic attack.’ She explained to me, ‘You think you’re okay, but inside you’re going into battle and your body knows you’re not ready. Your body knows that you’re going to put it under a huge amount of pain again and it's rebelling.’”
After taking some deep breaths and calming down, Vlašić boarded the plane. When she settled into her seat, the feelings of anxiety washed away and she was at peace.
“There was no turning back,” she said. “I passed the point of no return.”
When Vlašić got to Rio, external expectations on her weren’t nearly as intensive as they had been eight years earlier, nor were they even what they were the year prior at the World Championships. Everyone knew that she was on one healthy foot and a shell of her best.
But Vlašić contends that it is still the Olympics and she didn’t put any less pressure on herself.
“When I got to the village, people were already competing,” she said. “Every time I watched something my heart would race from excitement. I tried to keep low and not waste energy but every day I cried at least once because I was so insecure and my foot was hurting. I was going into the unknown with this new, short approach. I was injured; not ready. Being such a control freak it felt like I was jumping without a parachute.”
Part of the reason she ultimately decided to compete was that her medical team assured her that if they gave her an injection to mitigate the pain in her ankle prior to her going out to compete, she would be able to jump pain-free.
Stones called this practice, “the European way.”
Dr. Andrews indicated there are a number of risks associated with essentially numbing a foot treated for Haglund’s Deformity.
“The dangers are potential rupture; worsening tendinosis; recalcitrant pain; stress fracture; inability to undergo isolated debridement and requirement for tendon transfer; and tendon insertion avulsion,” Andrews wrote.
After receiving her injection before the qualification round, her immediate reaction was, “The good thing is I’m not feeling the pain. The bad thing is I’m not feeling my leg from the knee down.” That meant more adjustments to account for being unsynchronized in her approach, but she managed to advance with a clean sheet. More than that, she enjoyed herself.
“I was smiling under all of these circumstances,” Vlašić said. “I was happy and grateful for the opportunity. I was forced to feel humbled. Learning how being humble was a great thing.”
Yet she still could not unwire her competitive drive.
“The day before the final I needed a lot of pep talk even though I knew everything,” Vlašić said. “My coach tried to calm me down saying, ‘You have nothing to lose. Everybody knows in what kind of shape and condition you came. Just try and enjoy this competition.’
The day of the final, Vlašić did not warm up before entering the call rooms because she wanted to make sure she got her pain injection at the last possible moment to prolong its effects. She figured, with three call rooms to pass through, there would be sufficient time to warm up in there.
“For 16 years, my warm-up routine was scripted to the minute,” she said. “Now, I was winging it at the Olympic Games.”
Unlike before the qualification round, she was pain-free and without the full-leg numbness, something she deemed to be, “a better scenario.” But she soon realized that the needle hadn’t fully penetrated the scar tissue in her ankle and the medicine was going to wear off before she took her first jump.
“I walked over to (Bojan), and for the first time in my career I said, ‘Should I quit because I don’t know if I can jump?’” Vlašić said. “To be honest, it was, that feeling like when you’re watching yourself from outside of your body, just you can’t imagine that this is what’s happening. The injection didn’t work and the pain was so severe.
“He said, ‘Now you’re here. You fight.’ I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll fight.’”
Vlašić dug deeper, perhaps than any other point in her career. She took two attempts to clear the opening height of 1.88m and another two attempts to get over 1.93m, heights that she might have passed at eight years earlier to conserve energy.
“In between jumps I was crying, then before my jumps, I would start to roar like a crazy person,” she said. “I was seeking courage just to go through that jump knowing that every step would be painful. It was so hard to handle, but I had to do it.”
Ten women took jumps at 1.97m. Ruth Beitia of Spain and Mirela Demireva of Bulgaria cleared on their first try. Vlašić made it on her second. American Chaunte Lowe got over on her final attempt. The four women advanced to the next height of 2.00m/6-6¾, but none made their first or second attempts.
“I saw these girls and I know for a fact that at least three or four of them were ready to jump 2.02 or 2.03 that day,” Vlašić said. “I don’t know what happened to them. I said, ‘Suddenly nobody can jump two meters. What’s going on?’”
In the final round, Beitia, Demeriva, and Lowe all failed to convert. Before her final jump, Vlašić told herself, “It’s now, or never.” She had her best attempt but was also unsuccessful. Unaware that she had, in fact, won a medal on countback, Vlašić was crushed.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God. I’m so sorry I didn’t win,” she said. “I was devastated, but at least it was over. At least there would be no more pain. I couldn’t handle another jump. I couldn’t handle another step.
“I was coming off the pit and my team was like, ‘Yeah, you’re third!’ They were showing me the board and I was like, ‘No way! How is that possible?’ I was happy, but I was so tired. My body and mind were so weak that I was happier that it was over than I won third place.”
When Vlašić returned home from Rio, she unsurprisingly gave herself all the time in the world to relax and recover. The Olympic push, not to mention the four prior years of surgeries and recoveries, had left her in tatters. At that moment, she was done.
“I was broken,” she said. “My body said, ‘I gave you all these years and let you push me so many times. No more.’ In order to make sure that that ‘no more’ actually really happened, because my body knows how crazy of a person I am, it just completely shut down. Even if I could, I found myself unable to do anything. It was kind of post-traumatic stress.
“Once I heard that being an athlete is like driving Formula 1 car as opposed to driving a minivan. How many times does a Formula 1 go into the box for maintenance? Compare that to the maintenance that a minivan needs once per year. As athletes, we abuse ourselves. It’s just so intense it can’t last forever.
“I’ve gained so much and have won so much,” she added. “In a way, that was a good thing but in a way it was foolish. I wasn’t mature enough to accept other outcomes besides winning. I was too afraid to face them. I was too afraid to face who I am if I’m not a champion athlete. Simple as that.”
Before long, Vlašić fell into a depression and sought the counsel of a psychiatrist.
“The psychiatrist told me, ‘You pushed yourself not just a little overboard, you went to another planet, woman! You shouldn’t be surprised that this is happening,’” she quipped.
Vlašić was encouraged to incorporate some physical activity back into her daily routine as the simple act of breaking a sweat carried with it healthy hormones that could help snap her post-Olympic funk.
Three months later, physical activity blossomed back into modified training.
“I was practicing but physically I knew I wasn’t there,” she said. “Every MRI was showing a little progress but that wasn’t enough progress for high jumping. Even now, I can do a lot of things, but the high jump angle, the running, the band stuff in spikes is still a challenge.”
Unlike in past years, Vlašić can no longer be maniacal in her approach. She is well aware that her body has lost confidence in her judgment and she is methodically trying to restore that confidence. She is taking time to recover properly. Once monthly, she travels to Poland to receive physio and injury-preventative therapy. Hopefully, she says, this will end in a career finale at her fifth Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.
“Pain is a signal that something is wrong, and I won’t ignore it,” she said. “I gather all of my lessons and say, ‘Ok, this is what I’ve learned.’ If I come back, it’s going to be without pain, with me enjoying the competition, going without stress. If Tokyo would be my last competition, I want to end it on a good note.”
Stones, who would love to see Vlašić complete her comeback story, said only she can specifically determine what a good ending would be.
“What’s the endgame?” he questioned. “Do I need to be an Olympic finalist? Do I need to be an Olympic medalist? Do I need to be an Olympic gold medalist? The only thing she hasn’t done is to win the Olympic gold medal and set the world record, both things she should’ve done. She has to define for herself what would be enough.
“She has the second-highest jump of all time. She has won multiple World Championships, European Championships, and Olympic medals. She’s got a crazy amount of jumps over 2.05m/6-8¾ and over two meters. She’s had the thing that’s the hardest to do in our event and that is longevity. If there was a world hall of fame, she’s a first-ballot choice. History should treat her very well, but she has to be comfortable with the way it worked out for her”
For someone like Vlašić, who has known nothing but international competition since she was a 16-year-old girl, retirement is understandably a scary proposition. She says she as at the point when” the familiar ground you’re used to walking on all your life is starting to shake.”
“Normal people who retire when they’re 70 say, ‘Ok, I’ve lived a long, successful life. Now it’s time to relax,’” Vlašić said. “But I’m 35. I still need to work toward something for the next 30 years. What is it going to be? I have all of these questions. How am I going to be passionate about something else as passionate as I am about high jumping? Can I recreate that kind of rush, that kind of adrenaline rush? Is it possible? Who am I if I’m not an athlete?
Vlašić, a devout Roman Catholic, said that prayer has helped her become more open to surrendering to circumstances that she is not controlling. A year ago, she couldn’t fathom even saying the word retirement let alone talk about it publicly.
“Is it really true that I am actually accepting it, that I’m actually maturing?” Vlašić quipped.
She is hoping that this newfound enlightenment will enable her to help other fellow athletes struggling with the same post-competition identity issues through public speaking or ambassadorship.
“I was reading about all these athletes having the same issues and I realized that this is a thing,” Vlašić said. “That transitional period between sport and after post-sport career can be a very dangerous time if you’re not prepared. I’m trying to find ways I can be helpful and still feel very useful and creative, being a part of the athletics community. If I can’t be an active athlete, I can still motivate. I can still inspire. I can still help those who need help.
“Once I saw that there are goals to achieve besides just jumping world records and winning Olympic medals, I was kind of like, this gives me great satisfaction. It’s not a world record. It’s not an Olympic gold. But it’s something that I can work with for the rest of my life. I’m so excited that I’ve realized that high jump may have been my job but it’s not who I am.
“It’s a huge part of me, but it’s not my identity.”