Yulimar Rojas, Venezuela’s first athletics gold medallist?

To say the reigning triple jump world champion has talent will come as a surprise to no-one. To note it could have come in a number of sports may do. Then again with Yulimar Rojas it probably still doesn’t.

Early life

Rojas, Venezuela’s athletics superstar was born in its capital Caracas but moved at an early age to its Caribbean coastline and the city of Puerto La Cruz. A city tied to the fortunes of the oil for which much of the Venezuelan economy depends, the nineties and early noughties were a time of relative prosperity and with it investment in sport. Home to professional baseball, basketball and of course football, Puerto La Cruz also put money into athletics. The Complejo Deportivo Simon Bolívar was built and provided competitive facilities for the region’s athletes.

It was opportune timing for the city. Yulimar Rojas, her stepfather, Pedro Zapata, her mother Yulexcis Rodríguez and her six siblings moved to a modest farm in the neighbourhood of Pozuelos. To a small farm which has since been washed away by the floods and wind which always threatened its existence.

From the tarmac to the track

Zapata recalls that Rojas was just seven when she started getting interested in sport, playing pelotica de goma, a street game where one person hits a rubber ball with their hand and tries to get it past the group in front, kickingball (a mixture of football and baseball) and just races up and down the streets against neighbours.

Zapata and Rodríguez decided to harness the energy, taking her to the Simón Bolívar complex, a mile or so from the barrio, a once-impressive sporting set up which was slowly decaying through a lack of funding (see the runway as it stands below). At first she was most interested in volleyball. Inspired by the Venezuelan team who had just qualified for Bejiing, she came to play that sport before athletics coaches noticed she might have talent elsewhere and brought her onto the track.

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It is fair to say their assessment was right. It just wasn’t clear in what event she had the most of it. Thus began Rojas’s travels through Venezuela and slowly but surely further afield. Always accompanied by her mother, with her stepfather looking after the other siblings, they would borrow money in order to pursue Rojas’s dreams and spend weeks away from home.

Multi-discipline South American champion

In 2011, aged fifteen she won the South American Junior Championships in the high jump, clearing 1.78m. The next year she did the same but in the 100m hurdles, running 14.81 seconds. Rojas was fast becoming a multi-eventer extraordinaire but still hadn’t tried the sport that would announce herself as the world’s best.

In 2013 Rojas cleared 1.87m in the high jump, a then South American Junior record and also won the Pan-American Youth Championships in the same event. She was one of the world’s best junior athletes and yet already her coach Jesús Tuqueque Velasquez was thinking she may be even better in something else.

That year she got closer to her best event, clearing 6.23m in the long jump. The following year she would head to the World Junior Champs in Eugene and finish eleventh in that discipline’s final. She would also throw her hand at a new event, the results of which were promising. Velásquez recalled in a recent conversation with El Pais of the first time they tried out the triple jump. Rojas jumped 12.70m without any real instruction in training.

In her first year doing the triple Rojas would jump 13.65m, doubling up in the World Junior Champs (she failed to qualify for the final) and capping her first campaign in triple jumping by picking up the South American U23 title.

It was reassurance enough and in 2015 Rojas and Velásquez committed to both the long and triple jump, her performances in the later slowly super ceding the former. As a triple-jumper she was fourth in the Pan-Am champs, her first as a senior. She jumped 14.20m, less than fifteen months from her debut in the event. Only sixteen athletes in the world jumped further that year.

The best in the world

By the end of 2016 there was only one and Yulimar Rojas was the world indoor champion. The rise and rise of Yulimar Rojas at the time seemed spectacular. A twenty-year old high jumper transformed into one of the world’s greatest triple jumpers. Her Rio De Janeiro Olympic silver that summer was the first athletics medal by a Venezuelan since 1952. Her achievements were staggering.

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By the standards of what came next, you could almost contest it was a blip. Two World Championship titles, another World Indoor title in 2018 and the second furthest jumper in history. Inessa Kravet’s once untouchable 1995 best within her grasp, only seven centimetres away. In Tokyo that could go but the one she will be looking for most is an unwanted one. If she can cement her supremacy in Japan she will become Venezuela’s first ever athletics gold medallist. Such is the calibre of Rojas, they may never have a greater chance.

Rojas’s impact on Venezuela cannot be underestimated, despite her current residence in Spain. In a time of struggle she has flown their flag on the international stage. And should she win gold in Tokyo there will be another one flown. A proud member of the LGBTQ+ community Rojas describes her battle to the top as “a leap for love and life to be respected.”

A volleyball player turned high jumper, now dominating in a different discipline it is hard to think of any athlete more deserving of respect.

The women’s triple jump kicks of a 11.05am UK Time on Friday 30 July, with the final 12.15 on Sunday.

Tokyo previews – Women’s Triple Jump

Venezuela have never won a gold medal in athletics. Yulimar Rojas will do everything in her power to change that. Here’s our preview of the women’s triple…

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Featured image “2016_rio_15_08_102” by Catholympique is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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