By Mikhil Bhat/ Doha
You are Mutaz Essa Barshim.
You ensure that an entire nation has cheered you on as you beat gravity and fly to a second straight world high jump title. His Highness the Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani has applauded you on as you make an epic comeback from an injury to hand Qatar a gold medal. More than 40,000 people in attendance at the Khalifa International Stadium and millions back home on television have bit their nails as the bar beat you twice at 2.33m before you roar back to victory.
And then, there is the calm.
Your friends, family, fans and supporters have all filed out of the iconic Doha stadium, and you walk back into the imposing state-of-the-art arena and “try and soak it all in”.
“Just some time back it was very loud. I was too hyped. Sometimes you need time to process. So much has happened, everything pains, but it’s crazy,” the 28-year-old reminisces those few moments on the spectacular night in the Qatari capital that was October 4, 2019.
He only leaves the venue at 2:30am on October 5.
He goes back home to a proud family.
“It had been a long time. I was away since May, preparing (for the IAAF World Championships). Every time I used to go back home, it was to pick up a change of my luggage and then to the training camp. I used to be home and yet I wasn’t. I hate hotels, but that’s my life. You have to go through this to achieve what you want,” says Barshim.
“Life’s been different” to say the least and the ripples of his achievement have been far-reaching to say the least.
“I just got a message from an old friend from Germany. She used to work with us in management, and she said that her parents, 86 years old, were jumping. And she had never seen them do that. Now they are fans. They are pulling schedules for the season, following it on TV, and they have said that from now on that’s the only thing they are going to watch – high jump,” the 28-year-old says, as grateful fans and supporters continue to walk into a Red Bull party that has been hosted in celebration of his second world high jump title.
Closer home, after prayers at a mosque, he heads to someone’s house because he has to demo the 2.37m he flew over. “They debated how high could it be. And it was all getting very loud (at the mosque),” Barshim laughs.
The high jumper has a chest-thumping picture from the night he won the world title at home in Doha on his Instagram account. He has captioned it with a quote from The Greatest: “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’”
“Rest In Peace, Muhammad Ali,” Barshim says. “It’s not that I hate training. I love sport, but you hate those moments when you almost cannot breathe, things people don’t get to see. When you are there on the track and you puke blood, that’s what you hate.
“But you keep coming to it almost every season, because you know deep down that it is necessary. I need to go through it to celebrate later. I don’t think he himself hated training, but it’s all the sacrifice that he was talking about.”
On a lighter note, sacrifice is… perhaps… also not being able to eat all that your heart craves for. Professional athletes and the demands for negligible fat content in their body can be, well, disturbing.
But now, “I have been eating every day. I didn’t get a scale, but I am good at this. I think I have put on three kilos in one week”. To a layman’s naked eyes, it’s not showing.
In that one week (and a little more) Barshim has visited his “home” – Aspire Academy.
His alma mater, right here in the shadows of the Khalifa International Stadium, is where he transformed from being a brat of sorts to the high jumper most, including Cuban world record holder Javier Sotomayor, have come to respect.
“You know, everyone has a place you are always attached to. You go there and feel good,” Barshim says of Aspire. “I always want to go back there, give back… talk to my old teachers, my coaches, my team, the physios, my managers. They are always there for you irrespective of what happens, good or bad.”
Sotomayor was present on the night of the high jump final at Khalifa stadium as part of the team of youngster Luis Enrique Zayas (who finished fifth with 2.30m). Asked by this writer what he thought of Barshim’s win, Sotomayor, fluent in Spanish, only said, “(Record stays) for now.”
Barshim laughs when he hears of the conversation.
“Sotomayor is a great person. I have a good relationship with him. What he did was amazing; that 2.45m no human has come close to beating it,” he says.
“I always have great respect for him. But he knows, he knows, he tells me, ‘I think you are the one’. And I tell him, ‘just give me some time’.
“Unfortunately I get injured every time I get close to it,” he laughs, before adding, “But I will be there one day.”
Barshim may sound confident, and may even laugh about it now, but he has called his injury a “nightmare”.
Last year in July, in Hungary, Barshim had bagged the high jump event at Gyulai Memorial with a 2.40m jump. Feeling confident, the Qatari star upped the bar to 2.46m, a mark that would have broken Sotomayor’s 1992 mark.
The bar won, even as a lift off the ground twisted Barshim’s ankle, threatening a fantastic career. Just the previous year, he had won the IAAF Athlete of the Year award, first high jumper in history to do so. He had won six outdoor high jump events, including the one in Hungary, in 2018. He is also the only high jumper to clear 2.40m every year for six straight years since 2013.
So, at Khalifa stadium earlier this month, when the two-time Olympic medallist cleared 2.33m after brushing the bar twice, a very dear friend and competitor, Gianmarco Tamberi, or Gimbo as the Italian is called, ran to Barshim, and jumped on him and hugged in jubilation.
“In that moment, it’s just a reaction. I did not even know what had happened. It’s only later I saw the picture, and I thought to myself, ‘oh, I was still jumping’,” Barshim says.
“There was so much emotion. I ripped my bib, which is not allowed. The chief referee came to me: ‘you are going to get disqualified’. I told him it is not something I can control. Twice. I am like, what can I do? I didn’t do it intentionally.”
But what he does intentionally is make a sincere effort to celebrate his achievement as the only high jumper ever to successfully defend his world title with those who matter to him.
“Just when you think it’s done, I have media commitments, celebrations for a week now. But I like it, that’s the fun part. I want to do all of this for the people who have been there for me. I want to celebrate it all with my partners, my family, my supporters, people who have put their life out there for me,” says Barshim, who is more than happy to have all those gathered at the party get a touch of the gold medal he won at home in Doha less than two weeks ago.
Coach Stanislaw ‘Stanley’ Szczyrba has played a huge role in bringing in the discipline and helping Barshim rise to these heights. An uneasy relationship early on transformed into one of the world’s best combination in the sport.
As one of the Qatar fans, who came up to coach Szczyrba, after the win in Doha said, “I want to thank you for giving all these fans one of the happiest moments of their lives.”
So what has Barshim planned after all these celebrations?
“I have no idea. I want to have a vacation. What? Where? When? I don’t know,” he says.
Also a bit hazy at the moment are the details of his “promising” book.
And let’s be honest, he does have a fantastic story. Albeit a story that is nowhere near its climax. “It’s rolling but we keep pushing it back, because a lot more is happening,” he says.
There is his rise earlier in this decade, surgery last year, and an epic comeback this year. “We have to see how we put it. Sequels, two books, moving images...”
One thing, however, he is sure about is, that “it’s going to be inspirational”.
You are, after all, Mutaz Essa Barshim.
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