The journey to any medal is never smooth. By now, Anna Kielbasinska knows that more than most.
At 32, the Pole has amassed a fine collection in her career, from U20, U23 and senior individual medals at European level to world and Olympic medals in the relays.
It was the same for her latest additions: two bronze medals in the 400m and 4x400m at the European Indoor Athletics Championships in Istanbul.
“It wasn’t really how I planned,” she said of her preparations. “I had some health issues, some problems, but I guess it was normal – all of us have something. I am not that young anymore, my recovery is not that good anymore, so I also have to be really aware of my body. It wasn’t really smooth, but I managed.”
Kielbasinska showed up in Istanbul knowing two medals were possible, having finished second at the Polish Championships over 400m in 51.33 a fortnight before. At the Atakoy Arena, she coasted to victory in her 400m heat in 51.77, then finished second to Lieke Klaver of the Netherlands in her semifinal, clocking 51.67.
In the final, she drew the difficult lane three, but utilised her 200m background to rip through the first lap in 24.00 and slot in third behind Klaver and Femke Bol, who went on to take gold in 49.85. Klaver took second in 50.57, with Kielbasinska winning bronze in 51.25, a season’s best.
In many ways, it didn’t feel all that different to a training session, given that for the past couple of years, Kielbasinska has spent much time training with the Dutch duo under the guidance of coach Laurent Meuwly. Kielbasinska is still based in Poland, but joins the Dutch athletes on training camps about four times a year.
“We push each other, we keep cheering each other and that is why we built such a strong thing,” she says. “I really appreciate that I had an opportunity to join them. For me, that was probably the best choice ever.”
Meuwly is the “brain of the operation,” writing the programme, with Kielbasinska’s day-to-day work overseen by Jaroslaw Skrzyszowski. What has she got from training alongside Bol and Klaver?
“I see them working that hard, pushing every day, believing in themselves, cheering up each other and just helping each other,” she says. “For me, it’s something new and a really nice experience that helped me to believe in myself. Thanks to them I am here with another European medal so I really appreciate it, and I thank them.”
From a career-threatening injury to the Olympic podium
For much of the past few years, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for Kielbasinska.
In 2021, in the build-up to the Tokyo Olympics, she dealt with a potentially career-ending injury: a stress fracture in the navicular bone in her ankle. She had dealt with pain in that area for the previous two years before realising the full extent of the damage, which forced her to undergo surgery just five months out from the Games.
“The fracture was third grade, so the bone was completely broken, it was in two pieces,” she says. “It was dead already so they had to fix it with two screws, which I still have in there. They said (the damage) couldn’t happen suddenly; it had to happen over a few years.”
She faced a race against time to recover her health, and fitness, ahead of the Olympics. “Some people can say I was naive, or optimistic, but I told myself I would make it,” she says. “Each day, I was focusing on the small steps I could do and I was really trusting my coach, that he knows what we’re doing.”
She wrote down a list of goals for the season, carrying the paper in her bag to every training session, helping her through the misery of mind-numbing rehab and cross-training. The Polish Championships were scheduled for the end of June, which she needed to compete in to earn a spot on the 4x400m relay for Tokyo.
Kielbasinska only got back running in spikes two weeks before that event, but somehow pulled out the performance she needed, clocking 52.20 to finish fifth.
In Tokyo, she helped Poland to victory in the heats of the women’s 4x400m with a 51.01 opening leg, and was replaced for the final by Natalia Kaczmarek, with Poland winning silver in a national record of 3:20.53. For Kielbasinska, her first Olympic medal was a just reward for her persistence.
“I wasn’t sure I could do this, but I trusted my coach, the doctor, the psychologist,” she says. “Physically, I was ready, but I just needed to break the mental barrier.”
Kielbasinska enjoyed a much more consistent year in 2022, reaching the 400m final at the World Athletics Championships in Oregon, where she finished eighth. A month later she was back on the podium, winning bronze over 400m at the European Athletics Championships in Munich, clocking 50.29. She also helped the Polish 4x100m and 4x400m teams to silver.
Unfinished business in 2023...
Heading to Istanbul, her chief goal was to earn her first individual European indoor medal. So, with that in mind, did she accomplish everything she wanted?
“Not everything, I wanted to run sub-51,” she says. “But I wasn’t really lucky with the final lane. It was hard to run fast (from lane three) but still, I can’t complain. I ran three races on a really high level; I am really proud of myself.”
She was back in action a day later for the relay, where Poland – missing many of its strongest athletes – was not expected to feature strongly. Yet they once again rose to the occasion, with Kielbasinska getting them off to a great start, her opening leg of 51.39 setting the tone for their bronze-medal-winning performance in 3:29.31.
With the outdoor season looming, Kielbasinska has her eyes fixed on the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, though her chief goal is about time.
“I want to break the 50-second barrier,” says Kielbasinska, whose best of 50.28 was run at the Paris Diamond League last year. “I was close a few times and I would really like to cross that line.”
At 32, she appears to have much distance left to run in her career, her body as strong as ever, her mentality now even more formidable. But the big reason she’s still here, running fast and winning medals, comes down to something more fundamental.
“I wouldn’t do sports if I didn’t enjoy it,” she says. “I love what I do. It still makes me happy.”
Cathal Dennehy for European Athletics