Most athletes take a short break after the indoor season, a chance to physically and mentally refresh before getting back to the hard graft that awaits in the months ahead.
How they spend it varies, but it’s safe to assume very few competitors at this year’s European Athletics Indoor Championships in Istanbul will do the same as Turkiye’s Kayhan Ozer.
The 24-year-old sprinter, who was eliminated in the semifinals of the men’s 60m, will join a group of his friends and volunteer to assist with the recovery efforts in Kahramanmaras or Hatay this week, two of the cities that were left devastated following last month’s earthquakes in the south of Turkiye.
“We are going to help others,” he says. “It’s about providing water, food, and more needs.”
Ozer hails from Adana, a city of 1.7 million which is located about 160km from the epicentre of the first earthquake, which occurred in the early hours of Monday, 6 February. That 7.8 magnitude quake was followed nine hours later by a second, measuring 7.5, leading to the collapse of thousands of buildings and a massive humanitarian crisis.
“In Adana, 300 people (died) and 25 buildings were down,” says Ozer. “My family (went) to a mountain home, staying there, because my sister is so scared. She doesn’t want to go home. Every family is like this.”
Ozer: "I will run for the country"
In the first week after the disaster, Ozer stopped training, and he initially abandoned any plans to compete at the championships in Istanbul, but he soon reconsidered. “After the second week I said, ‘Okay, I will run for the country, run for friends,’” he says.
Two days before the earthquake, Ozer had gone for coffee with a close friend of his, but that same friend lost their life in the tragedy. Beset by grief, it was no time to think about athletics, but then again, for the previous eight years, the sport was the sun around which his whole world orbited.
Ozer first took it up at the age of 15, told by a teacher at school that he had a talent for it. That was certainly the case, with Ozer going on to win a string of Turkish underage titles and clocking 10.72 for 100m at the age of 17.
In 2019, at the age of 21, he lowered that to 10.33, and in 2021 he was selected as part of the Turkish 4x100m team that competed at the Tokyo Olympics. Early last year, he hacked his 60m best down to 6.64 to win the Turkish indoor title and, outdoors, he clocked 10.24 for 100m, helping him secure a spot at the European Championships in Munich, where he reached the 100m semifinals.
When he looked forward to 2023, he and his coach Nuray Sev knew the home championships in Istanbul threw up a rare opportunity. A full-time athlete, Ozer worked harder than ever in the winter, and he hit the ground running faster than ever in his first race, clocking 6.58 for 60m in Jablonec, Czech Republic.
But his season, and his life, got turned upside down on 6 February.
“I was so sad,” he says. “My people were dying, my motivation was down. I didn’t want to train, to do anything. I didn’t want to drink water, to sleep.”
But as the days ticked by, Ozer simply had to adjust to the new normal. He commenced training again, hoping to give himself a shot at the European Indoor Championships. The earthquake might have shown him many issues with his home nation, but the rescue efforts showed him something profound about its inhabitants.
“Turkish people like to help,” he says. “Turkish people are strong together.”
Ozer’s mindset shifted, and he began to look beyond the disaster and see brighter days ahead. “Thanks to my people and thanks to all the country for the help,” he says.
Not that things are suddenly rosy, given the relief efforts are ongoing and the shock, anger and grief that so many are still processing. “This is not finishing, we are so scared (of another earthquake),” he says.
An Olympic medal is Ozer's long-term goal
Heading to Istanbul for last week’s event, Ozer’s goal was to break the national record of 6.55, and figured a performance like that could land him on the podium. In the heat he clocked 6.67 to finish third, which he repeated in the semifinal, bowing out in sixth. He knew the missed training had cost him.
“I feel better, my motivation is good, my mind is good, but after one week without training my (fitness) is down,” he said. “But today, I feel so good.”
Looking to the outdoor season, his goal is simple. “I want to do 10.0,” he says. “I think that will be great.”
His long-term goal? “Olympic medal. Every athlete wants an Olympic medal. I will (do) strong training, and it’s good motivation.”
His result last weekend might not have been what he wanted, but Ozer looks back fondly on the championships, knowing that following such a horrific tragedy, the event proved one small triumph that gave many a reason to smile. “We showed we can host the big championships,” he says.
It also reminded him of something he’s long known about his home nation.
“My country is strong,” he says. “My people are strong.”
Cathal Dennehy for European Athletics