At 41, Czech Republic’s Barbora Spotakova has amassed a unique collection of women’s javelin medals, including gold medals at Olympic, world and European level, and still holds the world record of 72.28m.
But winning European bronze in Munich’s Olympic Stadium, 20 years after she had competed there in the 2002 edition of the championships and five years after earning her last major medal, a gold at the World Athletics Championships in London was something she described as “a small miracle.”
The Czech athlete was competing against a field half her age – indeed the winner with a personal best of 65.81m, Elina Tzengko of Greece, was the youngest winner of this title at 19 - and not yet born when Spotakova made her debut at the championships in 2002.
Tzengko took a first-round lead with 60.82m and never lost it, but the competition for silver and bronze was volatile.
Spotakova moved into third place with her second round effort of 60.31m, behind the 60.57m of Hungary’s Reka Szilagyi, but was displaced, excruciatingly, by a centimetre when Serbia’s Adriana Vilagos - even younger than the winner at 18 - threw a fifth-round 60.32m.
So here was the latest test in an international career that spans five Olympic appearances – yielding two golds and a bronze.
And Spotakova was ready to step up once again, throwing the spear out to 60.68m to move into second place. Vilagos moved into silver medal position with her last effort of 62.01m but the veteran remained on the European podium – eight years after she had won her last medal in the event, taking the title at the Zurich 2014.
“I am always fighting until the end,” she said in the wake of her performance. “Nothing is lost until the finish of the competition. I knew that I would fight and I knew that I would throw more, that’s what I knew.”
Her success was witnessed by her mother, partner Lukas, her sons Janek – named in honour of her former coach, the men’s world record-holder Jan Zelezny – and Darek, who was born in July 2018. And a party of around 60 travelling friends and supporters.
“This is my first medal after the second baby, so it is actually a long time, and it’s what I told myself before the sixth throw – that I have to show my boys how to fight.
“That’s what I told myself. And then they ran to me and it was the most beautiful moment in my career I guess.”
As she acknowledged, the circumstances of this particular competition were propitious as far as she was concerned, given that Germany’s 2018 champion Christin Hussong was unable to defend her title due to the effects of coronavirus.
“This was like a small miracle happening. Because I am not here in a really good shape and the metres were not so good. This was a special occasion that the medal was just only 60.68m. This was a very good thing for me.
“This was very similar to my biggest competition. I felt like it was really 10 years earlier. It was beautiful, the feeling. I know it will not go away forever.”
And so, 16 years after earning her first big senior medal, European silver in Gothenburg 2006, Spotakova found herself sharing a medal podium with two teenagers.
“I guess it is symbolic that the girl who won was 19 years and I am 41,” she reflected. “I think the generations are changing.”
Over recent years, Spotakova has adopted a policy of “never say never” in terms of predicting her future involvements.
Speaking a month before the London 2017 World Championships, she commented: “I am still doing athletics just because there is a World Championships in London this year. Otherwise I would maybe have finished before now.
“This could be my last one, though, because it is getting harder and harder. I never say never, but it could be. If I win [in London] it’s likely to force me to stop, more than if I don’t.”
She did win. She didn’t stop.
In June 2020, after winning a meeting in Kladno – one of a series of events organised after pandemic lockdown in the Czech Republic - with 63.69m, she said: “I was really looking forward to competing because I’ve been training for a very long time and I know I can perform, but I wanted to test it.
But looking ahead to the prospect of competing at the Tokyo 2020 Games the following year, she remained cautious: “I think I’m in good shape. I only hope it will last, a year perhaps?”
Two years on, and she is back on the European Championships podium to add a second bronze to the gold, silver and bronze she already has from the event.
After this success, will she carry on? “I’m not talking about the future right now,” she replied. “I have to have some time to think.”
Watch this space.