Sport

Nafissatou Thiam: Heptathlon’s student superstar on prizes, progress and perspective

A full house of Olympic, world and European gold medals, a world athlete of the year award, a clutch of blue-chip sponsorship deals, a catwalk jaunt at Paris Fashion Week and the mantle of being one of athletics’ post-Bolt era superstars.

And only 24 years old.

On first look, Nafissatou Thiam’s rise seems straight and serene, the cream rising inexorably to the top. In fact, it has been a little more complicated than that.

Six weeks before the Rio Olympics in 2016, the Belgian heptathlete damaged her elbow so badly that she was told by doctors to have surgery rather than compete.

At the World Championships in London in 2017, for the first time she was hindered by suffocating nerves and the weight of expectation.

On the evening between the two days of competition at the European Championships in Berlin in 2018 she was in tears after a dispute with the Belgian Athletic Federation over the prominence of sponsors on her team kit.

Each time she won gold anyway.

Her six-foot frame, all slingshot levers and ground-gobbling stride, is striking. But the most important part of her make-up might be the top six inches.

“Through the years, I really learned a lot about the mental aspect,” she tells BBC Sport.

“Sometimes you can think it is not that important, but it is super important. It can really help you to huge things, just to be confident and to be strong in your mental approach.

“So much can happen, you really have to stay focused, and not get distracted because you are hurt or things are not going according to plan.”

Thiam’s Belgian mother Daniele Denisty, who raised her and her three siblings after splitting from their Senegalese father when the children were young, is a constant inspiration.

The pair used to train alongside each other after Denisty got into track and field in her thirties.

“Now I am too slow. Or Nafi too fast, it depends on how you look at it,” said Denisty, a world, European and Belgian champion in various veteran categories.

“I always saw her as a very strong woman,” Thiam said earlier this year.

“When it gets hard I think about her and everything she faced and I think, ‘OK, this is only sport, you can do it – it’s easy compared to what she did’.”

British rival Katarina Johnson-Thompson’s ability to similarly grit it out in pursuit of gold has been questioned in the past.

But her performance in Berlin, pushing Thiam all the way in a thrilling two-day duel, suggested her French training set-up had instilled a new competitive composure.

“I was not really surprised that Katarina was such competition because she is a very good athlete,” said Thiam.

Johnson-Thompson, 20 months older, is a familiar foe. At first, the Briton was out in front.

Thiam was nine places behind her at the World Championships in Moscow in 2013, four back at the Gotzis meeting in 2014 and one behind at the European Indoors in 2015.

Since then Thiam has forged ahead. They meet again this weekend at the Diamond League event at Birmingham’s Alexandra Stadium, both taking part in the long jump.

“My first big championships were in Moscow 2013 and she was there and already at a really good level,” said Thiam.

“But I never thought it was smart to compare to other people I compete against because we are all different, with different evolutions.

“If I do better, the same or worse as someone else at the same age it does not mean that you are going to evolve in the same way.

“My goal was always to get better and be the best I could be.”

Third on the all-time list, the best benchmarks for Thiam now are historical ones. Carolina Kluft’s European heptathlon record, set in 2007, is only 19 points better than Thiam’s personal best.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s 31-year-old world mark is more like 300 points on however. Could Thiam eventually topple the American’s total?

“I am not really thinking about that record to be honest,” she said. “I don’t think that would be smart to do because it is just too far.

“We go step by step. It is good to put goals on the way that you can reach and right now I am thinking about the European record because I think I can do it, although that doesn’t mean I am going to.

“I just hope that one day I will be good enough to honestly be thinking about the world record.”

Right now she has more pressing concerns: the end of the geography degree she has combined with her athletics career.

She is polishing her thesis – due to be submitted in September – on the differences in how cities sprawl in South Africa compared to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. The graphs and maps are a welcome escape from the scoring charts and hard graft.

“Sometimes in training things are not going great and you can start thinking too much and get in a bad cycle,” she said.

“It is great to have something other than athletics to focus on and to be with people who really don’t care about athletics and don’t talk about athletics.

“When you are only an athlete, a lot people only see you through your performance; you are only as good as your results are. If things are not going well then, what do you have left?”

If Thiam’s form and fortunes did ever dip, she seems certain to keep her perspective at least.