Heike Drechsler achieved some unprecedented feats in an international career spanning nearly 25 seasons, including an odds-defying display at the Budapest 1998 European Athletics Championships where she won a record fifth individual gold medal.
Drechsler could already lay claim to being one of the most successful athletes of her generation prior to 1998. She had won three world and Olympic gold medals in the long jump but her title haul began to thin out after a stellar 1994 campaign in which she won her third European title in Helsinki and surpassed the seven metre-barrier in 21 competitions indoors and outdoors.
Drechsler was becoming increasingly susceptible to injuries which left her struggling for form at the 1995 and 1997 World Championships and forced her to forego her title defence at the 1996 Olympic Games altogether. With no major medals to show for in three seasons, Drechsler underwent surgery at the end of 1997 - just a few months prior to her 33rd birthday - when most athletes would be either contemplating retirement if they hadn’t done so already. Not Heike though.
"I was injured in 1996 and I wasn't right last summer [in 1997] but I had operations on both Achilles tendons 10 months ago and I've been feeling good again this year. For the first time in three years, I'm training and competing free of troubles. I've got my confidence back, which was one of my aims for 1998," said Drechsler cautiously prior to her title defence Budapest.
Drechsler worked her way into form throughout the season which culminated with a performance of the finest vintage in the final. At 33, Drechsler was the oldest athlete in the competition but this was far from a handicap. She stretched out to a winning effort of 7.16m in the second and third rounds - her best mark in all conditions in nearly four years - to beat Italy’s Fiona May to top the rostrum once again and continue her remarkable run of dominance in the event.
Drechsler had already won world and Olympic titles but it was at the European Championships where Drechsler always excelled. She became only the third athlete to win four successive European titles in the same event - and the first to do so with the European Championships spaced at four year intervals - and the very first athlete to win five individual titles in European Championships history.
Alongside her four long jump titles, Drechsler powered to the European 200m title in Stuttgart in 1986 with a world record equalling performance of 21.71. That mark remains the championship record as does her long jump mark which stands at 7.30m from Split in 1990.
Drechsler was almost a veteran when she won gold in 1998 but her run of success almost goes as far back as the 1982 European Championships. Only 17, Drechsler led the qualifying in Athens with 6.77m before finishing out of the medals with 6.71m to finish fourth - but only eight centimetres behind gold medallist Valery Ionescu from Romania. Had she replicated her effort from qualifying, Drechsler would have come away with the silver medal.
But Drechsler did have a shot at a fifth title on home soil in Munich 2002. Despite the efforts of her home crowd who did their collective best to rouse Drechsler to one final hurrah, the German finished out of the medals in fifth in what proved to be her final major championships appearance. However her affinity with the European Championships continued.
Drechsler was in the thrust of the action again at the Berlin 2018 European Athletics Championships but this time not as a competitor. Drechsler had trained as an official prior to the championships and was assigned the horizontal jumps in Berlin where her responsibilities included raking the sandpit for the competitors. “If you love the sport of athletics, you want to give something back,” she said.