In our seventh #AtHomeWith episode on Instagram Live, we caught up with the indomitable Sandra Perkovic from her home in Zagreb, Croatia.
Perkovic talked about the origins of her Instagram name, becoming the first athlete in history to win five successive European titles in the same event, her political career as well as what keeps her motivated having achieved so much over the last decade.
If you missed the full interview, you can watch it in full on IGTV.
Welcome to the show, Sandra! How are you and how has lockdown been for you in Croatia?
It was very difficult and nobody could train or use the training facilities so we had to improvise and stay home but now there are no Olympics so I’m a little more calm about it now.
Unfortunately I don’t have a 70m throwing field but I have been doing some gym and some cardio to keep in shape and I’m good now. For 10 years I have trained as a professional so half-a-year off could help me in my career.
On Instagram we have seen you hiking through the mountains and lakes in Croatia over the last few days. Have you always enjoyed hiking or is this most of a recent pursuit?
I’m a big fan of hiking and after two-and-a-half months in the apartment when we were allowed to travel we decided to take the car and see the lakes - it’s the best thing in Croatia. We spent a whole day there, walking more than 15 kilometres which is a lot for a thrower! I enjoy nature and staying connected to nature - it’s the best way to relax.
Tell us about your Instagram name: discus70queen! Did you declare yourself the discus queen?
No, it’s something similar! After I won everything my team called me the discus queen and asked me why I’m not the discus queen. I just added 70 because after 25 years I’m the first person to throw over 70 metres. I think everybody recognises me now!
Going back right to the start, when did you begin athletics and how did you discover the discus? Did you try any sports before athletics?
I started in primary school in second grade - the coach came into our school to find some new talent and I was one of them. I started as a runner and jumper because I was tall.
I also trained in basketball and volleyball but I loved individual sports; if you are in a team sport you can do your best but you might not be the best. In track and field if you do the best you will be the best so that’s the reason I chose track and field. At first I did all the events and I started with the shot put.
After that we had one competition where I threw the discus because there wasn’t a shot put competition for the girls and I felt some connection and out of all throwing events, the discus was just for me. I started when I was 12 years old.
Athletics perhaps isn’t the biggest sport in Croatia so who were your role models when you were younger? Were your role models in athletics or did you look up to people beyond the sport?
In Croatia we didn’t have any athletics role models but we had Janica Kostelic, the Olympic champion in skiing and Goran Ivanisevic in tennis. When I was younger I was always looking for her and so proud.
After that we are very famous in team sports - handball, football and water polo - but in individual sports only a few of us are winning medals.
What was the response back home in 2016 when Croatia returned from the Olympic Games with not only one Olympic champion but two in athletics - and both in the women’s throws?
When I came back from London, I had a huge status and after Rio with two gold medals, we had our domestic meeting in Zagreb and it was amazing. We are a small country and we are coming back with three medals - two golds and bronze - from 10 people in track and field. Twenty percent of the delegation won gold medals; can you imagine that?!
As well as two Olympic discus titles, you have also won five European titles in the discus. Where does this rank in terms of your career achievements?
My first big medal was the European gold in Barcelona in 2010; everything started with that. We all know Europe is famous for throwing so if you win the Europeans, you will probably win the world title. It means a lot because I became the first athlete to win five straight titles in the one event - my fifth competition was Berlin and I was so sad there won’t be Paris 2020 so I cannot wait to add one more medal to my collection.
I think the hardest was Barcelona - I was only 20 and I was competing against really good athletes. I beat Nicoleta Grasu with my sixth attempt - she was nearly 40 years old and she took her first major medal when I was a kid so you know how much experience she has.
After that I had four more European titles but I think the worst one was Helsinki in 2012 when I was defending my title. Everybody expected something and you are expecting something and I was nervous and I started with two fouls.
Which was the most emotional of your five European titles?
The most emotional was for sure Berlin when the stadium was full and you know how much the Germans love athletics, they are the best country for field events. At the victory ceremony you were high up and the stadium was full - it was so emotional.
I threw 70 metres that season so everyone expected I would throw 70 metres in the first round and the gold is hers. I started with 59m, 59m, 62m - the first place was at that moment 63.00m.
My mum came to surprise me - she organised a coach full of friends and family from Croatia to surprise me and to celebrate my fifth gold with me because everyone was expecting that gold. After finally I threw 67m and won the title I was like ‘what are you doing here?!’ She said: ‘Is that the first thing you are going to say to me after four months away in the training camp?!’
It was really funny but after that it was all good but I wasn’t relaxed, I was a little bit nervous. You want it so much and nothing is going how you want it to go.
What keeps you motivated having won everything there is to win in athletics on at least one occasion?
I just do what I love the most - that is sport and track and field. I’m really in love with track and field. I don’t only love the discus - I love all events. I think I have an opportunity in life to do what I love while I am healthy and my body is responding well. And if I have the double, why not the triple?
Who would you say has been the most influential person in your career?
Everybody knows the answer: my mother. She taught me you can achieve anything in life if you want it, if you give 100 percent. After all my work, I have showed she is right.
She is a big support but she never comes to the stadium - she just lets me enjoy what I do. After a bad result she would never say ‘this result was bad, you should do better.’ She looks at me as a daughter, not an athlete.
Even if something is not going right, she would say ‘everything is going to be all right.’ She doesn’t look at me like I’m a robot - she would say ‘if you would need to go out, go out, clear your head and come back.’ That’s the reason she is my idol.
You are certainly the first guest on Instagram Live who has also stood for Parliament in their country! How did you get into politics and has this always been an interest alongside athletics?
The interest was always here - I think it’s important young people are involved in politics because we have a lot to say; it’s not the same as it was 30 years ago. I think it’s time for young people to come into politics and show their perspective.
As a person who is travelling a lot - other countries, other cultures, other thinkings - I’m not living in a box, I’m seeing everything. I think it’s important to have people who achieve things by hard work - not just athletes - in politics.
I joined parliament in 2016 and then I stopped and I needed to give 100 percent of myself to the Olympic Games so that’s why I froze that.
Right now I’m not looking for my end but some day I will probably be in politics - if not the Croatian Athletic Association. I want to be the voice of young athletes and people who need help.
How do you hope to be remembered as an athlete?
I also want to be remembered as a role model for young kids - but I want to be remembered as a role model for all young people. If you work hard in your job, you will achieve a lot more.
I just want to be remembered as one of the best athletes in Croatia ever, in Europe and maybe even in the world - and for sure in discus throw history. Of course I just want the young people to see only positive things from me and learn positive things from me.
European Athletics is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. What is your all-time favourite moment involving a European athlete?
I will say from my perspective it was the 2008 Olympics and Primoz Kozmus winning the hammer and the first gold medal for Slovenia.
We were training at the same facility and when you see someone like him achieving so much, it gives you so much belief. It was only two years before I became European champion and I think that was the moment which changed my life. He showed me how to become an Olympic champion. From my perspective, it was the best moment.