Spanovic: "I’m still in the sport because I don’t think I've reached my limits"

Ivana Spanovic
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Ivana Spanovic reacts after winning gold at the Belgrade 2017 European Athletics Indoor Championships

Our third #AtHomeWith guest on Saturday (2) was reigning three-time European indoor and world indoor long jump champion Ivana Spanovic who joined us live from her home in Novi Sad, Serbia for an extensive chat with series host and sometimes rival Jazmin Sawyers.

In a far reaching interview on Instagram Live, Spanovic talked about the difficulties of making the transition from being an excellent junior into the senior ranks, winning her first major senior medal at the World Championships in Moscow and a potential farewell in front of her home fans at the 2022 World Indoor Championships in Belgrade. 

We saw on social media you have been able to train outdoors on the track again. How did it feel after so many weeks away?

It’s been seven weeks since I was last at the track. It felt different since I did my first session. I don’t remember how many times in my life I had to do so many workouts on the treadmill so the feeling was pretty crazy! My body hurts over the last few days because I have to get to know the running from a different perspective again.

It was definitely different for all of us but the good thing was I was able to train in my gym at home so I did weights and running and I progressed as much as possible but I’m still waiting to see what this season will have to offer us. 

We need to stay in shape though but on Monday evening but we will have an Athlete Committee meeting so I guess we will speak a little bit about it and see if it will be possible to have at least a couple of competitions. 

How have you been spending your time during lockdown in Novi Sad?

I haven’t really discovered any new hobbies but there is plenty of time for old ones.

I really love to cook and my older brother is a chef so I learnt a lot of things from him. Since I was 18 I started cooking and usually in the off-season or when we are home during the summer, we love to meet friends in the house and every time they come - I make whatever they love. 

With all the success you've had over the last seven years, would you say you have helped to make athletics a more popular sport in Serbia?

Everybody likes champions and heroes. From time to time we have new champions in other sports and everyone starts doing that sport. The main thing I love about what I do - besides my competitions - is a lot of clubs around Serbia are fully booked with a lot of kids so I think this is the biggest success of all.

When I retire, I think the medals are going to stay and I’m really happy to see who is going to win them and be the new me. I just love to show people and especially kids if they work hard enough and stick with their goals, stay focused on what they want, it’s really achievable. 

That leads us nicely on to the 2012 Olympics. How significant was London 2012 in shaping your career?

I think every single athlete has a period in their career when they question themselves: are they going in the wrong or right direction? Are they doing good enough? Is there something they can improve? Is there a bigger purpose in that given moment? 

The 2012 season was really difficult because I suffered from injuries in 2011 and two years before that I moved to another city to start working with another coach [Goran Obradovic, Spanovic’s current coach]. There were a lot of changes and before that I was just a junior who won a World Championships and second at the European U20 Championships. I was young and I didn’t have patience to focus on what is really important in that moment. 

Going from juniors to seniors, it was really not easy and I was struggling with a lot of changes, pressure and expectations. I was in London and I got to the finals [Spanovic initially finished 11th but has since been promoted to eighth] and after qualifying I was calling my parents and suddenly my dad started to cry because going to the finals at the Olympics was a big success.

I was not in good shape mentally or physically but I needed to go to London to see if I am capable of doing what I want and the day after qualifying the media starts writing about I should go for a medal. I was so far away from that and I didn’t even know if I could even repeat the result from qualification because the pressure was bigger and after that it was really hard to handle.

And then you followed up making the Olympic final in London with a bronze medal in Moscow

After London I took some time off to see what do I really want from this sport - and at what cost? I proceeded with training and next year comes Moscow. 

The funny thing about that year was three weeks before the World Championships there were the Balkan Championships and I spoke with Goran and I said ‘if I don’t jump 6.65m, I will not go to Moscow.’ He started yelling - we argue a lot - and I said ‘it’s a deal: if I jump 6.65m, I will go, if not we don’t go.’ I jumped over 6.65m and won the title with 6.76m but the progress was slow and I was still finding my rhythm and I was not confident. Goran likes to remember that he didn’t even know I was going to show up at the airport to go to Moscow for the World Championships!

I jumped 6.82m and the fourth girl [Volha Sudareva] had the same result but my second jump was better so I came away with a bronze. Goran said it was kind of luck but after some time I realised it was a game changing moment. When I stepped on the podium I realised ‘OK this is it: it’s so easy, anyone can do it.’ It gave me a whole new motivation and energy just to be free. 

After that I started talking about my dreams and goals and I was surrounded with my team of people I trust which is the most important thing. We started discussing the things which are realistic and with good communication and focusing on what is important we took a medal in every single competition...except for London when I lost a medal because of the bib.

What would you say is the difference between yourself as an athlete who reached an Olympic final to the athlete who is expected to, and is winning medals?

When you know you did everything beforehand in every single training and aspect and you know you are 100 percent ready, you give it maximum. 

Like always, the main focus is that one single competition which is the biggest that year and everything is just work for that. Sometimes I was maybe capable of jumping even further but I still got the medal and after we always sit down and watch the whole competition; we watch every single jump over and over again - how did it look, how did it feel, what could we change? 

I just want to see what are my limits and I’m still in the sport because I don’t think I have reached my limits; I just want to see how far I will go.

How did it feel to go over seven metres for the first time?

It was really nice! If I could choose the medal or the distance, I would always choose the result over the medals. Even though results are going to be forgotten, you can go to the championships and jump 6.70m and win that title. 

I could choose a gold medal with 6.70m or bronze with 7.25m, I would choose the second because I want to know my limits. I want my name to stay in the all-time top-10.

Your lifetime best is 7.24m from the 2017 European Indoor Championships in Belgrade. What were your memories of that competition?

It was a totally different competition. My coach from time to time loves to say to me I’m a robot, I don’t show any sort of emotion and I need to wake up, scream but when I perform, I don’t like anything to come in my way when I’m focusing but Belgrade was completely different. There were a lot of people who came to see what I could do in my home country.

The whole competition I was seeing where can I finish? After that we have the World Indoor Championships in two years and I don’t know what to expect but I’m pretty sure with all the years of experience, I think I can deliver something similar. 

People might not know that you also hold the Serbian record in the pentathlon! Can you tell us about that?

I like the pentathlon. The last time I did it, it was in Novi Sad [where she scored 4240 points to break the national record.] I do hurdles in training and the high jump from time to time as a joke but I never do long distance training because I am hating that.

I didn’t even prepare for the 800m but my coach said you have the record even before the 800m. He said ‘I will tell you the time every lap and you just need to run’ and then I started running and after 150 metres he started screaming ‘Ivana, you are late, come on, speed up, speed up!’ I still broke the record and it was really nice but I don’t know if I will repeat that. I have a fear of hurdles - I’m really clumsy and I feel if I did the hurdles I might break an arm or a leg which could end my career so I have given it up.

What keeps you motivated to stay in the sport after so many years? Next year's Olympics in Tokyo will be your fourth

We talked about London 2012 and after that there was the 2016 Olympics in Rio where I took the bronze medal. After that I felt I didn’t win that bronze medal, I lost the gold medal. I feel there is something left undone and I want to see the fourth time how is it going to look? 

As I get older, I learn how to keep my emotions under control and never let my body go over my head. I don’t know - it’s contagious, you want to have that same feeling over and over again. After I finish my career, I don’t think anything will give me the same feeling. I want to see how things will look in Tokyo and I would love to finish my career in Belgrade at the World Indoor Championships.

Have you given any thought about what you would like to do after you finish your career as a professional athlete?

From time to time my ideas are changing and whatever I want to do, I’m leaving that for the end. When I’m doing something, I want to be 100 percent in it - when I do something besides athletics, the training was so-so but I think the first thing I’m going to do is just travel around the world and actually get to see it instead of stadiums, hotels and airports!

What do you hope to be remembered as an athlete?

I don’t know how I will be remembered but if I can choose, I definitely want to say I have an impact on the kids from the streets into the stadium - it doesn’t matter if it’s athletics or another sport, just to be in sport. Sport made me the person I always wanted to be because what I do in sport applies to any other part of life - the dedication, the passion, the work ethic - you can apply this anywhere. 

If you didn’t do the long jump, which event would you do and why?

This is the first time I’m saying this! The idea for Belgrade 2017 was that I would try the triple jump along with the long jump. I like the training for the triple jump and it is going pretty well but there is a high risk of injury so I leave it on the side. Before I finish my career, I would like to try the triple jump.

Do you have a best friend on the circuit?

Even though we are all competitive, I think we are first of all friends. I don’t think anyone else can understand any kind of frustration, emotion - good or bad - except the friends you have in competition.

What is common in my mind is Berlin last year when I got injured; it was really hard for me. I felt like the world is going to collapse, I’m on my own and everything is a total disaster. A lot of girls came to me and gave me support. I know they know the level of pain I felt at the moment; those are the things I will remember forever. I’m really happy I can say I have a lot of friends in athletics.