by Carolin Schäfer

When you want to achieve your dream, you have to make some big decisions, and take some risks.

I went to my first Olympics in 2016. I get goose bumps when I look back and remember it. At that time, I had no real ambition to win a medal. But now it’s different. In the last four years, I’ve grown into a world-class athlete, and I know what I’m capable of.

At the World Championships in London in 2017, I won silver in the heptathlon. When I stood on that podium, it was an amazing moment. Like the world had just paused for a brief time.

It was an incredible feeling, and it’s my dream to win an Olympic medal in Tokyo.

But to make that come true, I needed to make hard decisions, and take some risks.

Last year I was injured, and although I had the qualifying mark, I decided not to compete at the World Championships in Doha. Right until the last minute I was in hard training and hoping to be in shape, but I am a realist. I knew competing there could hinder the way to the Olympics a year later. The Games were much too important to risk anything in Doha. But it was one of the toughest decisions of my life.

While some things have changed since 2016, the hunger for more points is still there. That led to another big decision.

For a long time, I felt I needed a change. It came to a head in the middle of 2019. I found myself getting bored in training. My environment was no longer driving me.

So, I talked to my coach, Jürgen Sammert.

I started training with Jürgen when I was 19. He has been the biggest reason for the success in my career. In those 10 years he has made me the athlete I am now. He was the one who helped me first score over 6,000 points in heptathlon. He guided me as I matured into a world-class athlete and supported me to reach my personal best of 6,836.

Carolin Schafer ()

In sport, and in life, we have gone through many ups and downs together, and celebrated many moments as a partnership.

Jürgen and I know each other so well. We discussed how we could make changes to help me on the next step. We sat and talked about everything – what had happened in 2019, and our perspectives for the years ahead. But we couldn’t reach consensus on how we wanted to proceed. So, in the end, we agreed that we should go our separate ways. I made the final decision to change coach right after I decided not to go to Doha.  

It wasn’t easy, and while it was a fair and rational conversation, it was also an emotional one. Jürgen and I are like father and daughter, a connection built up over many years.

I was also really conscious about the risks in changing coach.

When I was 15, I had to decide which sport I would pursue with all my energy. I was pretty good at handball and competed at national level. I had to make a choice between the two sports I was passionate about: handball and athletics. On this occasion, it turned out pretty well!

But you never know if a decision will be successful. I always reflect carefully before making a decision. I very rarely act spontaneously.

Still, sometimes you need to take a risk, even when you don’t have any guarantee how it will turn out. Even when you know people will criticise you and question your decision.

Sometimes that’s hard to deal with, but more often it gives you extra motivation to drive you every day.

I received a lot of criticism when I changed my shot technique last year. Many people said it was a mistake because they did not see improvements immediately. But I’m glad I took a chance and tried the alternative approach.

The truth is my old glide shot technique had been messing me up. Although I had a good personal best, I kept making the same mistakes over and over again. I was stuck.

Carolin Schafer ()

Throwing over 15 metres is a goal in my career, so I took a chance. In my youth I had thrown discus a lot and I always felt very comfortable with the spin.

And so, rather than continue to torture myself, I decided to try the rotational technique in the shot. Learning a new technique is always a challenge, but after four training sessions I was able to throw over 14 metres, and it looked promising for the longer term. 

With my new coaches, I have since reverted to the glide technique, and they’re bringing me back to the absolute basics. They don’t want to have a heart attack during the shot in Götzis!

For those worried about what others will say if they make a change or take a risk, I’d tell them that they only have this one career. They are the key figure in their own success.

For me, it’s my life, and I alone am responsible for my decisions.

No one else can feel or know how I think or act in a given situation. I don’t judge anyone for their decision if I don’t know the exact background and that’s what I want from people who judge me quickly.

I have a tattoo that reminds me of this. It’s a lion, and it symbolises that in silence lies strength. Graceful power, like a champion that owns its respect.

These days, I’m working with Stefanie and Michael Kaul, the coaches and parents of decathlon world champion Niklas.

They have turned my training around 180 degrees. I have never run so much in my career, a lot of kilometres a week and at a hard pace.

During the first four weeks of lockdown, with every sport field in Germany closed, I had to either train outside or in my apartment. At home I worked on stability training but outside I was able to run.

I recently ran 10K for the first time – something I never thought I’d do.

The change has been good. I had watched Niklas’s development over the last few years and admired how the Kauls were always able to manage his peak, always getting him into shape at the right time.  

With two world medallists in the same training group, there is a great dynamic. We are both very grounded, but we work hard and don’t rest on our medals. We are happy in our success, but hungry for more. Having a strong training partner like Niklas at your side brings a strong training dynamic, and he’s great at pacing me in endurance sessions.

The new training has been intense, exhausting, an enormous physical and mental challenge.

Carolin Schafer ()

I have a second tattoo, a quote from Rocky – “It’s not about how hard you can hit, but how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward”. That describes my training right now.

But I know I have the right coaches for the next step in my career. They have a big focus on developing my strengths further, turning my weaknesses into strengths, and I love the way that we communicate.

I hope that later in the season I’ll have the opportunity to test some individual disciplines under real competition conditions. And maybe there is still also the possibility of a heptathlon in Germany.  

Nothing is certain, of course. But I would rather take a decision with a certain amount of risk, than ask myself at the end: “What if?”