German long jumper Malaika Mihambo tells us how jumping without pressure helped break her championship hoodoo.

It has been a difficult year for Malaika Mihambo. At the start of the year, patella tendon irritation in both knees ruled her out for the indoor season and delayed her return to training until April, three months later than normal. She didn't complete a single long jump session until June. But it didn't dampen her spirits as she prepared for her first Olympics.

“It’s like riding a bike. You don’t just forget how to jump,” says the 22-year-old of her unconventional preparation.

“At the start of the year, Rio, Europeans, even just training on the track seemed so far away that I didn’t actually dare thinking about it,” she recalls.

However, the calm and softly-spoken Mihambo believes going into the season with zero expectations turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“It actually helped me approach all of the pressures a lot more relaxed,” she says of her race against time to hit form in time for the summer’s major championships.

“I was just grateful for every little bit of progress and gradually moved from competition to competition.”

Emphasis on gradually.

Malaika Mihambo competes in the long jump at the 2016 German Championships ()

Mihambo had only jumped in four competitions this year before the Olympics

In a year where the likes of European long jump champion Ivana Spanovic had racked up a total of nine competitions by the time the European Championships came round in July, Mihambo had jumped in competition only twice. 

“I managed to train a bit ahead of the Europeans and the German champs. It did show me that although I’d only done one competition and one long jump session before nationals – which of course is hardly anything – I was in good shape.”

With barely any preparation under her belt Mihambo, thanks to a last round leap of 6.72m, took the national title at the end of June. It provided a vital confidence boost for the 2015 European U23 Champion.

“The one thing that’s been missing this year was the long jump sessions, but I felt that I was fast, I was still in good shape and felt as strong as I hadn’t felt before, and that showed me I could still do some damage.”

Two weeks later at the European Championships in Amsterdam she finished third with 6.65m behind Spanovic and Britain’s Jazmin Sawyers. It was her first medal on the senior stage, but the distance had a bittersweet taste. Her mark in the final was down on the 6.76m she posted in qualifying.

It’s an unavoidable theme in Mihambo’s record. In all three of the past major championships she competed in – from the 2015 Beijing World Championships, the European U23s through to the 2014 Euros – she had always recorded better jumps in the qualifying rounds than in the final. At the 2014 European Championships it had cost her a medal, missing out on bronze merely on countback.

Women's long jump podium in Amsterdam 2016 ()

The long jump podium at the European Championships in Amsterdam

With a European medal to her name, Mihambo, who started athletics at the age of eight having tried her hand at ballet, gymnastics and judo, went into Rio with plenty of expectations resting on her. The political sciences student still had some final papers to hand in just before the Games, but it didn't distract her from the task at hand, nor did the pressure of the Olympic stage make her crack.

In qualifying she jumped 6.82m, just eight centimeters shy of her PB and the furthest she’d jumped all year. In order to have a say in the distribution of medals, however, she would have to better that performance.

The women’s long jump final turned out as one of the most competitive in Olympic history. Mihambo was right in the mix for the medals.

Spanovic had gone out to a leading 6.95m in her first attempt, only for Tianna Bartoletta to follow up with 6.94m and 6.95m in the following rounds. Mihambo was sitting in third with 6.83m – reigning champion Brittany Reese was out of the medals.

In round five things escalated. Reese went out to 7.07m to take the lead. Within a matter of minutes Mihambo jumped a PB 6.95m. Despite having recorded the same distance as Spanovic and Bartoletta she sat fourth by virtue of an inferior second best jump. Bartoletta went on to take the title in 7.17m, Reese took silver in 7.15m and Spanovic improved her NR to 7.08m for bronze.

That left Mihambo in fourth, but the spell of being unable to produce her best form in finals was finally broken.

Malaika Mihambo competes in the long jump at the Rio 2016 Olympics (Getty Images)

 Mihambo jumped a PB 6.95m in the Olympic final to finish fourth

“I can’t really say what it was,” Mihambo reflects. “I think I’ve just become more mature and more experienced, which really has helped a lot. I just approached the whole thing a lot more relaxed.” 

Missing out on a medal meant no disappointment for Mihambo. “No, not at all,” she insists.

“I always say, if you can leave the track with a personal best, surpass yourself and achieve something you have never achieved before and it isn’t quite enough, then that is perfectly okay. I know I’ve given it my all.” 

She’s right. At only 22, she’s also got a lot more to come. The three women who placed ahead of her were at least four years older than her, two of them eight years her senior. That’s two Olympic cycles in athletics jargon.

Instead of dwelling on how her season might have panned out had it not been hampered by injury, Mihambo savours the experience of competing with the best in the world.

“Of course, having the standard this high doesn’t make it any easier for yourself,” she says, looking back on that historic long jump final. “But at the same time it means you’re always pushed to your 100 per cent limit, which makes it even more fun.

“It’s true what they say: competition is good for business.”

Header image: Mihambo competes at Berlin Fliegt! where she won maximum points for Team Germany. (Photo courtesy of Benjamin Heller)