Watching pole-vaulter Katerina Stefanidi compete is like witnessing a well-oiled machine doing what it’s made for. Conscientious and goal-oriented, she’s an intimidating presence to her rivals and rarely displays her emotions. Out of the arena, however, it’s a different story: A friendly smile lights up her face and she’s very expressive, even though a couple of weeks on, her huge victory at Rio still seems not to have quite sunken in. Even after taking the gold in August’s Games, Stefanidi is focused on reaching even greater heights – as high as the current world record holder, Yelena Isinbayeva.
The daughter of two champions, Stefanidi became acquainted with sports from a very young age and by her teens was considered a rising star in athletics. As time passed, the athlete confirmed this view, becoming a Olympic gold medalist at the age of 26.
“From the start, my husband believed we would take the gold,” says Stefanidi during a brief stop in Greece, referring to former pole-vaulter Mitchell Krier, with whom she lives in the US. “He was very supportive. Even now I can picture him jumping across the stands and into the arena when he realized I’d won.”
Have you set yourself a goal?
I think I am quite young for the sport. With the exception of this year’s Olympics, where all three of us on the podium were quite young, the average age in previous Games was around 30. I believe that is the best age for the pole vault. We will be drawing up a four-year plan for the 2020 Games but before that, we still have the European and world championships. In terms of performance, I have already cleared 4.90 meters indoors and the world record is 5.06. Those 16 centimeters are certainly a lot, but I still have plenty of time ahead of me.
Your success as well as those of the other Greeks caused a lot of reactions in Greece. Why do you think Greeks are so over-the-top?
I don’t have a good answer to that. It was just certain people who had an odd reaction. We have received thousands of positive messages and less than five negative ones. There’s a lot of bitterness out there, though. When I was younger and my dad was my coach, he had warned that when you’re successful and doing well, a lot of people will be happy for you and a lot of people will be envious and hateful. He told me that should give me strength, because my success would be the reason they hate me. He had prepared me for what I am experiencing today.
Other than the facilities, what are the biggest differences between being an athlete in the US and in Greece?
I would like to talk about the facilities. I’ve said it many times before and people didn’t believe me. Up until last year, in order to find space to train, I would jump over fences into schools and lift weights in my garage and my coach’s because we didn’t have the right facilities. When I was at university [Stanford], things were much easier. Again, I would train in the outdoor arena all year round, as the conditions were similar to those in Greece in the winter. I know that some athletes in Greece have to train in outdoor facilities even in winter, though not all of them. Most have access to indoor arenas. We didn’t, so from 2008 until last year, I trained outdoors. This year we moved to an area that has an indoor arena. Now we’ll be in an amazing facility, but I would like to add something that should be written. It’s not free. We pay 25 euros for every day I train. Sometimes, when I hear athletes complaining about the free stadiums, I want to tell them that they are great compared to what I had before I moved. Of course, even back when I was jumping fences to train, I still paid. I paid the coach. Things in the US are not like people here think.
Is there a different mentality?
The mentality in the US is that to become an athlete, you need to love and enjoy what you’re doing. In Greece, perhaps because of the poor economic situation, many see sports as a way to a better future. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with that, but they should pursue sports along with something else. In the US, the university system helps too, because you can pursue your academic and your athletic career at the same time.
Have you started thinking about the Tokyo Olympics yet?
Tokyo! Just over a month ago I was telling people that Rio was still too far away to talk about. All I’m thinking of now is the next three international meets, which will bring the year to an end, and then our holidays.