Olympic Odyssey: Friendly Fighter
Former World Number one Chris Hill takes us to Beijing through the athletes eyes
Her father taught her how to suffer in pursuit of her dreams in competition; Venceslau Fernandes also instilled in his daughter Vanessa the value of sportsmanship away from it.
Vanessa Fernandes is a true sportswoman. Having been beaten into second place by Australias Emma Snowsill at the season opening BG World Cup Mooloolaba, she chanced upon Snowsills parents after the podium celebrations.
There was no animosity, sideways glances or impromptu detouring. Fernandes, 22, chatted amicably and respectfully with them and at the end of the conversation, handed her silver medallist bouquet to Maureen (Emmas mother) as a gesture of goodwill. What?
In a time when acrimony and hatred fuel the big battles in sports, this cant be right?
Fernandes, however, provides a refreshing change. Maybe this athletic ideal is the basis of why she is the best female athlete on the planet and why she remains calm when everybody else is fretting about the rarity of her racing record.
Put simply, Fernandes possesses perspective. And it is something her family has instilled since she was a young athlete.
I think in the world of sports you win when you have a good relationship with the other athletes, Fernandes said. Its not all about winning. It is important to be good with all the other athletes. I grew up in a family like that and I think it is inside me.
This perspective is what helps her now, in an Olympic year, when expectations can engulf even the most confident athlete. And the weight of expectation on Fernandes alone must be grand.
In 2007, she won everything going, making her race record read like a binary computer printout with the zeros missingjust a long list of onesall at a time when three-time World Champion Snowsills race resume contained a list of twos.
But billing Fernandes and Snowsill together as a two woman gladiatorial rivalry with pure hatred as its power source is a clich that would be easy to fall intoFernandes sees the reality quite differently.
I dont only think about Emma, I think about everyone, she said. Emma is one of the more difficult athletes to beat, but I am prepared for everything.
The reigning World Cup series Champion, European Champion and World Champion is not convinced that Beijing will be a two horse race because she has too much respect for all of her competitors.
You have to expect other young athletes coming up because this year is special. I think we will see other girls that have not appeared yet doing fast runs because it is a different year. You see that in athletics and swimming with all the new world records, so you have to be prepared for everything.
And in preparing for everything Fernandes goes out of her way to remain open to new ideas. In this way, her world is not an isolated one-woman atoll at all. Her greatness owes to her opennessher willingness to learn.
After the podium celebrations at Mooloolaba, besides the Snowsills, she was keen to seek out Emma Carney, the woman with whom she has drawn equal as the most successful World Cup athlete.
Both have won 19 World Cupsa record that does not faze Fernandes too much.
When I go to a race I dont think about my record. But sometimes a person will come over to me and ask, How many World Cups have you won? and I will say, I dont remember, she said. They talk of records and to me, it means nothing.
What are more meaningful to her are the wisdom, insight and inspiration to be gained from people like Carney.
I read a lot about her, Fernandes said about Carney. I think she has a spirit we dont have now. She was a hard competitor and hard worker. And she told me a lot of things. To be hard in competition, to believe in myself all the time, and some secrets (she laughs) for the sprint.
Perhaps her talk with Carney just serves as a reminder or perhaps Fernandes does not realise that her fighting spirit has been inbuilt already and at its peak, it is second to none.
This determinationthe ability to persevere at the athletic limitis another legacy left by her father (the 1984 Tour of Portugal winner, at 39) from his days as a cyclist.
Sometimes Id train with my father and hed want me to suffer, Fernandes said of her fathers influence. Hed look at me and want me to push, but I didnt want to push at that time. But later, when I was exhausted, hed say to me, Thats how you have to run if you want to win.
Vanessa must have listened because her full throttle brand of racing has all the features of this athletic ethicher level of commitment to suffering in races is so practiced that it comes naturally now.
Its an education Vanessa feels grateful for. Thats my father, she said with pride about her father. He is very powerful man. I never knew anyone like him.
Venceslau Fernandes has taught his daughter a lot about the drive needed to be a world class competitor, he has also shown her that class away from competition is just as important.
And it is these twin virtuesthe ability to suffer and the capacity to respect and learn from her fellow athletesthat Vanessa Fernandes will carry as her career culminates at Beijing in August this year.
Former World Number one Chris Hill brings his unique elite athlete perspective in weekly Olympic columns to ITUs website, triathlon.org. He competed on the ITU World Cup circuit, winning three titles and ten medals in total. He was crowned the overall World Cup series champion in 2001. That same year he was silver medalist at the ITU World Championships in Edmonton, Canada. Watch for Chris Hills column, Olympic Odyssey every week on triathlon.org.