9 Jun 2012

Team GB’s Yamile Aldama – a force of nature

Triple jumper Yamile Aldama will represent Great Britain at London 2012, and could even captain the athletics team. But as Keme Nzerem reports, the Cuba-born athlete has lived a life unlike any other.

It’s an unorthodox training regime, to say the least. Take a world champion athlete and her training group, find a family car – preferably smallish – and push it up and down a car park, again and again and again.

But then, Yamile Aldama, a 39-year-old mother of two doesn’t do “normal”. Her coach, though, has words for her aplenty.

The day she gave birth, she was actually throwing away radiators, heavy radiators. Frank Attoh, Yamile Aldama’s coach

Frank Attoh told Channel 4 News: “She’s special. She’s incredible. Focus, attention to details.

“The day she gave birth, she was actually throwing away radiators, heavy radiators, when she broke her waters and was taken to hospital to have a baby.

“And within a day or so of having a baby, she’d got a litre’s worth of heavy Coke bottle and put sand in it, and she was doing curls with it, bicep curls. And you think: why do you want to do that? Leave it for a few more weeks before you start training.”

But whatever she’s doing, it obviously works, for she’s been competing at the highest levels since she was a teenager.

Extraordinary life

Now she’s on the cusp of 40 – and still going strong. And decline a request to help out at one of her pre-season fitness sessions at your peril, because Yami Aldama doesn’t give up at all. When she says push it, she means it!

The training – all the car-shunting and bicep curls – are the constants that are threaded throughout her extraordinary life.

I just know that I’ve got that desire every day when I wake up… It comes from inside me. Yamile Aldama

She discovered athletics growing up in Havana. She still has the documents and photos that speak to this previous life. She won her first medal, for Cuba, back in 1988. Her most recent, nearly 25 years later – this spring, when she won the triple jump gold for GB at the World Indoor Athletics Championships.

And she is now even being touted as a possible captain for Britain’s Olympic athletics team.

When I asked her how she did it, she replied: “I couldn’t tell you. And it’s not a secret. I don’t know. I just don’t know.

“I just know that I’ve got that desire every day when I wake up, and I have that motivation. It comes from inside me. I just love to do the sport.”

Medal contender at 40

And Aldama’s impact on the world of sport? If she can keep going like this, well, why can’t others?

British long jumper Chris Tomlinson told me: “We very much thought up until the age of 35 we can become athletes, and then we retire. Yami’s 39 and is going to be nearly 40 come the Games – and she’s a real gold medal contender.

“So people are now starting to think: ‘Well, maybe I don’t have to retire at 35. Maybe I can just keep going and going. As long as my heart and my head are in it, why not?'”

This is precisely what makes Aldama’s story all the more remarkable. Because over the years, yes, there’s been the training, but somehow she’s kept her head straight, too.

For in ’99 she fell in love with a Scottish man who would later father her children. She moved across the world to London to be with him. Unbeknown to her, though, he was a drug trafficker.

In 2003 he was sent to jail. Overnight she became a single mum in an unfamiliar land.

She told me: “I decided I’m going to stand by him because he’s a great father, even though he made his mistakes in the past. It’s the way he was. We were in love.

“And as a mother I think that was my duty. I had to do it and I was happy. I am happy now that I did.”

Aldama is now reunited with her husband, who’s now out of prison. And she wears her Team GB uniform with pride.

Force of nature

But when she first arrived in London over a decade ago, she was stateless. She had no-one to compete for. Cuba had disowned her and the Brits had lost her passport application. In the meantime, she accepted an invitation to run for Sudan.

The point is, you’re here. You want to do well for the country – and that’s all we’re here for. Yamile Aldama

Two years ago she finally received her British credentials. Some derided her as an opportunist, a plastic Brit. The row exploded this spring, just a few days before she became world champion.

When I asked her how it affected her to know people were saying they thought she should not be running for Britain, she replied: “Well, we had a lot of support round the team, and they were made, asking: ‘Why are they asking this question? This is so silly.’

“As a professional, you want to do your job and you want to do well. The point is, you’re here. You want to do well for the country – and that’s all we’re here for.”

Whatever she achieves during London 2012, it certainly won’t be for any lack of trying – or pushing cars. Because this woman is a force of nature, and medal or not this summer, Yami Aldama has lived a life quite unlike any other.