‘My accident made me the person I am today.’ Ivet Lalova – Olympic athletes interviewed Episode 66
Ivet Lalova, quadruple Olympian outlines how she suffered an accident and broke her femur early in her career. She explains the long difficult process of recovery, why she declined compensation, why she believes you need to get rid of destructive people in your life, and her desire to give back.Furthermore, we discuss
- How she fell in love with competitive track and field
- Her darkest moment
- Why she declined compensation from her fellow competitor
- Her best moment
- How she has been selected as a flag bearer for the Rio Olympic Games 2016
- Her advice to a younger Ivet Lalova
- Why she believes, that you need to get rid of destructive people around you
- Her success habits
- Her morning routine
- How to prepare for important moments
- How to overcome setbacks
- Does she have “what-ifs” in her head
- Her role model
- The best advice she has received
- A typical training day in the life of a sprinter
- How the training changed over the span of 4 Olympic Games
- Her interview nomination
- How she promotes the basic ideals, principles, and values of sport through her sprint academy
- Where can you find Ivet Lalova
Christian: Today I’m joined by Ivet Lalova. Ivet has been nominated by Ekaterina Efremova in a previous interview. Ivet is a quadruple Olympian and competed in Athens 2004 Olympic Games, the Beijing 2008 Olympics, the London 2012 Olympic Games, and the Rio 2016 Olympics in Track and Field.
She reached three Olympic finals in total; is a European Champion, Outdoors and Indoors European Junior Champion, and I quote Wikipedia, not to choose the wrong wording here, “you are the 12th fastest woman in the history of the hundred meters and the fastest sprinter of not West African descent”.
Ivet: Thank you so much for the invitation and for your patience to do this interview.
Christian: I have to thank you for your time.
How she fell in love with competitive track and field
Christian: Ivet, considering you’re a successful track and field athlete for so many years, how did you fall in love with competitive track and field?
Ivet: Honestly, both my parents were athletes and former athletes, so as a child growing up at home, I listened to all these stories about the competitions, about friendships, training camps. I didn’t realize at the time, but inside of me, I built this idea that sport and athletics is something I should pursue.
So one day I just opened the wardrobe and I found an old tracksuit of my father with the sign Bulgaria on the back. I told him that I wanted one of them and asked if I could wear his. He told me no and said that it was a national team tracksuit, and if I wanted to have one of them, I would have to train for it and earn it.
I found an old tracksuit of my father with the sign Bulgaria on the back. I told him that I wanted one of them and asked if I could wear his. He told me that it was a national team tracksuit, and if I wanted to have one of them, I would have to train for it and earn it.
There I was already training some gymnastics as a kid, also some swimming and at some point, I made a complete switch to track and field and this is the beginning of my story.
Christian: How old were you back then?
Ivet: I was 12 when I started with track and field, and it was really hard in Bulgaria by that time to find a coach who was willing to work with a kid.
Her darkest moment
Christian: In your life as an athlete, what was your darkest moment?
Ivet: My darkest moment for sure, was when I broke my femur the year after the Athens Olympic Games, in 2005. I won as you said before, the European Indoor title in the 200 meters and from then on, it was supposed to be the beginning of my good career of a really strong year that I can improve my results in the sprints.
But instead of that, at the same place that I had such an amazing success at the Olympic Games, which is the Athens Olympic Stadium, at the same place, I actually broke my femur during a warm-up for a competition in the summer. This was my darkest moment because it took me many years and really hard work and a lot of tears to come back.
At the same place where I had such an amazing success at the Olympic Games, the Athens Olympic Stadium, at the same place, I actually broke my femur during a warm-up for a competition 1 year later. This was my darkest moment because it took me many years, really hard work and a lot of tears to come back.
Christian: How did it happen?
Ivet: Actually, there was an athlete who was running against me in the opposite direction because they actually had asked us to warm up at the indoor track. You know this indoor track, they’re like half turn, so when you start running from one side you actually don’t see what’s coming from the opposite side.
In my case, there was an athlete running in my direction and there were hurdles and the wall, so I was trying to reduce my speed, it happened and I like to explain it. Usually, it happens as if you hit the brakes of a car and you try to kill the speed so fast, I lost my balance for a second.
I remember falling down rolling and actually, in one of those rolls that I did on the track, in some way, my leg was in a position that when I hit the track my femur broke into two. So this is how it happened. It was quite scary, not only for me but also for the other athletes who were there and for my former coach who was also a witness of everything that happened.
Why she declined compensation from her fellow competitor
Christian: I read you declined the compensation from the fellow competitor, as well as from the organizer, and you received the IOC Sports Fair Play award for that. Why did you choose to decline the compensation?
Ivet: Because the damage was done and nothing that I was doing afterward was going to get my bone healthy again. So I’m not the kind of person who is trying to blame others or trying to escape from responsibility.
From the moment that thing happened to me, I have to accept my destiny as my fate and I focused on working and giving my best to come back and that was my goal. So for me, if I was looking for compensation or anything, it was not going to change my life for the better.
The damage was done and nothing that I was doing afterward was going to get my bone healthy again. I’m not the kind of person who is trying to blame others or trying to escape from responsibility. I have to accept my destiny as my fate and I focused on working and giving my best to come back.
Christian: How did you recover from that moment?
Ivet: Really hard, really hard. I spent a few weeks at the hospital, where they had to operate me urgently. Then I spent some months in a German clinic in Bulgaria It was different places that I could find the best conditions, so I can recover.
I believe the key moment in my recovery was, as I was preparing for the Olympics, that I made a decision to not take any time off.
The key moment in my recovery was, as I was preparing for the Olympics, that I made a decision to not take any time off.
By that time, I didn’t understand why my coach was being so strict about it. Later on, I appreciated his motivation to continue on this path and doing every step of the process really professionally.
Christian: In previous interviews, I heard from other athletes, the physical recovery normally goes a little bit quicker than the mental recovery. Was that the same in your case?
- Check out the interview ‘It’s impossible until it’s done.’ with Silver Medalist 2016 Jelle van Gorkom and ‘Smell the roses a bit more.’ with Silver Medalist 2012 Sam Willoughby , where both of them outline, that the mental recovery takes longer than the physical recovery.
Ivet: I love to say that what saved me when the accident happened was that I was really young. I was 21 years old. By that time and in my head, there was no possibility that I’m not coming back and I’m not running again. So I had no idea what I’m facing and how long it’s going to take and how hard it’s going to be and I never thought about it.
Of course, I had my dark moment and as I said, I cried a lot. It was really tough for me watching the World Championships in Helsinki later, that the same season that I wanted so bad to be there and compete. But I worked, even on that and it saved me, but mostly my motivation to come back saved me.
In my head, there was no possibility that I’m not coming back and I’m not running again. I had my dark moment and I cried a lot, but my motivation to come back saved me.
Christian: Something that interests me. In June 2004, you set your personal best in the 100-meter sprint with 10.77 seconds. 2 months later, at the Olympic Games, the gold medal goes away with 10.93 seconds. Is that something that goes to an athlete’s head?
Ivet: Of course. I was so close to these medals and honestly, the Olympic Games were my first big event after the European Junior Championships the year before. So when I got there, the goal I had set with my coach, was to do my best to get to the Olympic final. This was something so big and I was only 20 years old, so nobody really expected anything from me.
I already had enough pressure running that results in the season previously. So going to the Olympics everything was so different, so new, that many people thought that I’m going to burn out and I’m not going even to run close to any good result.
But I think that by the time, I did my best and reaching both finals and getting fourth place in the 100 meters and fifth place in the 200 meters. That was really enough that you could ask from a 20-year years old girl.
Her best moment
Christian: What was your best moment?
Ivet: I was thinking a lot about this, I think my best moment was when I won the European Championships. It was in Helsinki 7 years after I watched that World Championships in 2005 on the TV from the hospital in Bulgaria crying so bad and feeling so down.
At the time I was asking myself if I’m ever going to be at the same place if I can go back running fast times and winning competitions and meetings. It was my first European title in the 100 meters. Going back to the same place, Helsinki, and winning the European title was a big moment for me.
It was 7 years after I watched that World Championships on the TV crying so badly and feeling so down. At the time I was asking myself if I’m ever going to be at the same place if I can go back running fast times and winning competitions and meetings. It was my first European title in the 100 meters. Going back to the same place and winning the European title was a big moment for me.
So for me, it was like the end of a very long and hard road. It was like the end of my injury, even if it was seven years later. That was maybe the end of the hard road.
Christian: So it was coming full circle there, right?
Ivet: Yes, exactly.
How she has been selected as a flag bearer for the Rio Olympic Games 2016
Christian: You had been selected as a flag bearer for the Rio Olympics in 2016 for your country. My question is how was it or how did you receive that information and then how was it to carry the flag of your country into the stadium?
Ivet: I still remember how I got the call. I was coming back from training and I received a call from the President of our Athletics Federation. As soon as I saw him calling, I thought, there must be something big or serious that happens if he’s calling me just two weeks before the Olympic Games.
I stopped the car, I pulled the car out of the road and I answered the call and he said, “I have great news for you. You’ve been selected to be the flag bearer at the Olympic Games.” I cried because it was beautiful and I remember as a kid watching the Olympic Games, this was maybe one of the moments that was most impressive for me.
The people when they entered the stadium with the flag of their country with the whole team behind them, so proud, so happy just to be there. It was really a big moment and it was even better in Rio and it was amazing. The opening ceremony was like one big party because the Brazilians are famous for the way they love music and dancing.
It was something I will never ever forget. It was really an amazing experience. I was very proud and very proud to carry the flag of my country and I was very happy. It was very motivating.
I remember as a kid watching the Olympic Games, this was one of the moments that was most impressive for me when they entered the stadium with the flag of their country with the whole team behind them. I was very proud to carry the flag of my country into the stadium.
Christian: You did not expect it?
Ivet: I did not expect it. Absolutely not! I did not expect it because I was thinking for sure, at least one Olympic champion or medalist was in our team. So I never thought that they can choose me and it was really, really amazing.
Her advice to a younger Ivet Lalova
Christian: If you could go back in time, 10/15, maybe 20 years, what advice would you give a younger Ivet?
Ivet: I would tell myself that you should not give too much attention to other people’s opinion because I think when I was younger, I cared. I cared much more about that.
Don’t give too much attention to other people’s opinions.
I would also tell myself that you have to be courageous, things never come easy and that you need a lot of time for everything and you have to work harder every year that is come.
Why she believes, that you need to get rid of destructive people around you
Christian: I actually saw you answer the same question in another interview and one thing I thought was interesting, you said surround yourself with supportive and positive people, and secondly get rid of destructive people.
Christian: My question that always sounds a bit obvious, but very often, I think it’s hard to know if someone is destructive. When do you know if someone is destructive and isn’t good for you?
Ivet: You know someone is destructive when you struggle, when you’re in pain and when they bring mostly these feelings in your life. I think at some point we all have these people and since I consider myself that I have a lot of patience, I don’t like to hurt people. There are many moments in my life that I keep these people without reason.
You know someone is destructive when you struggle, when you’re in pain and when they bring mostly these feelings in your life.
Once you realize that and you free yourself from this, you actually bloom and good things happen and nothing holds you back. So I think it’s really important, but I learned this the hard way and I learned this maybe now, when I’m 35 years old.
Her success habits
Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful person or athlete or and athlete?
Ivet: I will be honest with you. I don’t consider myself anymore as a person or an athlete. They become one and whatever makes me happy as a person, it’s helping me as an athlete. My success as an athlete is also helping me and teaching me to be a better person to have more patience to work harder to help others so I think both things are connected.
Whatever makes me happy as a person, it’s helping me as an athlete.
Christian: Looking at your story and career, I would also think perseverance is one of your main habits, isn’t it?
Ivet: Yes, absolutely.
Her morning routine
Christian: Do you have a morning routine?
Ivet: Yes, I wake up in the morning. I come down in my kitchen for breakfast and my dog is always waiting for me because I’m usually the one in the morning who gives the food. So the day starts with the big celebration that the food is coming.
So these things make me smile and I feel good and appreciate my life. So after I give him food, I prepare food and breakfast for me and my husband. Usually, he’s the one in charge for the fresh orange juice and I prepare some kind of healthy sandwiches and coffee.
The day starts with the big celebration, these things make me smile and I feel good and appreciate my life.
So I have this routine, then I like to drink, not one, but two long espressos and enjoy looking at some news and going on social media. So I maybe enjoy an hour or two and then I always get back up.
I put my music on and I put my clothes on. I chose clothes for training. I put my clothes on, prepare myself and go for training. So I’m very repetitive and I can do the same thing over and over again and I don’t get bored of it.
How to prepare for important moments
Christian: How do you prepare for important moments?
Ivet: I try to work mentally before the important moments, so when the moment comes, I kind of relive it. So, I like to be really prepared for it. I try to just focus on the things I want to happen and I try to stay calm, of course, and most of the times it works. Yes, it works.
- Also check out the interview ‘Focus on one way!’ with 2012 Olympic Champion Aleksey Torokhtiy who explains how he visualizes everything, so when the moment comes, he feels like he has been there before.
Of course, sometimes you can happen to find yourself a little more disturbed, nervous or even scared at some moments that you thought you prepared. But I prepare by working mentally for this moment. Of course, physically is more important, but also mentally.
I work mentally before the important moments, so when the moment comes, I kind of relive it. I like to be really prepared for it. I focus on the things that I want to happen.
Christian: Did the preparation change over the years?
Ivet: Yes, it changed a lot. I used to work with my Bulgarian coach from 1996 until 2011 and from 2011, when I moved to Italy to follow my husband and I started working with his coach. He totally changed my program and I learned so many new things and it opened so many doors for me.
The first year I came in Italy, I ran 10.96 and soon I also improved a lot my results in the 200 meters. Then after four years, I switched mostly to the 200 meters. I started preparing that event and now in the last, let’s say, one or two years, I changed again my program because I’m thirty-five.
I’ll be 36 next year, and I kind of cut the volumes of training so I think I should do more quality than quantity of training. So I try to do more quality work.
How to overcome setbacks
Christian: How do you overcome setbacks?
Ivet: I usually need a few days to digest everything and to let it poison everything inside of me and to suffer, like I let myself go through this pain. But after that, once that is over, I’m done with it. I use it as motivation.
- Also check out the interview ‘Dream big, work hard, believe you can do it.’ With Double Olympic Champion Mariana Pajón, who outlines how she transforms setbacks and dark moments into challenges and uses it as motivation.
So for me, I had a moment like this in Doha, at the World Championships this year  because in the day of the final, I was really prepared. With the time I ran previously in the season, I could easily win a medal.
But the conditions there were not what I was expecting and things were out of my control. So to be honest, at first I was really disappointed. I even sit there and I started to cry but in a few days I realized and I focus on the positive things and I told myself that I made it again and that I’m again in the final.
I let it poison everything inside of me and I suffer, I let myself go through this pain. But after that, once that is over, I’m done with it. I use it as a motivation.
Even at the age that people were asking if I was going to retire and wanted to know why I was still doing it. If at that age you still motivate people and you showed them that if you want it, nothing can stop you and you can keep doing it as long as you love it. So I use and I learned to use all these setbacks as a motivation immediately.
So this was one of the reasons that I didn’t want to have a vacation. I didn’t go on any vacation this year. Honestly, it was like working for me. It was just some time off the track, but working on other projects. It is what makes me wake up with a smile every day. Now go to the track and do my job because I know that Tokyo is just behind the corner.
Does she have “what-ifs” in her head
Christian: I have a bit of a difficult question for you. I watched an interview with Monica Seles, the former tennis player. She was dominating the world of tennis, and what made it very special was that she was dominating the person who was dominating until then. She got attacked and stabbed down and couldn’t continue her career or not to the same level as before. So in that interview, that I watched, she said she’s happy now, but she still has the “what-ifs” in her mind. What would have happened if I wouldn’t have that accident?
My question to you, I saw your personal best in the 100 meters was before you broke your femur. Do you have “what-ifs” in your head?
Ivet: Of course, I have, because I started my season in 2005 in a really good way. I had only one race I think in the 100 meters, and I run 11.03 seconds, which was so promising and I’ll be honest, the goal that we set for that year was the European record in the 100 meters that is 10.73 seconds.
So my goal was really to run in the low 10.70s, but you never know what is going to happen in your life. So the way that things happened, I accept that it must be that way and it helped me to try to achieve my best. Yes, I’ve run 10.96 after that, only two decimal close to the 10.77, but I made my PBs in the 60 meters. I made my PB in the 200 meters, so I still found a way to improve them and to get better.
If I go back, I’m sorry for myself and for this incident, but I don’t know who I was going to be today if this didn’t happen. My accident made me the person I am today and its part of my career and it’s maybe one of the reasons that I’m successful.
My accident made me the person I am today and its part of my career and it’s maybe one of the reasons that I’m successful.
Her role model
Christian: Who’s your role model and why?
Ivet: Growing up I was only projecting the idea that the coaches were teaching us that you should have this as a role model, you should have that as a role model. So I respect so many people in the world of sport and not only them.
My role models are so many people who overcome something, who are trying to help others, who as I say now, I would talk about the girls that we see that they win medals after motherhood; coming back to the track. So my role models are people who not only overcome something, but they fight for the others.
My role models are so many people who overcome something, who are trying to help others, who fight for others.
They help others; they leave a trace behind them. Not just people who came for a year and made a world record and then disappeared or won a medal and then nobody heard of them anymore. So the people that are my role models are more people. They can be normal, not big stars, but helping, leaving something behind them.
Christian: Legacy, nice.
Ivet: Yes, legacy.
The best advice she has received
Christian: What is the best advice you received and who gave it to you?
Ivet: One of the best advice I ever received was when I was really young, 19 years old. It was right before the year of the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004. That was right before my first very successful season.
It was from a former Bulgarian sprinter that has just ended her career. That advice was to always invest at least half of what you make from the track, back to get better. So this was great advice because by that time I didn’t realize it, but to be honest I’m doing the same.
You can’t only want to receive and you can’t expect always to receive things. You have to really reinvest them in yourself and as more athletes, I think athletes from all kinds of sports do this, the more successful they will have because there are people who once they receive something they say that they’ve made it and that’s it.
You can’t only want to receive and you can’t expect always to receive things. You have to really reinvest them in yourself.
A lot of athletes believe, if they have success, from here it will only go up and everything will get bigger and better. For me, this advice was very good because it taught me at a very young age that you have to save for the future; that you never know what’s coming.
You know sport. You get injured, you break your leg and maybe your career is over. So always keep something aside and always reinvest in yourself in the name of bigger success.
A typical training day in the life of a sprinter
Christian: How does a typical training day look like?
Ivet: As I told you about my morning routine until the moment I’m getting in my car and I’m going to the track.
I train at the track for maybe two to three hours’ maximum, then I’ll have lunch. Usually, my husband is with me all the time in the morning during my training. He works in the afternoon because he’s a physio now.
So we have lunch, then I have little rest in the afternoon. At this time of the year, that is the winter training, I do also a second workout in the afternoon. I’ll go to the gym and do some extra exercises or some track workout.
I train at the track for maybe two to three hours’ maximum, then I’ll have lunch and rest a little bit, and then I do also a second workout in the afternoon.
Then I will chill a little bit, I’ll watch some Netflix. I will go to buy some groceries and I will cook dinner. In Italy, people are very, very strict with the food and eating times, so they eat lunch at 1:00 pm and they eat dinner at 8:00 pm.
So I love to prepare dinner. I love to cook. I have big kitchen that is very nice and I enjoy the time in it. After dinner, I watch a movie or something and chill. Not going out so much when I’m training and yes, then I’ll go to bed.
How the training changed over the span of 4 Olympic Games
Christian: How did the training change over the years, considering you were preparing for Athens in 2004 and then for Rio in 2016? You said you do more quality work the older you got or the more advanced you are in your career.
Ivet: It really changed because when I was young, I was really saved, I love to say this, I was saved from my coach and thanks to this, I can keep running until now 35 or 36 years. I can go on because my body is healthy and I think this is the most important thing for every athlete.
So then I started to train hard around the years that I achieved my first big results, 2003, 2004, 2005 and after I broke my leg, we really reduced a lot of the training. I think that was one of the reasons I couldn’t come back with my former coach, running good times. Not only I was traumatized, but he also witnessed what happened to me and how I broke my leg.
For him to give me hard training and see me pushing myself to the limit after that was very difficult for him. I realized this with time. So when I moved to Italy in 2011, I realized what is real training because my coach that is here has a really tough program of training.
Not only I was traumatized, but he also witnessed what happened with me and how I broke my leg. For him to give me hard training and see me pushing myself to the limit was very difficult for him.
So I love to joke about it, but it should not be a joke. I learned what is real training at the age of thirty. This continued a few years after and by the age of 32 to 33, I start to reduce the volumes and you know that with the time, you lose speed, you get slower. Your nervous system is getting slower, but you get more resistive and powerful.
So I think that in all my career, I missed this resistance in the way I was running. I hated to run longer. I hate it now too, but I don’t struggle that much; it’s easier. If you ask me to run 400 meters, I can do it now. I couldn’t do it ten years ago, but I am much stronger now.
With my power, I can squat with more than 140 kilos and my weight is 54 kg, so it’s almost three times my bodyweight. Yes, these are the things that changed. So I try to work in a way to compromise that loss of speed with the time and be more resistant and powerful.
Her interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?
Ivet: No, I don’t want to nominate. I’m sure you have already in your mind some people, but yes, maybe you can choose some other athlete because I think that we have really interesting stories.
Christian: Really cool.
How she promotes the basic ideals, principles, and values of sport through her sprint academy
Christian: I saw you have an academy, sprint academy in your home country, where you promote the basic ideals and principles and values of sport. What are these principles for you?
Ivet: These principles for me at first is, all the kids to be able to do sports because as I mentioned before when I wanted to start to do track-and-field, I couldn’t find a coach. So for me, this is the main thing that all kids should do sport if they want.
Then the other principles, especially for my academy are that we don’t discriminate people. So I told those of the people that I work within the academy and that I’m bossing sometimes, I say that I don’t want us to say no to anybody, whether because of ethnicity, color, disabilities or age.
All kids need to be able to do sports, we don’t discriminate people. I don’t want us to say no to anybody, whether because of ethnicity, color, disabilities or age.
I love what track is giving to the people and the world what is athletics, how it unites people. I consider ourselves as one big family and this is what I want my club in Bulgaria to be. I want all the people to feel part of this family.
I want through that club to give back the love I received in all these years to everybody who needs it. If he’s a kid if he’s an athlete if he’s just somebody who just likes to run. So yes, I think that athletics is for everybody.
Christian: Yes, that’s really cool and that also goes back to what you said a little bit before. You want to invest what you get. So it’s not only financial, but you’re also giving back to the society. That’s really nice.
Ivet: Yes. I kind of get to a point of my life that it hit me that I want to start to give back and I realize how much I received in all my life and in my career and I want to start to give back.
I realize how much I received in all my life and in my career and I want to start to give back.
Christian: Really nice.
Where can you find Ivet Lalova
Christian: Where can people find you?
Ivet: They can find me on social networks. I was kind of with mixed feelings in the beginning and it was too exposed for me to be on the socials all the time, but now I start to love it because I see that it motivates people. It motivates young kids to do sports and athletics and it’s also a great connection.
Of course, sometimes this connection is dangerous because you also connect with all kind of weirdos. But it’s a great connection with people who are looking for help, who are looking for advice; connection with companies, sponsors, endorsement deals. So, I love the socials the way they are today.
Ivet Lalova’s social profiles
Christian: Really cool. Ivet, thanks a lot for your time and I keep my fingers crossed for your qualification for Tokyo and then obviously having success in Tokyo.
Ivet: Thank you, Christian. Thank you so much for this interview. It was great. It was my big pleasure. Thank you.