By PAT GRAHAM, Associated Press
At the height of her success, high jumper Blanka Vlasic had to relearn how to leap.
There was really no other choice for the 29-year-old Croatian. A fragment of a bone in her left ankle broke off and embedded into her Achilles, requiring surgery to shave part of the tendon on her takeoff foot.
That was 16 months ago. Since then, she contracted a serious bacterial infection in her foot, missed the London Olympics where she would've been a favorite and spent many a grueling training session figuring out how to jump again off her repaired ankle, wondering if she would ever recover enough to be among the world's best.
On the mend, Vlasic returns to competition next week at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York, her first meet in nearly two years. Already, the jitters are building for the two-time world champion.
"To go out there and put on the spikes, to jump in front of a crowd? I just can't wait," Vlasic said in a phone interview from Croatia. "I can't wait to feel that pre-competition nervousness, the positive excitement, to be the part of that circuit again.
"I don't want to expect anything. But I still have my hopes."
There was a time when Vlasic was inching closer and closer to the world record of Stefka Kostadinova, a mark the Bulgarian has held for more than 25 years. At a meet in 2009, Vlasic cleared 6 feet, 9 3/4 inches, the best mark ever by someone other than Kostadinova, whose record stands at 6-10 1/4.
These days, Vlasic's nowhere near that form. Not yet anyway.
"I don't know if I'll be myself again," she said. "I cannot tell you how high I can go. I believe I will be able to jump as high as I used to. But I'm not obsessed over it. I can't think too much about height."
Instead, she's simply relishing her return, vowing to appreciate each step along the way.
"The worries I had before this were nothing," she said. "Why worry about centimeters or losing? I didn't have any right to be disappointed when I was healthy and had the opportunity to do what I like. It's sad that people understand that only when something happens and you don't have your abilities to do what you do best, what is your life calling."
After her surgery on Jan. 30, 2012, Vlasic had some setbacks that had her questioning if she would clear another bar. Like when she woke up one day in April 2012 and her foot was completely swollen. At first, she thought maybe she had pushed her recovery too far.
Turns out, one of her stitches didn't heal properly and became infected, she said.
Like that, she was sidelined again.
And like that, any realistic chance of being ready for the London Olympics was gone.
"I had some really dark moments," said Vlasic, who was on antibiotics for three months to clear the infection. "But what kept me going is the feeling that there was still something for me in high jumping. There was still something out there I didn't do that I still have to do. What was that? I didn't know.
"But I didn't feel in my soul that I was finished, that it was over for me."
Watching the London Games last summer was painful, simply because she had a good shot at winding up on the podium had she been healthy.
"For two days, I was in really bad shape," said Vlasic, who finished runner-up at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "But then you accept it and make peace with it. It's not like I was ready and I just wasn't there. No, I wasn't ready. So, from that perspective, you accept it. There will still be other Olympic Games and world championships for me. I believe in that. I have faith in that."
Vlasic returned to high jumping last September. Nothing too ambitious, just a four-step approach to the bar in her training shoes.
From there, she graduated to a six-step approach and eventually to eight steps.
And then she tried jumping in her spikes, which didn't have as much cushion.
"Whole different story," explained Vlasic, who now wears a custom-built pair of spikes by Adidas. "You start to jump and you see how far, far away you are from huge jumps. When I put my spikes on, I was like, 'Am I ever going to run without pain?'"
By the end of November, Vlasic began feeling a little more like her old self, the jumper who everyone else was chasing before her injury.