'Sky's the limit' for Venezuela's Olympic champion Rojas

Barcelona (Venezuela) (AFP) –


As a child growing up in a Venezuelan slum, Yulimar Rojas's athletic prowess was clear for all to see.

She played a variety of ball sports before turning to athletics, trying her hand at different disciplines before landing on the triple jump -- in which she broke the world record at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday.

Undeterred by her humble beginnings, the 25-year-old, pink-haired star is today the pride of her community and a symbol of hope for other poverty-stricken youngsters in a country mired in economic crisis.

"The sky is the limit," Rojas told AFP ahead of the games, an example of the go-getter attitude described by her family and former coach.

Born in Caracas, Rojas grew up in Pozuelos, an indigent quarter of small brick and zinc houses outside the coastal Venezuelan town of Puerto la Cruz.

"We raised Yuli in a humble universe with lots of problems," her mother, Yulecsi Rodriguez, 51, told AFP on a recent visit to the neighborhood that gave rise to the long-limbed champion.

"She has always been hyperactive, and she has always loved sports," Rodriguez added.

As a kid, Rojas was forever bouncing a softball against a rock outside their home -- but threw so hard she smashed many, her sister Yerilda Zapata recalled.

That rock is now all that remains of the rickety house in which Rojas grew up, dismantled over time by the elements.

- 'I have no words' -

The family now lives in the nearby town of Barcelona, where on Sunday, after a sleepless night, Rodriguez watched her daughter conquer the world on a big screen sponsored by the Venezuelan Olympics committee, surrounded by loved ones and neighbors.

A 10-meter Venezuelan flag fluttered from the house.

"I knew she was going for that record, from the beginning I knew it," said Zapata, so excited by her sibling's achievement she could hardly speak.

"I have no words to describe how I feel. It's too much."

As a child, Rojas used to do sports at the Salvador de la Plaza complex, a stone's throw from home, where her former coach Jesus Velasquez says she and other young athletes helped dig the jumping pit in the shadow of a jujube tree.

"Since she was little, she was good at everything: kickball (a form of baseball played with the feet), softball, basketball, football," recounted her step-father Pedro Zapata, a former professional boxer who raised Rojas and fostered in her a love of sport.

When she later turned her attention to athletics, she excelled in sprinting, but showed a particular talent for the high jump.

She won gold in this discipline at the South American Games of 2014, but changed to the triple jump that same year.

"One day, I was coaching some young people in the triple jump, she came out, started chatting with them, saying: 'I bet I can beat you.' Just like that she jumped... 12 meters," said Velasquez -- a jaw-dropping achievement for a first-ever attempt.

"They said we were crazy," added the coach of Rojas' decision to change disciplines after having excelled in competitive high jumping.

Added Rojas: "It was a good kind of crazy... I fell in love with the triple jump. It was the best decision of my life."

Following her passion, she was world champion twice -- in 2017 and 2019 -- before becoming the Olympic record-holder.

Those who know her say it was not a matter of raw talent alone.

Rojas was tireless on the track, said her coach.

"At training she always wanted more: 'Coach, one more jump'. I would say, 'OK, another', and then again: 'Coach, another jump," he recalled.

On Sunday, Rojas set a world record of 15.67 meters on her sixth and final jump in Tokyo, smashing the previous best of 15.50m set by Ukraine's Inessa Kravets in 1995.

It was the first world record of the Tokyo Olympics athletics program.