Aldama, our woman from Havana, raises gold hopes

Arriving in London via Sudan, Britain's new 39-year-old triple jump champion had to leap numerous obstacles, writes Simon Turnbull

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The Independent Online

There was a reception committee waiting for Yamile Aldama when she got back to the Wow Hotel in the west end of Istanbul on Saturday night. "That was the best bit," the new golden girl of British athletics – the 39-year-old golden girl – reflected the morning after. "They were throwing me in the air: all the team, the support staff. It's not easy for me to cry but I was close to tears."

And with good reason, given the remarkable roller-coaster journey that our woman from Havana – a London resident for 11 years – has taken to get to the top of a global championship podium. Aldama's name fleetingly hit the headlines in 2003, two years after the triple jumper moved from her native Cuba to Britain with her Scottish husband and her infant son, when she fought unsuccessfully to gain British citizenship in time for the Athens Olympics the following year.

When the door was closed she accepted an offer to represent Sudan but continued to live in London, training every day at Barnet Copthall Stadium under the guidance of former British triple jump international Frank Attoh and competing for her British club in front of two men and a dog.

As her new status as world indoor champion sank in yesterday, Aldama gave a wry smile at the thought that, as recently as 6 August last year, she was jumping in near-anonymity in the black-and-white stripes of Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers in the UK Women's League at Winchester.

Thanks to her golden 14.82m second-round jump here in Saturday's final, the mother of two – her second child was born in the summer of 2010, 12 months before she finally made the switch to the British team – now finds herself in the spotlight as a hope for home gold at the London Olympics.

Aldama, who lives within sight of the Wembley Stadium arch, knows her back story will now be brought to public attention – including the painful bit about her husband being found guilty of trafficking heroin in May 2003 and serving seven-and-a-half years in jail.

"It doesn't worry me," she said, "but my 10-year-old son doesn't know about it yet. We need to sit down and talk to him, of course. I don't want him to find out from other people or the papers."

It was soon after her husband was jailed that Aldama seriously considered quitting athletics. In the summer of 2003 she was consistently beating the best in the world but, with her British passport application stalling, she had to sit and watch the 2003 World Championships in Paris as a paying punter. "It was very hard for me to sit in the stands watching the girls jumping," she recalled.

It was Attoh's encouragement that kept Aldama going. One of Britain's unsung coaching heroes, who works for British Telecom in central London by day and spends his evenings and weekends putting his group of athletes through their training paces, Attoh also nurtured Britain's only previous world indoor triple jump champion, Ashia Hansen, who won in Maebashi in 1999 and Birmingham in 2003. Not that the self-effacing Londoner would take credit for Aldama becoming Britain's oldest ever global track and field champion, indoors or out.

"The day after she gave birth to her second son I visited her in hospital and she was holding a bottle full of sand, doing bicep curls," Attoh said. "She is not normal. She's a special, special person. To be jumping like she is at her age is amazing."

At which point, the coach turned to his charge and urged: "I hope you just hang around a little bit longer – maybe until you are 50."