Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Jana Kosťova: IOF's Athlete of the Month

A vein that burst, the compression, some major nerve segments irreversibly damaged and the lower body getting paralysed. A new life in a wheelchair has just begun. Step by step, courageously and tenaciously, many doors and windows that seemed hopelessly closed, started to open. One of them is named Trail Orienteering. Eight years later, through this door, a golden light illuminates the lovely face of Jana Kosťová, currently the World Champion of Trail orienteering in the Paralympic Class. A winner in life as in sport who we proudly present as the Athlete of the Month.

Name: Jana Kosťová
Country: Czech Republic
Discipline: Trail orienteering
Career highlights: World Trail Orienteering Championships (WTOC) 2013 – World Champion in Paralympic class.

Jana Kosťová, Prague, Czech Republic, born 4th October 1974, married with two children, corporate fundraiser and event manager for Prague Wheelchair Sports Club. There you are: in brief, some biographical notes of the new Trail Orienteering World Champion in the Paralympic Class and the IOF’s Athlete of the Month. Being outside in the countryside, travelling, reading books and swimming – “no cold water, please” – are amongst her major pleasures. And sport, of course: “I have always been somehow connected with sport, although not always at a competitive level”, she recalls.

It was in 2005 that the unpredictable stroke occurred and a new life in a wheelchair began. At some point in a long and demanding rehabilitation process, Jana was faced with what, above all, represented an opportunity and a challenge: “It was during a course where, over the week, those new to a wheelchair could try different sports. Trail Orienteering was part of the programme and it brought back my feelings about orienteering”, says Jana. She started orienteering when she was 7, but five years later she exchanged that for volleyball, which she played until 19 when she injured her left knee. After that she played sport at recreational level only. “When I recall my first impressions and decision-making in TrailO, I have really moved forward and learned a lot since then”, she says.

There’s space for improvement”

However Trail Orienteering wasn’t exactly “love at first sight”. Flirting with orienteering and athletics, Jana in 2009 took a personal decision by choosing another ‘sport’ called ‘baby’… that turned out to be twins (!). For quite some time she couldn’t focus on anything else. Thanks to her family and the strong support of her husband, she could slowly start orienteering again, and now it is the only sport that she focuses on and plans to stay with. “For me the special part was that, suddenly, I could do orienteering again, return to it. And on top of that, at international level. Despite the obvious limits, it offers me the chance to move on, to travel abroad, to get to know foreign countries, at least a little bit”, she says, adding that “there is space for improvement, you learn all the time with every single competition. But maybe I just haven’t been in TrailO long enough” (laughs).

However, there are still some other ingredients on this appealing menu: “I like being in forests and orienteering is an opportunity. I like solving problems and that is Trail Orienteering. And what is very important for me – orienteering is a sport for everyone. The whole family can do it – me in my wheelchair, my husband (he is now thinking of trying FootO), and my kids. Hopefully they will like it and we will be participating in competitions together”.

Competition and promotion

Let’s start from the beginning. “Is there a relation between being paraplegic and being a Trail Orienteer?” The answer is affirmative: “Yes, there is a connection. I had to wait some time as I decided to have children first. But then, shortly after their birth, I participated in my first competition. I started slowly – one or two competitions during the first year, then a few more in 2010 including my first competition abroad, in Italy, then I tried to participate in every possible competition in the Czech Republic, plus some more competitions abroad, and I joined our representative TrailO team for my first WTOC in France (2011). And my results weren’t bad at all, I think.”

Since 2010 Jana has also been head of the orienteering section of her club (Prague Wheelchair Sports Club), which is actually the only one in the Czech Republic focusing on Trail Orienteering, bringing together most of the wheelchair competitors for this discipline. It’s also the only body in the Czech Republic that can get some continual financial support for the development of the discipline. Jana explains: “We try to financially support handicapped people who attend local competitions. Then we also work to find financial support for our whole TrailO representation, where we now have sponsors – Teva Pharmaceuticals and Avast.”

How to be a (good) Trail orienteer

With or without disability, anyone can be a Trail Orienteer, that’s for sure. But there are some skills that you need to improve in order to be able to feel the adrenaline of each mental challenge, rather than a tedious exercise of reasoning. Jana left some ideas: “You obviously need to know how to interpret the map and be able to read terrain very well. For this you need to get experience. You need to have an eye for detail and be able to distinguish which details are important. Then you have to be able to focus and stay focused for quite a long time – for the whole course. For me, when I lose concentration, I usually make mistake(s)… and they are often stupid mistakes. Trail Orienteering is mentally very demanding.”

When questioned about the hardest part, Jana does not hesitate, pointing to one thing in particular: “The most difficult part is to get into the course planner’s mind, to assess from the very beginning his ‘zero tolerance’. And also to see how precise and accurate the map is.” Opening her heart, Jana is not afraid to expose some of her weaknesses: “My real difficulty is trusting in my own feelings. My first thoughts are usually correct, but then I check the other options just to verify my first feeling and, sometimes, I create reasons for these new options. Then I decide differently to my first choice and this is a big mistake. You simply persuade yourself that you see what you want to see. But I am improving (laughs).” But there’s even more, and this time about her strengths: “I also think that one of the difficult parts is not to look back to your previous decisions. I simply try to forget the last control at the moment I punch the control card. I don’t turn back, I let it go and move to another task with a fresh mind. Maybe it’s just my thing… but it helps me. And when I hear some of my friends, how distracted they are because they made a decision, punched and then realised they had made a mistake (for example) and it took them a long time (if ever) to get over it, I’m really happy about this ability of mine.”

Real competition is the best training”

And here we are, on our way to Vuokatti and the 10th World Trail Orienteering Championships, the third in Jana Kosťová’s career. After a promising 11th place in France (2011) and the 15th position in Scotland (2012), what surprises were waiting for this athlete? To prepare for a World Championships requires a high level of care and will certainly be subject to a very specific routine. At least that’s what one supposes is the thinking. But not in Jana’s case: “I need a routine on the course when solving the tasks, but I don’t have any special routine at home. When there’s an important competition ahead, I try at least to do online games in the evenings, regularly. Not every day, but as often as possible. But of course real competition is the best training, so if there’s a chance I try to participate.”

The fact is that in the Czech Republic there aren’t as many possibilities as in Scandinavia, for example”, says Jana. This year in particular, the number of local competitions was even smaller, but… “luckily there were online games and then very intensive training and competitions in Italy (June), and Lauri Kontkanen’s event in Selkie, Finland, just a few days before WTOC. For me it was my first experience in Finnish terrain and I’m happy we managed to get to Lauri’s event. It certainly helped.”

I was very nervous – I wasn’t able to check my control card myself”

Was it Jana’s goal to win the World title in the Paralympic Class, or did she not at all expect such a tremendous result? “It was my wish – to get whatever medal – once… but I know my competitors”, she says. “So I actually quite surprised myself, especially on the first day. I simply wanted to be better than in France, but the memories of last year’s Championships were still present, especially the disaster of the first day. After the first day of competition in Vuokatti I actually saw myself there, on the podium, but I was just worried a bit not to make stupid mistakes during Day 2.”

Being able to deal with the pressure on the second day was the really big question. “I actually didn’t really feel bigger pressure. It was there but nothing special. I usually am a bit nervous before such important competitions and I need it for a good performance, but after the start I jump into my course routine and don’t think of anything else. I was however nervous – very nervous – at the very end, when I had passed the team time controls and came to the finish where everyone already knew the solutions. I wasn’t able to check my control card myself – I gave it to my colleagues to do it for me”, she remembers. “There are always some controls where I’m not 100% sure about my decision”.

We are all Czechs”

The trail, the forest, the scenery, the other competitors… These and other things are still well alive in Jana’s memories. She brings me back to the ‘scene of the crime’: “I felt very comfortable with the terrain and the style of the course planner. Clear visibility in most areas and no high grass or boulder fields made the terrain readable for me, for example. High grass and boulder fields are not my friends when it comes to interpreting contour lines. And these championships were a lot about contours.” Jana mentions another important thing: “I also kind of welcomed the difficulties of the trail itself – I know that I work very well under pressure. The paths were sandy, not easy for wheelchairs. But our assistants were incredible, they worked really hard and I didn’t have trouble in moving around at all. OK, it was physically demanding as I tried to help as much as possible, but still no huge obstacles. So I actually enjoy bad paths!” (laughs)

And then on the podium, her team-mate Pavel Dudík on her right side, the Czech national anthem, the FootO Czech team crying for her… a mountain of strong emotions: “It was awesome, incredible, so memorable… I was truly happy to hear people from both our TrailO and FootO teams in the audience. It was a great moment and I felt this huge amount of support from them.” But Jana especially recalls the moment when the Czech FootO team came and joined the TrailO team for the ceremony, in what she defines as “one of the best there has been, if not the best of all.” She explains: “At that moment, I think it doesn’t matter in what you actually win the medal. It kind of united all of us because we are all Czechs and there were two Czech flags on the podium.”

I don’t have high expectations”

It’s hard to measure how important a gold medal can be for the sport itself, for the Czech Orienteering Federation, even for the country. At least, this is what appears from Jana Kosťová’s words, mixed with some notes of pessimism: “Well, we’ll try to use it as much as possible. Especially among people in wheelchairs, to introduce them to this sport, to show them a new world of opportunities, of challenges. If it helps to attract some of them, great! But I don’t have high expectations. And maybe even our own Federation will take us more seriously. But this is hardly predictable.”

Coming towards the end of a pleasant talk, I still want to ask if this victory is just something in sport or is even more valuable, as an important step in Jana’s rehabilitation process. And the answer appears in a very realistic way: “It’s not about my physical rehabilitation, however you know that rehabilitation is not only a physical exercise. For me and my family it’s important that I don’t just sit at home and do something I like. Which is very important for everyone, no matter if you sit in a wheelchair or not. And the good thing is that I’m improving, still learning and therefore not getting bored with the discipline. So I will go on – there’s still so much to do… and there will hopefully be no changes in my life – I like it as it is!” One door closes, another opens, but Jana remains the same person, despite the medal: “Personally, I don’t see any changes because of the medal. Well, we will now try to publicise my medal and get the most out of it – to let the Czech world know that we exist; but with no great success, I’m afraid. If this effort helps the discipline to get more fans, good, I would be happy. But I’m realistic here.”

My goals are more about the quality of my performance”

The future is right now and, for Jana Kosťová, it opens brightly. Starting with the discipline itself, Jana considers that “we are going in the right direction, especially with TempO. This can become more interesting not only for younger orienteers, but also for an audience. Making it audience friendly would help the discipline I believe.” Furthermore, “TempO can be a way of getting more people involved. It’s faster and more instantly attractive, whilst TrailO is more for those with this kind of passion for perfection, accuracy and details. And it’s not easy to find such people.”

And a last question, the one about plans for the future. Another gold medal in next year’s Championships? “I wouldn’t be that happy for the medal if I got it with a poor performance. I was, actually, a bit happier for the fact that my results were comparable to those at the top in the Open class. It would be good to get another medal next year – I wouldn’t say ‘No, thank you’ (!) -, but my goals are more about the quality of my performance – achieving a clear course with no mistakes, for example (that has never happened to me, yet), and to prove to myself that this year’s result wasn’t just a one-off and I’ll get at least close to it again. There is still a lot to do, areas where I can improve and targets I’ll try to reach.”

Text and photo: Joaquim Margarido

[See the original article at http://orienteering.org/winner-in-wheelchair-our-athlete-of-september/. Published with permission from the International Orienteering Federation]

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