Snapshots Of The Maltese: Rebecca Camilleri

“I’m Hanging Up My Spike Shoes”

There are many athletes who face a daily struggle to balance their work, life and training commitments.  It is tough especially when you have high expectations of yourself yet Maltese athletes regularly manage to reach this balance.

“The past 12 months, from the start of last season, were challenging and demanding.  I had to cope with the commitments of the final year of my PhD, teaching English as a part-time job, training six days a week, and planning my wedding.”  Trying to combine even two of those jobs would overwhelm most people but Rebecca Camilleri (pictured above with her then to be husband and San Marino long jumper, Federico Gorrieri) had to find time for all of them.  And she did.

“Each day was a push to do it all as best as possible whilst enjoying the journey and appreciating each opportunity and experience that was being given to me.”

“I did, but I have to say, I'm glad it's over now!”
Few will be surprised by the decision but many will be saddened by it.  After all, Camilleri has been a staple of Maltese athletics ever since she picked up the sport when she wasn’t even in her teens.

“I definitely remember my first competition in the long jump,” she recounts.  “I was 12 years old and had been training it for less than a year.”

“It was at the same track I then continued to train at for the next eighteen years!  The beauty of it was that I had absolutely nothing going through my mind, just sheer enjoyment.”

“My first international competition however, the FISEC games in Portugal a year or so later was somewhat different.  I still felt exhilarated but was a bit more anxious about the outcome.  It was the first time representing my country so of course, I didn't want to disappoint.  I finished in third place, winning a bronze medal and setting a youth national record of 5.52m which still holds today.”

“I knew then that this would be my event and together with my coach, we wanted to work hard to bring out the best I can be and achieve in the event.”

Which is just what she did.  A prodigy in the long jump who broke the national record when she was just seventeen years old, she has won multiple honours both for herself and Malta.  Indeed, her career has been filled with so much success that it isn’t due to any false modesty that she states that she finds it hard to pick a highlight.

“Pinpointing the highlights of my career is something I find hard to do. There are so many incredible memories I carry, I would be betraying one to choose another.”

“If I had to pick out a moment in it all, it would be breaking the national record in May 2014 in front of a wonderful home crowd at my home track just eight months after breaking my knee.  That, to me, was more than just a performance it was an affirmation of everything I believed in: with hard work and the right attitude, anything is possible.”

She has good reason to have good memories of that day because months earlier it looked as if everything he had worked for was going to be snatched away.

“At the 2013 Mediterranean Games in Turkey, I broke my knee during training two days before the competition,” she says recounting that dramatic moment.  “I was 28 years old.  It was extremely traumatic.  I felt I was at my best ever, at the peak of my career, ready to win a medal and break my national record at the time (6.30m) which I had only re-set two days before the accident.”

“In the ambulance on the way to the hospital with my coach of sixteen years beside me, I was calling it quits.  I was certain that at my age I wouldn’t manage to get back to where I was.”

“In fact I was wrong.  After eight months of rehabilitation – as much mental as physical - I returned to the track and at the national championships in May 2014 I broke my national record with a jump of 6.41m which made me the only individual female athlete in athletics to reach the qualification standards for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.”

“That season funnily enough went down in my history books as being the most successful season of my 18 long year career.”

“That injury, turned out to be the best thing that has ever happened to me in athletics, and maybe even personally on some level.  It taught me strength, perseverance, acceptance, appreciation.  It was an opportunity for me to show myself how far I can actually go, how much I am ready to give for something I want, something I had worked so hard for.”

One of the benefits of growing older is that experience provides you with the tools needed to improve.  That is particularly apt for Camilleri who over the years learned to deal with setbacks just as she learned to clear her mind before a jump.

“I would say that my preparation for a jump changed a lot over eighteen years of competing. For a long time my mind was a barrier to my performance.  I knew my potential, in each competition I had a goal, yet I was so scared of failure that sure enough, was not always achieving the results I was capable of.”

“However that more than anything made me the person I am today in every aspect of my life not just sports.  I learnt that I not only had to train and work on my physical and technical development but also on my mental strength and even the art of mental imagery. Once I became better at that not only did my performance anxiety decrease, but my performance improved and I started to appreciate and enjoy the competitions even more.

This also meant learning to deal with bad jumps.

“When it didn't go as planned, especially during a big important competition, I made sure I stayed calm and focused.  The beauty of long jump is that you get six attempts.  You have a chance, during the actual competition, to correct whatever needs adjusting.”

“Following a bad attempt I usually first consulted with my coach and then headed back to my place and to start focusing again by engaging in the mental imagery.  This helped me 'forget' my bad jump and focus on the best possible way of executing the jump.”

“I also made sure to enjoy the atmosphere, to feel blessed that I am present and able to experience such a moment.  That always helped keep me focus and in the best moods to perform at my best.”

This year there was plenty to keep her in her best mood even if she wasn’t completely satisfied.  “I won two silver medals in two big international competitions, but of course I was hoping for gold.”

“Let's say I may not have reached my targets, however this was not because I did not perform well, but that my competitors were better than me on the day. I ended last season with a season's best of 6.38m which was just 3cm shy of my national record. I was quite disappointed that I did not reach my target distance which was 6.50m, but despite this, I loved every minute of it and soaked in every experience and every jump.  I gave it my all.”

All this this leads to her future in athletics, something that she admits she has often been asked about lately.

“I will take this as an opportunity to say that for now, I will be hanging up my spike shoes besides my medals and my crutches and I will be saying goodbye to competitive athletics, “ she reveals.

“I would like to take this opportunity to thank my coach Jivko Jetchev, who has always been like a father to me, for his love and belief in me.  I’d also like to thank the MAAA who have always supported and encouraged me over the past eighteen years, my Maltese club Athleta Pembroke that made athletics my second family.”

“Thank you to BRACCO Atletica, my Italian club, who chose to invest in me and welcomed me so warmly into their family of athletes.  I would like to thank the Maltese Olympic Committee and the Kumitat Malti ta’ l-iSport for providing the countless opportunities that have enriched my life.”

“Last but not least thanks to all my family and friends, and especially my husband - Federico - for their love, for fuelling my passion throughout all these years and being my number one fans!”

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An abridged version of this article originally appeared on the Times of Malta. Photos courtesy of Wally Galea.  

Editorial Note: Rebecca's married name is Rebecca Gorrieri.  However, she is referred to as Rebecca Camilleri in this article as that how she is known to the Maltese public.