Interviewed after his shock Olympic sprint triumph, Italy’s Marcell Jacobs thanked his mind coach, and it was not the first time he had indicated that overcoming mental blocks was crucial in his path towards victory.
Jacobs, 26, who won the men’s 100 metres final in Tokyo on Sunday to become the first Italian to take the most coveted title in athletics, was almost unknown in Italy before his gold medal, having made dramatic but little-noticed progress over recent months.
In an online article written after winning the European indoor 60 metres title in Poland in March, Jacobs revealed the inner turmoil that had been holding him back, connected with growing up without a father as a mixed-race boy in Italy.
He was born in the United States to an Italian mother and a US serviceman father and brought up by his mother in northern Italy after his parents separated when he was a baby.
“As a child I was always different from the others,” Jacobs wrote in the long article. “Mixed-race... the son of separated parents whose father simply wasn’t there.”
In his childhood, Jacobs built up the figure of his father to explain his absence to himself and others. “An ex-Marine, in the war, whose heroic acts forced him to be on other side of the world, that was the version I preferred,” he wrote.
This upbringing generated insecurities that made him seek excuses for his failings rather than throw himself fully into seeking success. He became known as “the one that something strange always happened to before the starting gun”.
“A stomach pain, muscle cramps, dizziness, anything... finding something that prevented me doing the time I could have done made the disappointment less bitter, because, in the end, it wasn’t my fault,” he wrote.
All this began to change around the time of the Covid-19 lockdown 18 months ago.
The lockdown, and all the vulnerabilities it created everywhere “pushed me to make peace with my past”, Jacobs wrote. “I am who I am, including my mistakes and shortcomings, and being faced with the fragility of life woke something deep inside me.”
The rest was history. With the help of his mind coach, Nicoletta Romanazzi who has been working with him for around a year, Jacobs never looked back.
“Working with him I realised that the first thing we had to get our hands on was his relationship with his dad, which didn’t actually exist because I knew that to remove this block was very, very important,” Romanazzi told Reuters.
“I was not interested in whether he decided to contact or not contact his father, that was a choice I left completely up to him. My interest was in him making peace with that internally.”
Jacobs knew when he lined up for the race at the indoor championships in Torun, Poland, he was a different person.
“I didn’t feel hot or cold, pressure or rush, just the desire to run fast, to enjoy myself and achieve something great,” he wrote.
Five months later, the world found out just how great he had become. Romanazzi said she understood how “in the zone” Jacobs was in Sunday’s final from they way he barely moved in response to a false start by Britain’s Zharnel Hughes.
“I said to him, the whole world must have thought ‘Oh God, this guy wouldn’t even have started!’. But actually you were the most in the zone of all of them. So you realised immediately it was a false start. And he told me, yes Nico (Nicoletta), when I saw the video, I noticed that I smiled a little bit, and I thought, but where are all these guys going!?”
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