The Malta Independent 5 August 2020, Wednesday

People who shine from within don’t need the spotlight - an exclusive interview with Sara Bartolo

Raymond Scicluna Thursday, 6 February 2020, 10:00 Last update: about 7 months ago

It’s a quote which I came across long ago depicting today’s profile perfectly: Sara Bartolo. Sara is a 16-year-old teen, turning 17 next December. Her mum, Claire works at BioDna Laboratory Services whilst her father Anton is a Director at the University of Malta. Martin, her brother, 3 years older is studying Maths and Computer Studies at UM. Sara is a San Anton School past pupil and is currently a student at St Aloysius College Sixth Form where she is studying Pure Maths and Chemistry as ‘A’ Level subjects. Sara excels in short sprints and despite her youth she managed to produce great performances over the years. The culmination of her career was last June’s National Championships where she surprised almost everyone except the very few who really believed in her with the overwhelming results in the 100m and 200m sprints.

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Sara, this brief biography speaks volumes about your abilities and passion. Those in the nitty gritty of local Academics know well enough that a thorough screening is undertaken for students prior to being admitted to St Aloysius College Sixth Form. It is common knowledge that your school demands high academic standards. Opting for Pure Maths and Chemistry is a tough hurdle for many but not for you. Regarding Athletics, short sprints may seem easy on paper because distance is short, but again, the level of mistakes must be at a bare minimum, concentration must be at its maximum, practicing sprint starts and acceleration ad nauseum, mastering the technique and power on a routine basis, strength workouts at the gym, athletic drills and many more factors. All this means that you do like challenges, you are aware of them, you want to build your career around sports and that your passion for studies and athletics has now been ingrained in your mind and system that you can manage to do both simultaneously. How did it develop over the years? Studies are becoming tougher and so is your training and competition, how are you coping now? How is your time management in this regard?

I started training at an early age, so the number of training sessions increased gradually and the ability to focus on both developed over time. My first big challenge came during the year of my O’ levels, where balancing both parts of my life became harder. In the month during the O’ levels, I was overwhelmed by the weight that these exams put on my life. I had to cut down on training a little during this period because of the exam schedule and the need to study but I refused to stop training completely.  From this experience, I realised that although sometimes academics takes priority over training, and vice versa, both are equally important factors and the ability to keep this balance leaves a positive impact in my life.

During certain periods the pressure almost becomes overwhelming. This was very much the case last May in the run-up to my final exams when I was selected to participate in two back-to-back international competitions. Thankfully, with the help and support of friends, family, classmates, teachers and the school, I managed to do well at both competitions and also cope with my studies and do well in my exams. Although the effort required was substantial, the satisfaction of succeeding made the whole experience well worth it.

Since I am a perfectionist and always demand the best of myself, finding the perfect balance is in no way easy. It leads to a very tight schedule in which I balance studying, training and a social life, and this inevitably leads to a lot of sacrifices. However, I believe that each experience enriches me and with a supportive environment around me I hope to continue living up to my full potential.

 

Sara, you are yet another successful student who so far has managed to follow the dual career path: Academics and Sports. To top it all the latter was not just Athletics, but you even played Football with the U15 Malta Women Football Team for 4 years. You embraced Sports and Academics from a tender age. Do you regret giving up a potentially successful career in football?

I loved playing football with the Mgarr girls’ team and the National Team. Football is a team sport, so in many ways it is different to athletics and I liked the team spirit and interaction with the other girls in the team. Unfortunately, as the demands of both football and athletics increased, I could not keep up both, so eventually I decided to choose athletics. I do have some regrets once in a while, especially when I hear news of the Women’s Team doing well in an international competition. But football is always something I can go back to again and play for fun in the future, so for now I am happy to focus on athletics.

 

Recently, you have been very busy coping with Team Malta callings: a 4 x 100m Relay training camp in Berlin, participation in the European Under 20 Athletics Championships, in Boras Sweden and the European Team Championships 2nd league. I think that by now these experiences abroad differed completely from those when you were younger. The older you become, the stiffer the competitors are as well as level and standards. Describe your feelings pre the European Team Championships? Malta has to battle it out against the might of Austria, Israel, Croatia, Denmark, Latvia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Estonia etc…. Countries which were awarded medals in the European U20 and U23 speaks volumes about their high potential. This is an arduous task for Malta but am convinced that team Malta and you would rise to the occasion and perform at best.  Do you think that these callings are direct incentives to keep going and aiming higher? What are your views?

I was really proud and excited to have been chosen as part of the 4x100m relay team for the European Team Championships 2nd league. This was my first experience competing with the senior team. It was overwhelming at times because I was the youngest on the relay team. I was more anxious than usual because there was a lot at stake, especially since the competition is a team event and my performance would impact the whole team not only myself. I’m glad that together with the other three runners we were able to perform at a good level. Personally, this was a very positive way to end my season, especially since the relay team ran a season’s best, and was only 0.2s shy of the national record.

 

Sara, a local athlete can improve and better assess his proper value when competing abroad. Notwithstanding your young age, you experienced International Competition in 2016 at the European Kids Athletics Games in Brno, Czech Republic. From then onwards, you never looked back and were consistently selected by MAAA, MOC and other Sports entities to form part of Team Malta. Running for Malta is everyone’s dream and I am sure you pride yourself that you are one of the few athletes who is fulfilling your dream. Incredible but true, but thanks only to your overwhelming results at the National Championships you were even selected to form part of the Women’s 4 x 100m Relay Team training camp in Berlin. This time round, you joined the Open Category where the age group varies considerably. How did you feel to be included in a squad with adults elder than you? How was your experience abroad training as a group? Which international races do you recall at heart? What do you find different from here? What did you like most? What were your main issues and what were primarily your main intentions?

I was grateful to be given this opportunity and I was looking forward to it mainly because I wanted to experience being part of the senior team, training with them and running together. I was also looking forward to the training opportunity, in a new environment, with a different set-up, mainly focusing on the relay technique. Since I am always looking for ways to improve, this was a golden opportunity. As part of this training camp we were also given the opportunity to compete at an international competition in Paderborn, Germany and as always, it was an exciting experience to compete at an international level, with other talented athletes.

 

Sara, yet another incredible call from MAAA to represent Malta once again. This time in the U20 European Championships in Boras, Sweden. Undoubtedly, the most challenging call so far! It is by far the most prestigious competition which you ever competed in. How did you fare? Describe your feelings. You were competing with athletes who were your senior by even 3 years, how were you mentally prepared for such a demanding task? Were you afraid or you were convinced that if you manage to focus you can still achieve a decent result for you and for Malta?

When I was selected to participate for the U20 European Championships, I was aware of the very high level of competition and the results usually achieved at this event. Regardless, I took on this challenge with an open mind, knowing that being able to compete at this level would make me stronger mentally, physically and more determined to push forward. This experience has been my best experience so far in athletics, where I got to race with the U18 world record holder Amy Hunt and many other athletes who are top in the U20 category. I was satisfied with my performance, especially in the 100m where I obtained a new official personal best time. The fact that my coach, ?eljko Aras, was sent with the team was definitely a positive factor in helping me to keep calm and encouraging me during the competition. Of course, this experience was a game changer for me, and it gave me a whole new outlook towards my sport. The competition increased my determination to improve and achieve better results, and it will definitely remain embedded in my mind during the long hours of gruelling training.

 

Sara, your efforts and achievements were not overlooked and MOC through MAAA recommendations, accepted you in its elite scheme. This puts you in a better picture but even places greater responsibility on you. To my knowledge, this is the only type of sponsor so far. As of late, local athletics has attracted some local companies to invest and help top athletes individually with nutrition, running apparel and gadgets, free gym memberships etc…  What do you think about such sponsors? Are you in favour or do you think they might place additional stress on the athlete as your performances are not just important for you but for the firm who supports you too? Are you willingly to accept such assistance?

I have never been given this opportunity so far, but if I’m offered a sponsorship, I will consider it and decide whether it will be beneficial for me in the long run. Obviously, as you mentioned, it would really depend on the type of sponsorship offered and whether it would impact my freedom in training methods and lifestyle.

 

Sara, you are not yet 17 so your parents are the factotum of your success. They are the ones who drive you to the track and gym and back home. Having been involved in athletics for quite a time, I have noticed that there is a great enthusiasm with parents who have kids who are just more than toddlers and are willing to take them for training almost unfailingly for every training session and competition. By time, the parents and children’s enthusiasm start decreasing due to examination pretexts and studies kick in with the obvious outcome that training, and competitions suffer. At the secondary school level, especially from form 4 onwards very few pursue an athletic career. They give in to studies, outings and other things. I reckon that you, thanks to your parents, adopted another system with sports and studies hand in hand. How do you relate to this? Were there times where you had to miss training for long periods because of the exams or you missed just few times where you couldn’t do otherwise?

My parents have always supported and encourage me to be the best version of myself and to aspire to reach my full potential in everything I do. When this meant not only academics but also my passion for athletics, not only did they support me by driving me around to training and coming to watch my competitions, but also by adapting their life to my schedule. Over the years they helped me find a system to balance both training and studying that worked for me and they have always trusted the decisions I took. As you can imagine, they were not too excited when I decided to participate in the two back-to-back competitions last May two weeks before my school annual exams., but they trusted my decision

Although I thank them for being extremely supportive, ultimately, it is because I am very determined to do well at school without compromising my athletic performance that keeps driving me forward. I find that training is my coping mechanism, when I can clear my mind and let out my stress. Many people ask me how I manage to train 6 times a week and still do well in school, but I am certain that if I had to stop training my academic performance would deteriorate.

 

Sara, let us discuss for a moment your PBs. This interview was earmarked way ahead of the National Championships. Your Personal bests in the 100m and 200m stood at 12.46 seconds (EAP Malta) and 25.56 (MAAA Club’s League 1) on the 4th May 2019 and 14th June 2019 respectively. The dates are very recent. You stormed in the Open National Championships of the 29th/30th June with astounding performances of 12.11s and 25.34s! The remarkable improvement is visible in both events. You competed with the likes of Malta national Record holder Charlotte Wingfield and other senior athletes. Some of them 5 or even 10 years your senior. You showed great personality and your sheer talent and training did the rest. Your 100m in the semis was the third fastest of the Championships following Wingfield’s performances in the semis and the final. Your final in the 100m crowned you the first U18 and fifth overall whereas in the 200m you placed 3rd overall, first in your age category and with the 3rd fastest time! What are your feelings post such high performances on the most important Athletics National event? Did all the sacrifices endured during the year pay off? I’m sure you still yearn for more so what are your future ambitions?

I was ecstatic with my results at the National Championships, because all my hard work and training during the year had paid off. The fact that my exams were over allowed me to concentrate fully on the competition, which made a huge difference. I knew I had it in me to make an improvement in my times, and thankfully everything came together for the Championships to allow me to have a good performance. The great thing is that results like these give you courage and I am more determined to work hard and to continue improving.

My performances this season, culminating in my good results at the National Championships, also opened up new opportunities for me this summer, and for this I am very grateful. I can certainly say that this was a very positive year that served to increase my ambitions to continue improving, with my ultimate goal being to reach qualifying standards in an international competition.

 

Sara, let us face it. The life of an athlete is not a normal one and is totally different from the rest. The more competitive you become, the levels of rigidness to some guidelines becomes tougher. I reckon you have already realised all this. One must be careful to many details regarding the lifestyle one adopts, training consistency, dealing with injuries, following healthy diets, investing on adequate rest, limiting outings with friends and an endless list to this. As things turn out to be, I think you befitted well in this type of scenario but from all these factors which ones or any others did you find the hardest to adhere and the easiest for you to comply with?

From my personal experience, the hardest things to deal with are injuries, because apart from affecting you physically and not allowing you to train normally, they also affect you mentally. Not being able to train consistently with my teammates demotivates me, especially when recovery takes months. It makes it very difficult to look at training in a positive way. I feel very strongly about this because last year I struggled with a hamstring injury and had to go through the whole recovery process. Thanks to my physiotherapist and the support of my coach, I recovered fully from it through various exercises and treatments. As an athlete, injuries are common because of the consistent strain we put on our body, and whereas some injuries have a minimal effect on your training programme, others force you to train less and focus on the recovery process.

Self-discipline, which includes training consistently, a healthy diet and not wasting time, is an important factor and is a difficult lifestyle to get used to as a new athlete. Now that I have been training for quite a number of years, I got used to a hectic lifestyle with little time to relax. This does get stressful at times, but I am learning to give priority to different aspects of my life to avoid overstress.

 

Sara, my last question. The force of a distinctive athlete is made up of many factors namely inborn talent versus self-made, the right coach, mental strength, supportive background, self-discipline, right attitude, eagerness to improve, pain threshold, leading a proper lifestyle etc… If you were to list the importance of these factors or any others how would you rank them and why?

I have already spoken about the importance of many of these factors, but in my opinion, an important element of success that is often overlooked or taken for granted is finding the right coach who understands you and suits your personality. My coach, ?eljko Aras, was a top sprinter for the former Yugoslavia, so as you can imagine he is very knowledgeable in the area and has a lot of experience. Because of this and his unique personality he has a special way to relate to his athletes. To me he is a father-figure, he is caring and supportive, and I trust that everything he does is for my benefit. The mutual trust we have built over the years is a major part of our relationship since I feel comfortable speaking to him, discussing my fears and my goals. He keeps me motivated and keeps my goals clear, he has the ability to push me forward even when I am not feeling motivated or determined. I trust that he knows what is best for me when it comes to training.

Another aspect of athletics that is often overlooked is the strength and encouragement that athletes can draw from each other. I am very lucky to train with a group of athletes with exceptional attitudes. The atmosphere at training is very positive and supportive, and although we all take athletics very seriously, we generally joke together and keep our spirits high. Considering how much time we spend together training it’s great that we manage to keep a healthy balance between hard work and enjoyment.

 

Sara, you are a peaceful profile, you almost shun the limelight and avoid self-praise. Am sure this interview would not change your way of being and doing but it will only make people aware especially those who have athletics at heart that success is not something achieved through words and promotions but sweat, sacrifices and consistency. You are sheer proof of this. Keep up the good work.

Thank you for this opportunity. I hope that this interview will inspire others to continue practicing their hobby be it sports, dance or anything else even during intense study periods. In the end, the benefits of doing what you love are endless.

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