"The freer I am, the further the hammer flies", says Jenny Dahlgren, who is aiming to go to her fifth Olympics in Tokyo. The Argentinian athlete found inspiration in sport to fight against bullying.
Hammer thrower Jenny Dahlgren is making history with Argentina as she aims to take part in her fifth Olympic Games at Tokyo 2020.
Her first Olympics was Athens 2004.
"It was a lifelong dream come true," she said.
Since then, four Olympics have seen four different versions of Jenny and Tokyo will see the final version of her as a professional athlete.
"Each Olympics has seen a different woman. In four years you grow up and evolve; you have different expectations. For me, being an Olympian is the honour of my life. I hope Tokyo will be my last Games and I retire at an Olympic final. That would be the perfect end to my career."
However, Tokyo might not be her last Olympics... perhaps only the last held in summer. She imagines herself competing in bobsleigh at the 2022 Winter Olympics being held in Beijing.
"It's a challenge that I love. Besides that, the dream lets me extend my life as an athlete a little, which is something that I love. And it is something different, something new. I find it super motivating."
Being an Olympian is the honour of my life
An Olympian who hated her life
The four different versions of Jenny were the opposite of each other, not only in a sporting sense but also in terms of her personality. The 2004 Jenny has nothing to do with the Jenny of today, in 2020.
The first Jenny, before she was an Olympian, was one who was lost... hurt by herself and by other people. She was bullied. Insecurities surrounded her all the time and she blamed her own body. Athletics broke the cycle. When she took up the hammer for the very first time, she somehow also took hold of her own life.
"I found my shield as an athlete. At 15-years-old I was suffering bullying. And I was thinking: 'My body will be horrible, but at least it allows me to excel at this (hammer throwing)'. And this was the first band-aid. I started to forgive my body for being the way it was.”
“On the field, I found a group of hammer throwers who were just like me. They always spoke about my body in terms of it being a sporting advantage. So that was like yin and yang. At school everything was negative, but in sport everything was positive. That was the first thing sport gave me. Later I found my great passion for hammer throwing and a lifestyle that I was very passionate about: training, challenging myself, travelling, competing, winning… I really liked all of that from an early age,” recalls Dahlgren.
2012 Getty Images
Two faces of the sport
However, the sport also has its B side. And that young girl who wanted to go unnoticed at school began to be in the spotlight. She started to stand out. To win. And being in the public eye is something that often has two sides: praise and criticism.
"It's very difficult, especially here in Argentina. There are always two extremes: you are a 'crack', a god... or you receive all the criticism. At some point in my career, that affected me a lot. I took those criticisms very personally, but in the end, athletes are only human, so we have our bad moments, our doubts. Facing criticism has been an issue in my life," recalls Dahlgren.
At the beginning of her life in athletics, these critics didn't exist. Dahlgren was built up by her victories.
"When I was 15 – at a moment in which we build our personalities – I felt like I didn't have the tools to start building myself up because I had extremely low self-esteem due to my body. When I took up hammer throwing, victories and medals were the bricks I needed to build my self-esteem, without knowing at the time that it was a very shaky construction because the good results are not always there," said the athlete.
I built myself on good results.
When they didn't appear, I felt conflict. Who am I if I am not achieving good results?
The bad results appeared.
Even worse, they appeared on the biggest stages, such as the London 2012 Olympic Games, where she finished last, with zero points and three fouls.
"The London Olympics had a great impact on me. They were like an internal earthquake and I didn't understand why. Obviously I mourned the bad results, but I didn't understand why it affected me so much until I realised that it was because I had built myself, my self-esteem, on the good results. I felt conflict. Who am I if I am not achieving good results?"
However, Jenny didn't let herself become deflated.
She had to save herself again and not concentrate all her efforts on her sport.
"All of this was a lesson for me. From that point on, I got healthier. I started to think of hammer throwing as my passion, my career... but neither the good nor the bad moments define who I am. Being an athlete doesn't define me as a woman. In that way, I was reconciling Jenny the sportswoman with Jenny the woman, because for many years I focused only on throwing. And if I was throwing, everything else was fine. But in reality, I had relegated a whole part of myself for a long time... until recently.”
With hammer throwing, I began to forgive my body for being what it was.
Many more years passed until I realised that there was nothing to forgive.
The best Jenny
In this way, Jenny Dahlgren arrived at the best version of herself.
"Many more years passed until I realised that there was nothing to forgive, that it is what I am. I've worked hard to be able to look at my own body. I'm losing weight now because I'm 36 and I want to help my joints. I mean, I'm doing it in order to feel better, and also as a challenge. Even if I am an Olympian, my weight wasn't that healthy. Now I'm trying to live my best life, being healthy, not only physically, but also healthy within myself. I am trying to really love myself. That's the greatest success of my life."
A role model
When it comes to her personal experiences, Jenny has written children's books and gives speeches about bullying.
"For me, helping other people is inspirational because I believe a lot of girls are suffering from feeling isolated. If your mindset is negative, you are going to keep making negative decisions. That's why we have to step forward and talk about these things. The easiest thing to do is to say that society is horrible. The most difficult thing is, even if you don't like the social mindset, to try to provoke change. The books and speeches are my way of contributing to the change that I want to see."
However, those messages didn't arrive in time for a 15-years-old Jenny who needed them. "I would like to talk to her, but I think 15-year-old Jenny wouldn't have listened to me. Particularly, I would say 'love yourself'. All the time I spent hating my life is time wasted."
"We have to love ourselves and drop our insecurities and other people's expectations. We have to be honest with ourselves and work on everything we want to gain from loving ourselves. Working from a starting point of hating your body means you're working with negatives vibes."
All the time I spent hating my life is time wasted.
In fact, her sport is the biggest metaphor of her life.
You take something that weighs a lot – more so because of added insecurities and pressures – and try to throw it as far away as possible.
"Yes, it's quite ironic that all my life I've had a hang-up about my body, but I chose a career where I am fully dependent on it. And, of course, the metaphor about throwing everything away is amazing - not the hammer, but also throwing away expectations, pressures, bad habits... At some point in my life, the hammer wasn't flying far enough, because it was weighed down by expectations or criticism. Now, as a grown-up, I know that the freer I am, the further the hammer flies."