Interview: Jolanda Ceplak
By Bob Ramsak

Jolanda Ceplak on her way to a win in the 2002 Millrose Games 800m.
(Photo: Victah@Photo Run)
Ceplak gets interviewed by Steve Holman after running the fastest indoor 800m ever on U.S. soil at the 2002 adidas Boston Indoor Games.
(Photo: New York Road Runners)

Outside of a handful of meticulous observers of the international middle distance scene, it is quite likely that very few who watched Slovenian 800 runner Jolanda Ceplak churn out fast races on the U.S. indoor circuit this year knew much, if anything, about her. Even after her 1:57.79 run in Boston in January, the fastest indoor 800 ever run in the U.S., some wrote her off as a fluke, a one-hit wonder. Any doubts that may have arisen after the adidas Boston Indoor Games were quickly dispelled the following week when she broke the notable 2:00 barrier on the short and tight Millrose Games track. Suddenly, Austrian Stephanie Graf, the overwhelming favorite for the European Indoor crown, would have a race on her hands. Their eagerly anticipated first head-to-head resulted in the second-fastest indoor 800 ever, with Graf prevailing in 1:56.85 to Ceplak's 1:57.18. Ceplak didn't race again until Vienna, where she exacted her revenge in dramatic fashion with a stunning 1:55.82 world record witnessed by a shocked sold-out crowd at the Ferry Dusika Arena. Graf also dipped under the previous WR - Christine Wachtel's 14-year-old 1:56.40 - in a race so electrifying that it immediately found its way to the top of many long-time track observers' all-time best-ever lists.

Yet her rise to the status of world record setter was not, as some might think, of the "out-of-nowhere" variety. She began the 2002 season with a respectable 1:59.81 indoor best from 2001, and after consistent middle-of-the-pack finishes in Grand Prix and Golden League races last year, earned a No. 10 world ranking from Track & Field News.

It was in the junior ranks that she first displayed some hints of promise. Before her 16th birthday, she already had 2:10.15 and 4:31.90 bests to her credit, and improved to 2:08.54 at 17 when she finished fourth in the 1993 European Junior Championships. By 2000, she was a regular fixture on the European circuit, finishing fourth in the 2000 European Indoors (2:02.10), and sixth at the 2001 World Indoor Championships (2:02.67).

To cap off her 2002 indoor campaign and "run one more good race indoors," she competed in a "no pressure" 1,500 in Glascow a week after her record run in Vienna. She lowered her metric mile PR to 4:05.44, winning the fastest 1,500 race of the year. Her outdoor 800 PR is 1:58.71 set last year.

Ceplak (pronounced Chep-Lock) lives and trains in Velenje, a sleepy town of 26,000 nestled in the Alpine foothills of north central Slovenia. She is managed by Robert Wagner, and her chief sponsor is Nike International. Perhaps as much for her cover girl smile as for her record performances this year, the 25-year-old has single-handedly put her tiny central European nation on the world track & field map. Her job now, she says, is to keep it there. Unfortunately, the race was not televised in the United States. Can you describe it?

Jolanda Ceplak: The race was a huge spectacle for the whole of Austria. In large part, the championships revolved around Stephanie (Graf) and the 800 meters. 10,000 Austrians in the stadium - with only about a hundred Slovenians there rooting for me. I pretty much led from the beginning, and with 120 meters to go, Stephanie took the lead. But then in the last 50 meters, I told myself, 'I've trained so much, I've worked so hard, I've put everything into these last meters in the past 15 years that I have to try and catch her. If I die, I die.' And in the last three meters, I did catch her, and won. It was just an absolutely phenomenal feeling. Words can't describe it. At first I didn't see the results - I was pretty sure I won, but I kept asking if I won, because I wasn't 100 percent sure. Then I saw it on the video screen… and then it was simply crazy.

Your race in Ghent seemed very similar, except for the outcome. There, Graf was able to hold you off. You said after that race that hard front-running was the only way to beat her. Were you expecting Graf to pass you just as she did in your last race?
Yes I did. I was waiting to see when she would make her move. I knew that it would be 100 to 150 meters from the finish. And she did, but she didn't really seem to switch gears - it wasn't a sprint. She went ahead, but maintained the same tempo we'd been running. I don't know where I picked up my final strength at the end. But the final 50 meters were phenomenal. The atmosphere at the arena was like at a sold out soccer game. Really amazing.

What was your attitude towards the European Championships before the race?
I have to say that in the qualifying round I felt extremely good, ran the same way - going out by myself - and won easily with a 1:59.60. I told myself that night that I'd run the same way in the final. Before the race I felt fantastic. Unburdened, no pressure. The fact that the competition was in Austria, against an Austrian who was already presumed as the winner - that didn't weigh on me at all. I went into the final very relaxed, thinking whatever happens, happens. I knew I would win a medal. If it was gold, I would be even happier. But I would have been happy with a silver or bronze, because it was going to be my first medal in a major competition.

After your WR race, there was much written about you and Stephanie Graf. Do you get along with Graf? Are you two friends?
Before the season began, before the competitions, everything was fine. We were certainly congenial. Then once the competitions began, that was no longer there, those little conversations we used to have before races. You know, you can't be real friends. When one's running well, then everything changes. With her anyway, not with me.

When we spoke in Ghent, you said you "trained like mad" during the off season.
Yes, yes. (Laughs.)

What did you change specifically?
I put in a lot more distance work. Faster distance work with much shorter breaks. Tweleve or 14 400s with a minute-and-a-half breaks. I also worked a lot on weight training, building my overall strength. A lot of sprint work as well. Most of these things I didn't really work on before, so I really had a lot in reserve. So, over the past couple years, I've put everything into running and achieving a really good result.

When did you start running?
At 11. First there were cross country races, then the different age-group races and competitions - 400m, 600m, 1000m, 2000m. Then in 1995, I medalled in the European Junior championships in the 1,500. It was only then that I started training seriously, taking a more professional approach, and considering track & field as my job.

You began your career in the 1,500?
Yes. I switched to the 800 about four years ago. I decided that I wanted to be a good and very fast 800 runner, and would then return to the 1,500. I was capable of running a fast 1,500. But I first wanted a good foundation in the 800 that would get me to the faster 1,500 level.

Who is you current coach?
Ales Skoberne. He is a decathlete who studies in San Diego (Point Loma Nazarene University). I receive training instructions via e-mail.

How does that work for you?
Oh! (Laughs) Perfectly! Each week he sends me the training plan. Then I train here by myself. My old trainer (Tomo Popetrov) is here at the stadium and he watches, tells me if things look OK, and so on. Otherwise, I'm more or less alone.

Where do you train?
Mainly here in Velenje. And elsewhere at other times of the year. This year in the Canary Islands, and indoors in Vienna.

Last year in Edmonton…
Oh, don't remind me.

…You just missed qualifying for the final. I remember seeing you leave the track in tears. That was a big disappointment, wasn't it.
Yes it really was. Because the race was slow. And I waited too long (to make my move). I waited until the last 100 meters. If I had taken the lead myself, pushed the pace myself, I would have definitely made the final. But I let the others lead, and in the last 100 everyone was fighting for position, and I finished fifth, and missed the final by one place. I have to say I was very disappointed, but I quickly forgot about it. I began training, and told myself that what happened to me in Edmonton will not happen again. So I began training with Vienna in mind, and made sure that the mistakes I made in Edmonton wouldn't be repeated.

You raced really well in two races in the United States this year.
The races in Boston and New York were phenomenal. In Boston, it was the fastest ever in the United States. But in New York, it was perhaps even better. With that small track, and I was the first to go under two minutes. A crazy race. Just running like crazy.

Besides a record in 1964 in the now-defunct 80 meter hurdles, yours is the first world record for Slovenia. What's the response been like in Slovenia?
Everyone's been so incredibly happy. Monday, when I returned to Velenje, there was an enormous reception in the main square. Everyone was congratulating me, asking for autographs. Then we went to Ljubljana (Slovenia's capital) where there was another big gathering at the city hall. Then we had to go to all the television networks. It was very exhausting by the end of the day. The next day we went back to Ljubljana for a reception at the Interior Ministry where I'm employed. Again, everyone was extremely happy, lots of laughter, lots of tears. This (world record) is really a huge, amazing event for Slovenia.

What is your job at the Interior Ministry?
I'm employed by the police. Well, I'm not actually working there. It's a salary arrangement set up for athletes. Most of the top athletes in Slovenia are employed by either the police or army.

Do you think your world record will help people locate Slovenia on a map?

Well, in the U.S., people in track and running circles, sure they'll know now. (laughs) As for others, people in the streets, well, they don't even know what track & field is.

We all have heroes. Who are yours?
Svetlana Masterkova, the 800/1500 double winner from Atlanta.

What's your plan for outdoors this year? Do you plan to run both distances?
Well, I'm sure everyone's expecting a medal at the European Championships in Munich. I'm not sure yet about both distances. First I have to focus on training, then in the first few meets of the season I'll see how I'm running, and then we'll figure out how to fully plan the season. I also want to see how other European runners are performing as well.

You're running an 800 in Australia later this month. When will you begin your outdoor season in earnest?
June 14th, in the first meet in Velenje.

When you're not training or competing, what do you enjoy doing?
I'm very happy when I'm home, in my living room, sitting in front of the TV, relaxing, and doing nothing at all.

Nothing? Do you have any hobbies?
No, not really.

Just training, racing, and sitting in your living room.
(Laughs). Yeah, that's about it.

What kind of race will have to be run to challenge Jarmila Kratochvilova's 1:53.28 world record?
Wow. That record is really an amazingly good one. A crazy time. I think that this year, there isn't anyone capable of breaking it. Not even me, in the shape I'm in now. It's impossible to improve that much in one year. There are some observers who believe that I can break it, but I think that if it is possible, it'll take the next two years to get to it. But I'm not going to burden myself with a record attempt. I'm not that concerned with times right now for this outdoor season. Wins are what are of the utmost importance. As long as I keep winning, the times will come as well.

Bob Ramsak is a Cleveland-based freelance journalist and photographer. He is assistant editor for Race Results Weekly, a correspondent for Track & Field News, and frequently writes about track and running for numerous magazines, newspapers and websites. He can be reached at

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