ROME (Reuters) - Josefa Idem was a powerful, single-minded athlete in West Germany’s flatwater kayak team of the 1980s.
She was also a stranger to the top of the podium in international competition. Her natural talent and determination were taking her only so far.
An elusive quality was missing, one Idem found only when she left her homeland and started competing for Italy after falling in love with her future husband and coach, Guglielmo Guerrini.
“In Germany I was always a very serious athlete, very orientated towards my goals and I neglected my private life. But I didn’t win,” she told Reuters.
“Italy was undoubtedly the complement I lacked. You have to be determined, but at the same time you also have to know that life is beautiful, life should be lived.
“To come first you have to have a terrible need to win, as well as an awareness that you can survive without it, so you aren’t afraid to lose.”
Changing colors had an instant impact on Idem’s career, spurring her to gold in the 500 meters singles at the 1990 world championships in Poznan in Poland, her first major competition for her new country.
The blend of German drive and Italian brio has proved an enduring recipe for success. Since Poznan, the 43-year-old has won four more world championship titles and three Olympic medals, including gold at Sydney in 2000.
In Beijing the mother of two will be paddling at her seventh Olympics since taking bronze for West Germany with Barbara Schuttpelz in the 500 meter doubles at Los Angeles in 1984.
Guerrini, a former volleyball coach who knew nothing about his wife’s sport before taking over her training and who still today cannot kayak, is the unlikely architect of Idem’s success.
“Guglielmo’s lack of familiarity with the kayak was a positive factor that made us approach the sport in an unusual way,” she said. “He did courses, we studied together.
“It was an obstacle that helped bring out the best in me.”
Idem said that Guerrini’s can-do approach when faced with a totally new challenge also inspired her to develop a positive attitude that has served her well.
“We learned our most important lessons from our biggest defeats. You should cherish your defeats,” she said.
“For four years before the Sydney Olympics Canada’s Caroline Brunet beat me every time. But I developed a way of thinking that made me a more consolidated person, by seeing second place not as a defeat but as a good starting point. I improved as a result and, at Sydney, Brunet was behind me.”
In part, Idem has the end of the Cold War to thank for her switch of allegiance. Her initial intention after moving to Italy to be with Guerrini in 1988 was to continue competing for Germany.
But the fall of the Berlin Wall and the availability of athletes from East Germany meant the national team’s coaches were unwilling to accommodate the needs of someone living outside the country.
“The German Canoeing Federation put a lot of pressure on me regarding attendance of training camps and various other things,” she said. “Given that it was impossible to handle relations with the federation peacefully, I asked for permission (to switch nations), which came through in just a week.
“They thought they were swapping a bronze medalist for a world champion (Katrin Borchert of former East Germany). But at the 1990 world championships our positions were reversed.
“Apart from that, the decision to change countries came naturally. I had a supportive environment in Italy and people in Germany understood the move because it was a question of the heart.”
Idem said she is more proud of her two children, Janek, 12, and Jonas, 4, than anything she has achieved in sport.
This sense of balance has also led her to be highly active away from the water.
She was head of the city of Ravenna’s sports department from 2001 to 2007 and she is a member of Italian Health Ministry’s Doping Commission, a subject on which she has strong opinions.
“I think doping is an evil that will always be present because sport is contaminated by economic interests, not just from the athletes who gain an advantage from it, but also from the pharmaceutical industry,” she said.
“They invest in doping research because they stand to make a profit from selling the drugs. That’s why doping will always be steps ahead of the research into stopping it.
“The athletes should be the first to act to stop the spread of doping. But it is also necessary to hit the nerve of doping, the pharmaceutical companies.”
Although short of Austrian’s sailor Hubert Raudaschl’s record of nine Summer Olympics between 1964 and 1996, Idem’s Games tally is a remarkable achievement for such a physically demanding sport.
She said she would be as motivated in Beijing as she was 24 years ago in Los Angeles: “Sport is like eating. You feel full after a win, but then the hunger comes back. It’s always nice to eat a good meal. Likewise, I never get sated of success.”
Editing by Dave Thompson