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Making it to the big leap

Londa's ticket out of poverty takes her to Rio in search of a personal best and top-10 finish

Maria Natalia Londa launches herself into the air and lands gracefully onto the soft sand of Bali's famous Legian beach, oblivious to the looks from curious tourists in bathing suits under their beach umbrellas.

Earlier, the 26-year-old had jogged along the coast and raced up and down the stone steps nearby, jostling for space with touts, street masseurs and shopkeepers selling sarongs and surfboards.

Her methods may not be the most orthodox, but this is how Indonesia's undisputed queen of jumps has been training. And who is to argue? After all, she has earned the right to take on the world's best at next month's Olympic Games, an event she considers "the biggest dream of my lifetime" .

She is among 28 competitors, including two in athletics, sent by Indonesia to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Her Olympic debut will mark a huge leap for a girl whose own father had doubts whether she could function normally.

Away from the touristy beaches, the peaceful Kapal neighbourhood, with hectares of rice fields in every direction, is where she calls home.

In an interview over hot chocolate with The Sunday Times last month, she candidly shared her Olympic journey, her struggles and hopes for the discipline she picked up at the age of 10, almost by fate.

  • TALE OF THE TAPE

  • MARIA LONDA

    HER BEST (2015)
    6.70m

    2012 OLYMPIC BRONZE
    6.89m

    2015 WORLD C'SHIPS BRONZE
    7.01m

    HER CHANCES
    I have practised hard and I leave it all to God. Winning or losing, I trust that his decision is the best for me.

Born with smaller lungs than normal, she was often out of breath. She also suffered from clogged blood vessels in her legs, and subsequent surgery had left them weak and one leg slightly shorter.

In a bid to toughen her up because of her condition, her late father Kamilus would force her to run for 30 minutes every morning to a nearby stadium, while he rode on his bicycle and cheered her along.

It was at this stadium that she found former national long jumper, and now coach of 16 years, I Ketut Pageh, training on the sand pit.

A WINNER, NOT A WHINER

She never whines when life doesn't go her way, but never forgets to be thankful when it does.

I MADE SUKARIATA , Londa's national athlete boyfriend

Pageh remembers the "small and skinny girl" who climbed trees to steal fruit but never cried from falls.

"She came every single day to watch me for the entire two hours without fail. She would then jump on her own. She's a natural talent but what amazed me most was her drive," he said.

Londa added: "Jumping hurt my legs but the joy made me forget the pain. I would ice them at night and do it all over again the next day."

He took her under his wings and two years later, at 12, Londa came in third in the national junior competition. She went on to win every domestic competition in the long jump and triple jump.

"My father was ecstatic. He told me athletics would be my ticket out of poverty," she said.

Her interior decorator father, seamstress mother Anastasia Ari Ningsih, with younger twin brothers Rico and Riki, had lived in a tiny house with "no windows and a thin plywood acting as a door".

They had simple meals of rice and vegetables. She and her brothers had no toys, borrowed used books and wore hand-me-downs.

Even her first shoes were a used pair of China-made Panther brand trainers given by an instructor.

"I wore them for three years until they literally fell apart," she said. "I would sew Salonpas medicated plaster over the holes, otherwise my toes would stick out of them. There were so many holes; it became impossible to patch them anymore."

Competitive athletics turned her life around financially.

With prize money, grants from the government and sponsorship, she has since bought a house for her mother and another for herself. She is also supporting her brothers through university.

Her boyfriend, I Made Sukariata, a national athlete whom she plans to marry after the Olympics, said the devout Catholic is always grateful. "She never whines when life doesn't go her way, but never forgets to be thankful when it does."

Londa's first international foray began at 19 when she entered the 2009 SEA Games in Laos. She finished third.

She went one better in Palembang 2011, earning silver medals in the women's long and triple jumps, despite being stricken with grief over her father's death.

"I felt so lost without him and wanted to give up, but support from my coach and family kept me going," she said.

In Myanmar 2013, she finally struck gold - taking both jump titles and even set a new national triple jump record, an impressive 14.17m.

At the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, she announced her arrival as a continental power, taking the long jump gold - Indonesia's first athletics title at the Asiad in 16 years.

Her biggest dream turned into reality at last year's SEA Games. Not only did she retain her two titles, but her new best of 6.70m in the long jump was also enough for her to qualify for the Rio Olympics. The distance would have put her in the final at the 2012 Games, where she would have been eighth.

 

But the exertion from the Games and training for the Olympics took their toll, leaving her with torn ligaments in both knees. She was out for three months earlier this year.

She has since returned to practice but has not been able to break her record, reaching only 6.38m in a national event in May. The top four contenders, her coach said, have already surpassed 7m.

But Londa is not rattled. With her recovering knees, she would be happy if she could smash her personal best and finish in the top 10. Anything better is a bonus.

"I have practised hard and I leave it all to God. Winning or losing, I trust that his decision is the best for me," she said.

She had continued training on the gravel pit and the island's beaches - but was careful not to aggravate her injury - even as late as May, as a synthetic long-jump pit in Bali was still under construction.

Pageh had also adopted water therapy to avoid stressing her joints, making her stand knee-deep in sea water and run a short distance, lifting each foot above the waterline as she surges forward.

"We don't have much time but we must not give up. If I've to be completely honest, it's not going to be easy but we cannot force it," he said.

But true to her never-say-die spirit, Londa said: "Nobody can predict what happens on the actual day."

She said she would be visiting her father's grave to get his blessings before heading to Brazil.

"When he was alive, he told everyone, 'My daughter is a champ'," she said. "All I know is when I jump at the Olympics, I will see his face telling me he is proud of me."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 31, 2016, with the headline 'Making it to the big leap'. Print Edition | Subscribe