When Italy’s 17-year-old rising star Larissa Iapichino won the European U20 long jump title last year, she followed some very big, and very familiar footsteps: those of her mother, Fiona May, who took the same title in 1987, eight years before winning the first of her two world long jump crowns.
Iapichino produced a 6.58m leap in the fifth round to wrestle the title away from Swede Tilde Johanson by six centimetres. Iapichino’s winning jump and her determination to win a tough battle against very competitive rivals in difficult weather conditions was reminiscent of her mother who battled her way to 1995 and 2001 world gold and Olympic silver in 1996 and 2000.
“I could not believe that I would win the gold medal at 17,” said Iapichino, who was the youngest athlete in the field. “It was a shock to jump 6.58m. It was a very close competition with three athletes within just two centimetres. This win was important. I am happy with the way I handled this final because it was very difficult.”
Both her parents were at the competition in Boras, Sweden. Her father, Gianni Iapichino, was also a notable athletics talent. Boasting a 5.70m pole vault best from 1994 - and 7.95m in the long jump - he won five national titles in the pole vault and one in the heptathlon indoors. He competed in the era of Sergey Bubka and Rodion Gataullin, whose daughter Aksana, won the pole vault in Boras.
Given the rainy conditions, her mother was worried throughout the competition.
“It was not easy to jump in these conditions and I didn’t know what Larissa could achieve,” May said. “I felt very proud of my daughter after her win. The road is now very long. There will be ups and downs but what matters most is that she has passion. I felt the same joy when I won the gold medal in Birmingham 32 years ago.”
When she was born in Florence on 18 July 2002, she obviously had a strong genetic predisposition for athletics, given her parents’ success. If that wasn’t enough, she was named after Larissa Berezhnaya, a world and European indoor long jump champion who competed against May in the 1990s.
She became known to Italian athletics fans when she young when featuring in a Kinder advertising spot with her mother on Italian television. Gymnastics was her first sport in primary school, but soon discovered her passion for athletics.
“I was good in gymnastics and I reached a good level but I trained six days a week,” she says. “Gymnasts have to give their best at a young age. It became a very demanding sport and I did not enjoy it any more.”
In the summer of 2015 she attended the Herculis Diamond League meeting in Monaco as a spectator, a birthday present from her parents. After the experience, she said, “I fell in love with athletics.”
Iapichino began training the following October, first with the hurdles then adding the long jump. Comparisons with May’s results became inevitable so her parents chose a relaxed approach for their daughter, who began training at the Luigi Ridolfi stadium in Florence under the guidance of local coaches Gianni Cecconi and Ilaria Ceccarelli. Cecconi focuses on the long jump and Ceccarelli trains her for the hurdles.
A year later, in October 2016, she won the Italian U15 title in the 300m hurdles clocking 44.25. She rose to another level during the 2018 indoor season when she set the Italian U18 indoor pentathlon record with 3707 points. Some weeks later, competing at the national indoor combined events championships in Padua, she broke the national U20 indoor long jump record with 6.36m at age of 15.
Iapichino made a major breakthrough in June 2019, when she improved her lifetime best four times at the national U20 championships in Agropoli, going from 6.38m to 6.64m, national U18 and U20 records. Now, she was jumping farther than her mother at the same age. In these championships she also finished second in the 100m hurdles in 13.55 behind her close friend Veronica Besana.
“It seemed impossible to me,” she recalls. “The truth is that the 6.54m jump in the fifth round left me perplexed. I was very close to the (U20) Italian record and I could not end like this. At the moment I said to myself: ‘Larissa, you have the last attempt. You have already won the title, have fun, run well, take off and close well to make those few centimetres.’ The distance came up and I could not believe it.”
World Athletics Indoor Tour debut in 2020
Iapichino began the 2020 season with 6.22m leap at the World Athletics Indoor Tour stop in Karlsruhe on 31 January, marking her debut in the global indoor series. One week later she improved her national U20 indoor record with 6.40m at the national U20 championships in Ancona. She came close to that with a 6.38m leap in Glasgow before ending her indoor campaign with another 6.38m leap at the national indoor championships, finishing second to Laura Strati.
“The Italian U20 competition was complicated, because I am working on a new run-up, but I am happy with how I managed to show my character in my final attempt,” she says. “I had to change my run-up. My first competitions against the best jumpers in the world in Karlsruhe and Glasgow were a learning experience for me, that will be very useful for me in the future.”
Iapichino leads a new generation of Italian athletics, which approached this year’s World U20 Championships with a lot of confidence after a very successful edition of the European U20 Championships. Italy won five gold and a total of 11 medals in what national U20 coach Tonino Andreozzi described as the best edition of this event for Italian athletics.
But the Nairobi event was postponed due to the ongoing challenges posed by the spread of Covid-19, barring her, for now, from winning another title that her mother claimed. Still competing for Great Britain, May won the world U20 title in 1988, jumping 6.88m. She later went on to finish sixth at the Olympics in Seoul that year, aged just 18.
With the 2020 season all but wiped out, Iapichino has her sights set on the Olympic qualifying standard of 6.82m.
“I used the indoor season to make experience at high level,” she says. “During the lockdown I can’t do any technical training but I keep fit with exercises to strengthen my body. In this period I miss my training group, and unfortunately the spring training camp with the national team was cancelled. With patience we will overcome this difficult period and we will return to enjoy athletics.”
In the meantime, Iapichino continues to juggle athletics with her high school studies in Florence.
“Normally it’s difficult to combine athletics with school,” she says. “I study until late in the night because I can’t find time to study during the afternoon because of training - but it’s not a sacrifice when I have the passion.”
Diego Sampaolo for World Athletics