Little has stood in the way of Katerina Stefanidi becoming Olympic, world and European champion over the last few years. The 27-year-old Greek athlete seems to have had a competitive and psychological edge over her competitors in the pole vault. Only four women have ever bettered her 4.91m lifetime best.
Not everyone is a fan of clichés, but they say that behind every successful athlete, there is a great coach. In this case, Mitch Krier is also her husband. As the duo prepare for another year of trying to stay at the top, we set out to discover what makes them tick.
Q: How did you meet each other?
Katerina: It was my last year of college and I was looking at where to go next. Nick Hysong (my former coach), his wife, Karen Locke (my agent), Mitch and I were all sitting at a table.
Karen was explaining that I needed to go to grad school, because otherwise I wouldn’t be allowed to stay in the US. Nick’s wife said “Mitch, why don’t you just marry Kat?”
Mitch: It was a little awkward. I had never met Kat, Nick’s wife had never met Kat and she just said that. But then we actually became best friends and lived together!
Q: Katerina, you left Greece ten years ago after getting a scholarship at Stanford University. Was it easy to settle?
Katerina: I wouldn’t say it was easy. I didn’t really want to come to the US. My parents were pushing me, but I didn’t feel like it was a good time for me to leave.
My parents picked me up from San Francisco airport and I was crying while we were driving towards Stanford. The second we got to the campus, I was like: “Oh, this is not so bad!” It is a gorgeous campus.
I spoke good academic English, but I had trouble with regular life. They always said ‘party pooper’ and I said: ‘What does it mean?’ No-one taught me these words when learning English! For my first quarter, I wasn’t myself. But when part of a team and competing, you become friends. After that I started liking it.
Q: While living in America, you’ve achieved all your biggest successes. How has that changed your following in Greece?
There was the biggest change after Rio. When I moved to the US, people in track and field already knew who I was. But I was one of the very first from Greece to go to America and everybody thought ‘she is just going there to study’. It took a while until I started jumping better and people believed I was there to do well in sports.
I think my dad was foreseeing of the Greek crisis. In 2007, when I applied, he foresaw that things would get worse. My parents (former Greek international athletes themselves) were pretty open-minded. A lot of others wanted to go, but their parents said no. Had they not pushed me, I probably wouldn’t have gone.
Q: How good is your Greek, Mitch?
Mitch: Not that good, it’s very difficult! I can speak individual words and can understand most conversations, but putting it together is very interesting for people who speak English.
Q: What do you think has given Katerina the edge over the last two years?
Mitch: I wouldn’t say it’s one thing. It’s about knowing strengths and coping with weaknesses; putting it all together in a way that keeps her confident at the same time.
Sometimes in track and field you are told ‘you have to do this, you have to eat like this’. She needed to take her mind away from it, knowing that track is not life. It’s important to have a life to fall back on.
Q: With that in mind, how do you manage being a husband and a coach?
Mitch: It’s incredibly difficult. Sometimes as a husband, if she’s had a rough day, I want to be there for her and just let her vent. Then as a coach, I want to reassure her and change her mindset. It works really well for us, but things like that are tough.
Katerina: I am internally motivated, so no-one has ever had to teach me to have better focus. I’ve needed help to relax and I think that’s how he’s brought balance to me. I can definitely tell when he is nervous, but he’s probably calmer than all the other coaches.
Mitch: I get nervous before any competition. Once she takes her first jump, I feel much better. In London, we thought 4.85m would be easy and knew that no-one else would be ready for that.
Q: Describe best moment of your career together?
Kat: Rio was pretty cool!
Mitch: Yeah, Rio was awesome, but she injured herself two weeks before. It was nerve-racking so I don’t think we fully enjoyed it. She had not run or jumped, we had to make adjustments and everything was a gamble.
I reckon my favourite part has been her consistency. Anyone can jump high once, but to do it consistently is special.
Q: Do you think it’s harder to find motivation once you’ve achieved so many dreams?
Katerina: I don’t think so. I’ve always thought of success as a better motivator than coming back from a bad year. I want to keep being successful and it’s easier to think “how can I stay here?”, rather than being at the bottom and thinking “how can I get to the top?”
Also, I really like pole vaulting, it isn’t just for medals. I’ve got the World Indoor Championships still to win, and then I’ll be defending everything and that’s something to look forward to.
Q: So, pole vaulting was always what you wanted to do?
Katerina: At 10-years-old, I didn’t know! It was my dads idea, he pushed me towards it.
I broke the 11-year-old age record and that’s when you see you’re good, but I didn’t love it until college. Once I graduated and made the decision to keep going, I felt that I enjoyed it and it didn’t matter if I became a champion or not.
I think that attitude has brought more success than doing it just to keep my scholarship or because my dad was making me!
Q: Your dad must be delighted with how his ideas have all worked out?
Katerina: It’s true, a lot of family friends tell him “you were so right!” (Much laughter).
Q: Who is the best dressed between you and Mitch?
Mitch: Kat has pyjamas everywhere!
Katerina: I’m about comfort!
Q: Who has the best music taste?
Mitch: Katerina has the better variety, I tend not to care about finding new stuff and listen to the same thing that I have done since 2005.
Q: Such as?
Mitch: Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Matisyahu.
Q: Who is the best cook?
Katerina: Me (Laughter). I am learning!
Mitch: We started cooking Greek meals and I think she didn’t like the way I was cooking them, so she took over.
The first year we went to Greece, I tried to help her mum in the kitchen and she nearly had a heart attack! It stresses her out for people to be in there.
Katerina: When Mitch and I met, I would eat cereal and milk for three meals a day and say “yeah, I cook!” We try making meals healthier and sometimes they don’t turn out so good, but if we follow a recipe we can make anything…probably!