Nafissatou Thiam (1994- )

Nafi Thiam representing Belgium during the 2017 European Athletics Indoor Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, March 3, 2017
Courtesy Erik van Leeuwen (GFDL)

Olympic and world heptathlon champion Nafissatou Thiam was born in Namur, Belgium, 43 mile southeast of Brussels, on August 19, 1994, one of the four children of Bamba Thiam, a native of Senegal who worked as a sculptor and painter, and Belgian citizen Danièle Denisty who was a school teacher and former athlete. Thiam’s parents divorced when she was age two. At age seven she competed in first her athletic game, winning first place in a cross-country race in Rhisnes, Belgium. Initially, she was more fond of basketball and had dreamed of playing professionally but by age 14 she had connected with Roger Lespagnard, a respected Olympic decathlete and her long-time track and field coach, and moved to Belgian city of Liège to train at RFC Liège (RFCL), months later winning her first national title in 2009 as a pentathlete.

In the women’s heptathlon, an competition spread over two days consisting of seven different contests (shot put, long jump, high jump, javelin throw, 100 meters hurdles, 200 meters sprint, and 800 meters rum) Thiam placed fourth in the 2011 World Youth Championships in Athletics in Lille, France, and fourteenth at the 2012 World Junior Championships in Athletics in Barcelona, Spain. The following year in a junior pentathlon event in Ghent, Belgium she broke the world record scoring 4,558 points, then clinched the gold medal in the heptathlon at the European Junior Athletics Championships in Rieti, Italy. In 2014 she won bronze in the indoor heptathlon at the European Championship and silver in the pentathlon at the 2015 meet.

In 2016, Thiam topped all competitors in the indoor long jump and pentathlon in the Belgian National Championships. But these victories paled in contrast to what she accomplished at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At the peak of her physicality and mental toughness, her performance in the heptathlon there, August 12 to 13, was outstanding. After trailing the British favorites Jessica Ennis-Hill, the 2012 Olympics heptathlon gold medalist, and Katarina Johnson Thompson, the 2015 European heptathlon champ, Thiam roared back on the second day. Despite having suffered torn ligaments in her elbow, she bested five of her own records in the heptathlon, taking gold with a point score of 6810. A grateful nation was glad to see her march in at the head of the Belgian national delegation in the closing Olympic ceremony hoisting the nation’s flag.

In 2017, Thiam won in the indoor pentathlon at the European Championships and the outdoor heptathlon at the World Championships to become the first Belgian female to claim this triumph; and in 2018 see finished first in the indoor long jump at the Belgian National Championships and also took the gold in the heptathlon at the European Championships. Admittedly shy and uncomfortable in the spotlight, she continues to in live in a modest home in Liège. She attends the Université de Liège where she majors in geographical science.