Claudia Balderrama has a mountain to climb if she is to win Bolivia’s first Olympic medal in London — and the 28-year-old race walker is doing precisely that on a daily basis.
Waking up at 5am to train 5,300m above sea level has become a sort of a daily pilgrimage for the athlete, who has indigenous Aymara ancestry and was born in the mining town of Llallagua in Potosi.
After 18 months of honing her technique in Mexico, Balderrama is leaving no stone unturned in her bid to shine in London, where she will be Bolivia’s flag-bearer.
“We usually train between 20km to 30km per day, depending on the conditions. The advantage of training this high is that she gets more red corpuscles [in her blood],” Balderrama’s trainer Duberty Flores said in an interview.
“We are 5,300m above sea level. So, when we go down, we get more oxygen. That will allow Claudia to have an advantage and be in better shape than other athletes,” Flores added.
That is why they chose the high-altitude Chacaltaya ski center outside La Paz as their training base.
Flores has designed a training schedule for Balderrama that requires her to climb the Chacaltaya mountain at an imposing 5,395m above sea level.
Balderrama, who graduated as a psychologist before starting her athletics career, is far from daunted and gazes on a sign saying: “Welcome to Chacaltaya, 5,300m above sea level” with a satisfied smile.
“I lived one-and-a-half years in Mexico with no money in my pockets, but a bag full of hope and dreams,” she said, recalling how, more than once, she had to borrow gear such as training shoes so she did not miss training.
She insists swapping psychology for athletics was still the best decision she ever made, even though the importance of qualifying for the Olympics would be lost on many of her compatriots.
“The training is very hard. We are in a stage in which we climb the mountain to be strong enough to face what’s next,” she said.
“I’m very happy. I wake up every day with my mind focused on a hard training session and do things the best I can,” she added.
Balderrama’s chances of a medal are slight and she will race the 20km walk in London on the back of a ‘B’ qualification time of 1 hour, 35.54 minutes — about 10 minutes behind Russian Vera Sokolova’s world record.
Balderrama, who lives alone in the city of El Alto near La Paz, gets 3,500 bolivianos (US$510) per month from the government’s Sports Investment Fund and a one-off payment of US$1,000 from Olympic Solidarity.
“I’ve been working very hard and I deserve to go to London,” she said.