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South African Olympic High Jumper 'Reaches for the Clouds' - 2004-08-25

South African Hestrie Cloete has won the last two women's high jump titles at the World Athletics Championships. Now she is looking for gold in the Olympics.

The 1.85 meter-tall Hestrie Cloete says she enjoys competing in the high jump because she likes to reach for the clouds. She has an unorthodox motion as she approaches the bar, which has been dubbed the flying bird.

"It happened to me as a kid," she said. "When I started jumping, I was doing the swinging arms. Since then I've never stopped. And me and my coach tried to stop it once and then I just stopped in the front of the bar. So for me it's working. I don't care if it looks pretty."

The 25-year-old Cloete admits she has a worse habit that athletes in endurance events could never have - she smokes cigarettes.

"Well, I'm jumping with my legs, not with my lungs," she said.

Cloete says her husband does not like her habit, but she says she began smoking almost 10 years ago and has not been able to give it up. But she said she will probably stop when she decides to start a family.

Cloete celebrates her 26th birthday on the opening day of qualifying for the women's high jump.

"I will just wake up and imagine that it's not my birthday, and just let it go by until after the qualifying rounds," she said. "And then I will come back [to my room in the Olympic Village] and switch on my phones and see who actually wanted to say Happy Birthday to me."

Hestrie Cloete says when she's not out training she mostly stays in her room at the Athletes Village, reading romance novels, listening to gospel music and focusing on her event. She knows the favorites don't always win field events like the high jump.

"I think the 12 that will be in the final, for sure, each one of them will fight for the gold," she said. "I can not really mention one of them because the high jump is really like, up and down, up and down, for the last two, three years [with different winners]. On a day, anybody can take it."

The defending Olympic champion, Yelena Yelesina did not qualify for the Russian team, but the two Russians here in Athens - Yelena Slesarenko and Anna Chicherova are strong contenders. Cloete and Slesarenko have both jumped 2.04 meters this season.

Cloete, the silver medalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, has confidence that she will have a good performance.

"I think I've been on top of the world, and I've been working for the Olympics for four years now," she said. "And if I look back on my four years, it went really well from Sydney on. It was two golds in the world championships, it was a Commonwealth [Games] gold, it was an Africa gold. So I think the only gold that short in my collection is the Olympic gold."

After winning her first high jump World Championship in 2001 in Edmonton, Canada, Hestrie Cloete said she would retire after the 2004 Olympics. But she told reporters here that she has reconsidered and she will likely continue on, whether or not she wins in Athens. But with a husband who had to stay home in South Africa to work - as he has for much of her career - a win would likely make her decision easier.