Posted on July 6, 2011 by Jon Mulkeen
Original article posted on Athletic Weekly
Ask any pole vaulter, and they will say that you have to be a bit mad to take up the event. Not that you need such confirmation – the very act of hurtling down a runway relying solely on planting a three-inch-thick pole into a small box in the hope it will carry you over a bar positioned higher than a double decker bus says it all.
So when just one athlete – a complete newcomer to the event – dared to take part in Julien Raffalli’s pole vault taster session in the pouring rain one day in Blackburn three years ago, the coach knew he had unearthed a fearless pole vault star in the making.
Holly Bleasdale had played many sports and tried several athletics events before taking part in Raffalli’s pole vault introduction session. With seven years of gymnastics training under her belt, and moderate success in the hurdles and heptathlon, Bleasdale had an ideal background for the event.
Raffalli invited her to join his training group, and in October 2008 she duly obliged. After just two months Bleasdale had added 30cm to her PB. By the end of the 2009 indoor season she had improved another 45cm to 3.55m. Three months later Bleasdale broke four metres for the first time, but an untimely foot injury forced her to sit out the remainder of the summer season.
“The injury was very difficult to overcome as it was my first proper season in the pole vault and I was doing so well,” recalled Bleasdale. “I had to miss out on what would have been my first GB vest at the European Juniors, so I was pretty devastated.
“But looking back, that injury was the best thing to happen to me,” she added. “It spurred me on massively and helped me mentally and physically. Initially I couldn’t put any weight on my foot, so I worked hard on my core and upper body, which I think was one of the major reasons why I did well in 2010.”
Recovered from the injury, Bleasdale continued where she left off and improved to 4.35m in 2010 before going to the IAAF World Junior Championships and taking bronze – the first ever medal won by a British female pole vaulter at a global athletics championships.
But at that point not even Bleasdale herself could predict that less than a year later she would have won the UK indoor title, rubbed shoulders with the world’s best at the European Indoor Championships, and cleared a UK record and world age-19 best of 4.70m.
“It’s scary to think that at the beginning of the winter my indoor PB was just 4.01m,” said Bleasdale, who last weekend went 35cm higher than her pre-2011 outdoor PB when setting the UK record in Mannheim. “Throughout the winter I could feel my body getting stronger and stronger, but I’ve still surprised myself during the indoor season.”
“Her injury in 2009 delayed the start to winter training for the following year, so this is the first time Holly has had a full winter,” explained Raffalli, who has upped Bleasdale’s training from five sessions a week to twelve. “She has started doing weights for the first time and is now much stronger and much faster than before.
“But she has only been with me for 24 months, so although she is already clearing 4.70m, strictly speaking she is still a beginner.”
Bleasdale had something of a baptism of fire at the European Indoor Championships earlier this year, not that the pressure got to her. She came within five centimetres of her indoor PB, clearing 4.45m, but the qualifying round proved to be the highest quality of any indoor championships in history as eight women cleared 4.55m. Even if Bleasdale had equalled her PB, she still wouldn’t have made the final.
Given the circumstances, it was a job well done. Bleasdale’s younger rival, world junior champion Angelica Bengtsson, did not cope so well with the pressure and could only manage 4.35m, having set a world junior record of 4.63m less than two weeks earlier.
“I made a few mistakes in warm up and during the competition, but it’s all good because I learned from them and next time when I compete on a big stage I won’t make them again,” said Bleasdale, who overcame a minor mid-competition scare in Paris when a recent wound on her hand opened up.
“I felt a bit of pressure because people were asking me about national records and making the final, but I tried to push that pressure away. I was slightly disappointed at the time with not getting through to the final, but now I realise how well I did for my first senior international.”
Bleasdale’s 4.70m easily surpasses the ‘A’ standard for this year’s IAAF World Championships in Daegu and next year’s London Olympics, but first up for the Blackburn teenager will be the European Under-23 Championships – her biggest goal for 2011.
“A couple of years ago I was sat at home watching the World Championships, and I’d never have thought that in a couple of years I’d be there. It’s crazy,” said Bleasdale, whose boyfriend is 1:47 800m man Paul Bradshaw. “Just being there will be an experience in itself, and if I could make the final that would be great.
“But my main aim is the European Under-23s,” added Bleasdale, who leads this year’s European under-23 rankings by 28 centimetres. “I think I’ve got a good chance of winning a medal there.”
Bleasdale, still 19, already has many of the tools required to compete alongside the world’s best, so says her coach. “In terms of runway speed, I think she is probably the fastest female vaulter in the country, and among the top 10 in the world,” said Raffalli. “She has the speed and strength of a 4.80m vaulter, but her technique is probably at the level of a 4.00m vaulter. But it’s improving all the time and it’s easier to correct technique than it is to work with someone who has no natural speed or strength.”
When asked earlier this year whether Bleasdale had the potential to break the UK record, Raffalli agreed but added that he didn’t want to set it as a target as he felt she was capable of going beyond that to 4.65m or 4.70m. Just months on from Raffalli’s prediction, and Bleasdale has done exactly that.
The performance ranks her at equal fourth in the world, tied with European champion Svetlana Feofanova and world indoor champion Fabiana Murer, and just five centimetres behind world champion Anna Rogowska.
“I think her eyes have been opened this year as to how good she could be. Before, I don’t think she understood just how much potential she has,” added Raffalli, who also coaches Bleasdale’s fellow world junior pole vault bronze medallist Andy Sutcliffe. “When Holly vaulted 4.50m for the first time, she had a massive clearance over the bar and it was only when she watched the video back that she realised how big a jump it was. She’s a breath of fresh air to coach.”
Bleasdale now holds the full set of British records from under-20 to under-23 and senior level, spearheading a wave of young talent in British women’s pole vaulting. For years the UK junior record stood at 4.00m, co-owned by Kate Dennison and Zoe Brown. But in the past three years, six junior athletes have surpassed that mark. Even the British under-17 record now stands at 4.05m, held by Bleasdale’s training partner, Katie Byres.
It feels as though Britain is finally making inroads towards competing with the world’s best pole vaulters. Germany, for example, has had 11 women surpass 4.50m. Russia boasts four 4.75m vaulters, while 18 American women have bettered 4.50m. Britain, meanwhile, has had just two women break 4.50m to date, but given the crop of talent rising through the ranks, that could soon change.
One thing that hasn’t changed in the pole vaulting world is the dominance of Yelena Isinbayeva. Even after a year out, the world record-holder recently returned to the top of the world rankings, and it looks as though this summer she could regain the world title she lost to Poland’s Anna Rogowska in Berlin two years ago.
“Where Isinbayeva is at now, that’s where I’d like to be in the future. Knowing that I’m clearing similar heights that she did at my age is a great confidence boost.”
Unsurprisingly, Isinbayeva is one of Bleasdale’s sporting role models. But the young Briton is already ahead of schedule compared to where her idol was at her age – the Russian cleared 4.55m at age 19, compared to Bleasdale’s 4.70m.
“Where Isinbayeva is at now, that’s where I’d like to be in the future,” said Bleasdale. “Knowing that I’m clearing similar heights that she did at my age is a great confidence boost.
“If I’m jumping around 4.70m now, hopefully in five or six years from now I can get into the 4.90m range, maybe even five metres,” added Bleasdale of her own future potential, with the air of an athlete who probably does not fully understand just how good she could be.
Just as Isinbayeva had team-mate Svetlana Feofanova to spur her on throughout her career, Bleasdale also has a strong rival in Bengtsson. Bleasdale finished behind the Swedish youngster at last year’s World Junior Championships, but has twice defeated Bengtsson this year.
“She is a very talented athlete and a great competitor,” said Bleasdale of Bengtsson. “Every time I hear about what she has jumped, it spurs me on to want to jump higher. I feel she will be one of my main competitors in years to come.”
Raffalli has every confidence that his protégé will one day reach the top. “If you ask me now if I think Holly can one day be the world No.1 and the best ever, I say why not?” he said. “She has only been vaulting seriously with me for two years, whereas it often takes girls many years to get to Holly’s level.
“I don’t want to put pressure on her though, nor do I want to put a limit on what I think she can achieve,” he said, before adding without any hint of doubt: “I think she’s got the potential to clear five metres.”
And we know what happens when Raffalli makes a prediction.
From the vault…
A look at the heights achieved by some of the world’s leading vaulters in their first year as a senior. Holly Bleasdale has the whole summer in which to move up the ranks.
Holly Bleasdale (GBR) 4.70m
World junior bronze medallist
Yelena Isinbayeva (RUS) 4.60m
World record-holder and Olympic champion
Silke Spiegelburg (GER) 4.56m
European silver medallist
Annika Becker (GER) 4.55m
Lisa Ryzih (GER) 4.52m
European bronze medallist
Svetlana Feofanova (RUS) 4.50m
Monika Pyrek (POL) 4.40m
World silver medallist
Chelsea Johnson (USA) 4.25m
World silver medallist
Fabiana Murer (BRA) 3.91m
World indoor champion
Anna Rogowska (POL) 3.90m
» This is an updated version of the interview that featured in the March 17 issue of Athletics Weekly.