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In Birmingham, World records very much on Isinbayeva’s mind


20 February 2009 - Birmingham, UK – Yelena Isinbayeva holds up her right hand and spreads her thumb and fingers. “It’s not that far,” she says gesturing to her outstretched palm. “That’s 15 centimetres; that’s all it is.”

The Russian pole vaulter is measuring the distance between what she has achieved so far in her glittering career and her ultimate goal. Fifteen centimetres – the distance between her outdoor World record (5.05m) and the height she hopes to reach by the end of her career in four or five seasons’ time.

“Five-twenty is quite a lot higher than you’ve been so far,” one journalist had the temerity to suggest, causing the most decorated track and field athlete in the world to raise her eyebrows, lift up her hand.

He obviously hadn’t seen her jumps in Donetsk last weekend when Isinbayeva broke the World indoor record twice, first at 4.97m* and then at 5.00m* when she cleared the bar easily. “By at least 15cm,” according to her manager.

They were the 25th and 26th world records of her extraordinary career, and the 27th could well come tomorrow when Isinbayeva is the star attraction at the Aviva Grand Prix in Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena, a venue that is no stranger to the Russian’s record-breaking antics.

In 2005 she leapt 4.88m at this meeting (an IAAF Indoor Permit event) before going on later that year to breach the iconic five-metre barrier for the first time at the London Grand Prix in Crystal Palace. In all she has set seven World records in Britain and has her eyes focused on an eighth tomorrow in what will be only the second meeting of her shortened 2009 indoor season.

“I am very fond of jumping in Britain,” she says. “My first ever world record was here in Gateshead [back in 2003] and the important one was in Crystal Palace. So all the big ones were here. I would love to do it again tomorrow. I will try my best because I know it’s good to give the crowd something to make them happy.”

“I will see how I feel. It depends on my technique, but also on my emotions, how hard the competition has been. First of all I will focus on victory but afterwards I will try for a world record.”

It’s be a familiar script for the 26-year-old who since 2004 has broken 11 World records indoors, and has lost in only four of her last 60 competitions. Tomorrow she faces Brazil’s Fabiana Murer, her sometime training partner, and Yuliya Golubchikova, a fellow Russian who was fourth at the Beijing Olympics, plus the former World record holder Stacy Dragila from USA.

No one expects her to lose, of course, even though she claims to be in less than peak condition after only three months’ preparation, and anything short of another World record will seem like a disappointment. It’s the kind of expectation Isinbayeva seems to take in her stride as she constantly strives to improve.

Adjusting to new poles

In Birmingham, as in Donetsk, she’ll be aided by her latest weapon – a new, longer, stiffer pole. For the record, it’s 4.60m, with a stiffness of 18.3, and she uses a grip of 55cm.

“They are the hardest poles ever,” she says. “They are big improvements. They require a faster run-up and better technique. Last weekend was the first time I tried them but I will use them again here.”

Technique is everything with Isinbayeva, the secret of her success. The secret of her popularity, however, also has something to do with her sense of glamour. In Birmingham she will unveil poles that are not only stiffer but more colourful than anything yet seen on a pole vault runway.

They have been specially prepared by her Carson City, Nevada manufacturers UCS/SPIRIT in shiny new colours – pink, baby blue and yellow, apparently – and she promises more colours and designs to come in the summer, perhaps with a bit of glitter, flowers, or even gold.

It’s all part of her conscious attempt to keep the event at the centre of attention. “It’s important to make it exciting,” she says. With no serious challenge to her domination, finding ways to stay motivated is a continuous battle.

Seeks rivals, but also respect

Sometimes it’s her opponents who provide the spur, such as last summer when the American vaulter Jenn Stuczynski rashly claimed she was going to “kick some Russian butt” at the Olympic Games, providing Isinbayeva with all the kick she needed to retain her title in Beijing and set another world record.

“It’s always a pleasure to have rivals,” she says. “I need more rivals because they are a big motivation and help to push me up. And it’s better for the crowd – I don’t want them to get bored and skeptical. Strong rivals will make it more interesting.

“But I think she should have respected me more. What she said made me angry, so I said, ‘Ok, I will have to beat her’. It helped me to go for the gold medal.”

On the road to Berlin, ÅF Golden League is the primary focus

This winter, though, it’s the thought of World records rather than medals, that’s spurring Isinbayeva on. She has two already from one meeting, and with two meetings left she expects another two world marks, at least.

But she won’t be aiming to regain her European indoor title in Turin next month because she aims to focus this year on the ÅF Golden League meetings which start in Berlin on the 14 June.

“It’s an early start this year,” she explains. “So I need to start preparing a month earlier, in March, so I will end my winter season early.

“The Golden Leagues are important this year, and it will all lead up to the World Championships in Berlin where I will defend my title.”

Long term, Isinbayeva’s motivation remains her long-held ambition to set more world records than Sergey Bubka’s legendary 35 with the London Olympics in 2012 already pencilled in as a possible deadline depending how many more she can rack up over the next four seasons.

By then, of course, she may well have pushed the bar up beyond her ultimate target of 5.20m. After all, for her, it’s only the width of an outstretched hand.

Matthew Brown for the IAAF

* pending the usual ratification procedures

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