Polestar of the vault

Yelena Isinbayeva had planned to retire after the Moscow Worlds in 2103, but her success had made her set new goals, of extending her ‘flying career’ till the 2016 Rio Olympics. Sportstar, in its issue dated August 31, 2013, celebrated her success at the Moscow Worlds, with a Cover Story.

For Isinbayeva, this gold, won in front of an adoring home crowd, should be doubly valuable.   -  AP

Ecstasy for Isinbayeva after the conquest of the bar.   -  AP

At 15, when Yelena Isinbayeva was told that she could become a great pole vaulter like Sergey Bubka if she took up the sport, the young girl was confused.

“Bubka? Who’s she?” the Russian had asked the coach. She had not even heard of the sport.

Isinbayeva had been a very promising gymnast till then, in a country whose women ruled the sport at the Olympics. She had taken up the sport at five, was a national champion at 10 and had been dreaming of becoming an Olympic queen like Olga Korbut and Nellie Kim.

But all that came crashing down one day when she was told that she had grown too tall for gymnastics and that she had to try other options. She was just 15 then.

“It was the worst day of my life…I cried for days,” the Russian was to say many years later.

Daughter of a plumber from Volgograd, Isinbayeva came to pole vault rather reluctantly. Even Yevgeny Trofimov, who was only coaching boys in pole vault then, took Isinbayeva as a ward with some hesitation when her gymnastics coach brought her to him.

“I was passed from hand to hand, without anyone asking for my opinion,” said the Russian beauty. “It was not my choice but I have no regrets.”

Certainly, Isinbayeva will have no regrets. Not after winning her third World title stunningly in front of her ecstatic home crowd in Moscow the other day to add to her two Olympic titles. The international federation, IAAF’s Athlete of the Year in 2004, 2005 and 2008, Isinbayeva — who lived in a 500-sq feet apartment with her parents and sister and who could afford only second-hand clothes as a little girl — is now one of the most glamorous superstars of world athletics. An athlete who makes big money every time she goes to a new high.

The 31-year-old has dominated the sport to such an extent, raising the world record by one dramatic centimetre after another, that she is now famously known as ‘Bubka in a skirt’. And her background in gymnastics has certainly been a big blessing.

The girl, who won the World Youth Games title just six months after she raced down the runway with a pole and realised that girls could fly in the new sport too, is now chasing Sergey Bubka’s tally of 35 world records (17 outdoor, 18 indoor). She now has 28 world marks (15 outdoors, 13 indoors) but she is ahead of Ukrainian Bubka when it comes to absolute world records (17-15), that is, if one compares the number of times each athlete recorded the highest vault ever seen, outdoor or indoor.

And while Bubka took some nine years to pile up his record collection in men’s pole vault, Isinbayeva got hers in just a little over six years.

The Russian queen’s first world record, 4.82m, came in July 2003. Two years later, she became the first woman to touch five metres and her current world record, 5.06m, was set in August 2009 in Zurich.

That’s a little higher than a double decker bus and just four centimetres short of the Indian men’s record!

However, she lost the indoor world record to American Jennifer Suhr, the 2012 London Olympics champion (5.02m), in March this year.

Bubka, who holds the men’s indoor and outdoor world record at 6.15m and 6.14, is a big fan of Isinbayeva.

“For women’s pole vault, she brought another era,” said the 49-year-old Ukrainian, now a contender for the International Olympic Committee President’s post, recently.

Isinbayeva was not the favourite for the title at the World Athletics Championships in Moscow. The 2004 and 2008 Olympic champion and 2005 and 2007 World champion had spent five years without a global title, with a lean streak, loss of confidence and injury letting her down.

And the 2009 World Championships in Berlin had been a very forgettable one.

Like a golfer who shockingly finds his touch and rhythm missing one day, the defending World champion realised on a disappointing day in Berlin that she could no longer fly.

After messing up her first attempt at 4.75m, she failed twice at 4.80 to finish last and leave the venue in tears. It was her first major loss after 2003.

A little later, as she sat in the athletes’ restaurant, the medals ceremony was on, on the big TV screen inside the hall.

“I forced myself to watch it. It was hard. It really hurt my ego. But I’m glad that I did,” said Isinbayeva.

“I’d forgotten what it was like to lose and I really don’t like being called the former world champion. It has given me fresh motivation.”

The following week, the Russian broke her own world record, soaring to 5.06m, a mark that still stands tall.

But the next two years, 2010 and 2011, turned out to be disappointing ones too. She missed out on medals at the 2010 Indoor Worlds and the Daegu Worlds in Korea the next year. And she could just manage a bronze at last year’s London Olympics.

So, despite the Worlds happening at home, the odds were stacked against her.

“It was a difficult victory. I had many difficulties in the past, problems in the head,” she revealed after the victory. “I felt, may be I had to retire because my results were going down. But my coach (Trofimov, her first coach with whom she had parted ways in 2005 only to return in 2011) made me believe in myself. He said, never give up, everything will be fine.”

This year, Trofimov realised that his superstar trainee was close to her best. He just needed to work on her mind.

“He said, ‘once you understand your jumps, you’ll fly again’. And today, after a long time, I felt that I was flying again,” said Isinbayeva in Moscow.

She had planned to retire after the Moscow Worlds but her success has made her set new goals, of extending her ‘flying career’ till the 2016 Rio Olympics. She plans to take a break, have a child and return if she regains her rhythm.