Holly Bleasdale: French connection catapults 'Olly' into pole position

She has her coach to thank for making her a contender for glory, she tells Simon Turnbull

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Holly Bleasdale has come a long way since the rainy day in 2008 when she was reluctantly persuaded to take part in a pole vault "taster" session in the driving rain at Blackburn. It was two months after the Beijing Olympics and Bleasdale was a budding hurdler and high jumper at the time.

"I also played football for my local team, Euxton Girls," she recalled. "I went to Blackburn Rovers for trials. I really enjoyed football. I played up front. I gave up when I got kicked in my lower back and had to go to hospital, because I couldn't walk.

"When the last Olympics were on I was training for the hurdles and the high jump but I remember that summer I did the English Schools' heptathlon. I was eighth until the last event, the 800m, and then I came 20th. I was like 100m behind everybody else."

Four years on, the English Schools also-ran is not quite in pole position going into the Olympic Games but she is not far off it. Only two women have pole vaulted higher than Bleasdale in 2012.

Competing at Villeurbanne, on the outskirts of Lyons, in January, she cleared 4.87m. It was the third best performance of the indoor season, which she finished with a bronze medal from the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul in March.

Outdoors this summer, Bleasdale's best is 4.71m. That puts her seventh in the world rankings going into the qualifying round of the women's pole vault in the Olympic Stadium today.

At 20, the would-be Blackburn Rover has enjoyed a meteoric rise under Julien Raffalli (left with Bleasdale), the pole vault coach who has guided her since that taster day in the Blackburn rain two months short of four years ago.

Raffalli hails from Saint-Léger des Vignes in Burgundy. He came to England on a six-month work contract in 2004 but has stayed put in Manchester, marrying a local girl.

He is a former French under-20 pole vault champion and the son of Jean-François Raffalli, an ex-international decathlete. "My dad competed against Daley Thompson," he said. "He qualified for the 1984 Olympics but he had a bad injury in his leg about three weeks before, so he couldn't go."

Both Raffallis have made it to the London Olympics, though – the son as coach to a pole vault medal contender, the father as a stadium announcer. "Julien's dad is the French announcer in the Olympic Stadium," Bleasdale said. "He did it at the World Championships in Daegu last year.

"He does it at most of the major championships. They have to have a French announcer and he's the guy that does it. I know him really well because we go to France quite a lot to train and compete. It's really nice to have his voice announcing, even though I can't understand what he's saying… I can still recognise his voice.

"My mum was a French and German teacher, so you'd think she would have taught me French. I got a B at GCSE but I can just say like bonjour and ça va. That's it. I can speak a little bit of French but I'm embarrassed doing the accent. I just sound northern. It doesn't sound very good.

"Julien's English isn't perfect. It's quite funny. When I first started being coached by him I couldn't understand a word he said – especially on the phone."

Does he know how to say "Holly Bleasdale, Olympic gold medallist," though? "No," Bleasdale says. "He calls me 'Olly'.

"It's funny. He told me that 'Olly' in French means, 'Go to bed.' So when I'm competing over there and he's shouting it people are like, 'What?'"

What's on TV...


TV: 8.45am-1pm, BBC 1

TV: 9am-2pm, BBC 3

9am Triathlon Women's race. Helen Jenkins, Lucy Hall and Vicky Holland take part for GB.

9.30am Handball Men's Group A: Tunisia v Great Britain.

11.20am Water Polo Men's Group B: Hungary v Great Britain.

11.30am Rowing Men's fours final, where GB defend their title, followed by the women's lightweight double sculls final at 11.50am. Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter seek to retain their light-weight double sculls at 12.10pm.

Volleyball Men's Pool A: Great Britain v Poland.

12.30pm Athletics Men's 100m round 1. On your marks...

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4pm Hockey Women's Pool A: China v Great Britain.

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5.40pm Cycling Track Women's team pursuit finals.

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7pm Athletics Dai Greene goes in the men's 400m hurdles semi, followed by the women's discus at 7.30pm and the men's long jump at 7.55pm – Greg Rutherford and Chris Tomlinson will hope to medal.

7.30pm Football Men's quarter-final: GB v South Korea, in Cardiff. The victors are likely to face Brazil in last four.

Swimming Women's 50m freestyle final, with the men's 1,500m freestyle final at 7.36pm.

8pm Basketball Men's Group B: Great Britain v Australia.

8.05pm Athletics Women's 400m semi-finals, then heptathlon 800m at 8.35pm as Jess Ennis goes for gold. The men's 10,000m, featuring Mo Farah, takes place at 9.15pm.

Highlights 10.40pm-12am, BBC 1. Additional coverage on BBCi


TV: 9-10.45am, BBC 1

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11am Athletics Women's marathon.

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2pm Sailing Men's Finn medal race. Ben Ainslie seeks to grab gold at his fifth Games.

2.45pm Volleyball Women's Pool A: GB v Japan.

3.41pm Gymnastics Artistic Men's pommel horse final, with Louis Smith.

4.15pm Handball Women's Group A: Great Britain v Croatia.

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6.10pm Cycling Men's omnium 1km time-trial.

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7pm Hockey Men's Pool A: Great Britain v Australia.

7.35pm Athletics Women's triple-jump final, followed by the men's 100m semi-finals at 7.45pm and the men's hammer at 8.20pm.

9.10pm Athletics Women's 400m final, with Christine Ohuruogu defending her title. The main event, the men's 100m final, takes place at 9.50pm – no doubt featuring a certain Mr Bolt.

Highlights 10.40pm-12am, BBC 1. Additional coverage on BBCi