Buckfield has a vision of greatness

Adam Szreter meets the young pole vaulter whose plans to scale the heights begin in earnest at Gothenburg next week
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The Independent Online
When the medals are handed out for the men's pole vault in Gothenburg a week tomorrow, it is odds-on that Sergei Bubka will be climbing the podium to claim his fifth world title. An equally sure bet is that Nick Buckfield will be watching from the sidelines, a long way from gold but immeasurably enriched by the experience of competing with the man he describes as "my hero".

Two weeks ago Buckfield, 22, from Crawley, became the British record holder for an event that has about as much tradition in this country as, well, the triple jump. And what Jonathan Edwards has done for the hop, step and jump Buckfield is confident of emulating in the pole vault, if not right now then over the next few years.

He began vaulting when he was 15. "I used to be a runner, anything from 100 to 800 metres, and I did a bit of long jump. But there was only one guy at Crawley who did the pole vault, so I decided to have a pop at it and I quite enjoyed it.

"When I first started I was jumping about 2.20 metres. Then I got to about 3.00m and it stayed there for a little while. My technique was all over the place. Basically, I just used to run up with the pole and shut my eyes."

Since then, though, it has been onwards and ever upwards for Buckfield, whose eyes are now wide open to the exciting possibilities. A succession of fine performances this season culminated in breaking Keith Stock's 14-year-old national record with a vault of 5.70m at the Bupa Games in Sheffield, and he goes to Gothenburg as Britain's sole representative in arguably the most spectacular event of all.

But for this talented all-round sportsman, it could have been very different. "As a pole vaulter you've got to be an all-rounder," said Buckfield. "I used to play football, basketball, cricket and hockey. I was a schoolboy at Crystal Palace for six months, but then they dropped me.

"Then I went to Aldershot and they wanted to sign me up for YTS. I wasn't too keen on it and at that time - I was 16 - I'd made my mind up that I wanted to go for athletics, and that's when Aldershot had all their financial troubles, so I was quite relieved." Aldershot ended up bankrupt and out of the Football League.

Buckfield has now been a full-time athlete for a year and, aside from learning French and watching video re-runs of past Olympic Games, training is very much his preoccupation. It is geared towards an annual visit to the French national pole vaulting centre in Paris, where facilities far outstrip anything available in this country.

"At different times of the year I do different things," Buckfield said. "During the winter I have conditioning which will consist of sprints, steady runs, circuit training, low-resistance weights at high repetitions. Then I go on to a preparation period, doing heavier stuff, cut down on the endurance and do more explosive things, like short sprints and bounding.

"Then I'll have a week off, when I'll still vault but I'll do other things like play squash and basketball, or go cycling or swimming. Then I'll do another preparation period before going to France, usually about April to work on my technique."

While Buckfield's success this season has caught the eye, he is not without competition in his own manor, never mind Bubka and the rest. Neil Winter, a year younger, is already the Commonwealth champion, but he has yet to vault 5.60. "Neil has always been that person ahead of me," Buckfield said. "I remember at my first English Schools, when I jumped three metres, and he was jumping four metres and it was like, Wow! This guy's good.

"But now I've caught up with him, and I said to my coach last year there's no way anyone's going to be above me this year. I've trained so hard for so many years, and I want this really badly. Neil's never had anyone either above him or with him, so he's never had any pressure on him. When I jumped 5.60m he was really shocked. Everyone was."

As far as next week is concerned, Buckfield will not be setting the bar too high for his first attempt. "I'm going to be jumping against the elite. I think my ambition there is just to qualify for the final. But I've been to a lot of major games now. I know the score. I know how to prepare, although I would be a liar if I said I wasn't going to be nervous. Things can go wrong. Pole vault is one of those events where it can."

If things do start to go wrong for Buckfield, he has a City and Guilds in leisure and recreation management to fall back on as well as the support of two families. "At the moment I'm not in a position to make a living from vaulting. I'd have to jump a little bit higher, possibly 5.80, to start making a living.

"I'm supported by my parents, and my fiancee's parents as well. I've got a roof over my head, I don't pay any rent, I also get a grant from the Sports Aid Foundation, plus I'm on income support from the dole office."

In the meantime Buckfield pins his faith in a five-year plan. "The Olympics next year will be an experience, the first one. If I jump 5.80 this year then I could be in with a medal chance, but my goals are set on the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Gold there, and I want to be the first British guy to jump six metres."

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