Two years ago Janine Whitlock's vaulting ambition was rapidly deserting her. Frustrated with her lack of progress and facing an uncertain future when her coach developed heart problems, she considered ending her sporting career as the leading British lady of the pole vault. It was just as well she changed her mind.
The Dewsbury athlete emerged as the star of the Norwich Union Indoor Grand Prix at the National Indoor Arena yesterday, totally eclipsing Stacy Dragila, the current world athlete of the year, and leaving Svetlana Feofanova, the world athlete of the indoor season thus far, somewhat in the shade.
Feofanova emerged a clear winner from the women's pole vault competition that was the focus of the meeting, but not with the fourth world record in 15 days that the Muscovite had targeted. After soaring over 4.64m at the first attempt, she registered three failures at 4.74m, which would have been a one centimetre improvement on the latest of her records.
Whitlock, though, emerged with the prized scalp of Dragila and with two more British records to add to a personal collection that now numbers 36. In doing so, with clearances at 4.34m and 4.44m, the 28-year-old Yorkshirewoman took a significant vault – two, in fact – up towards the ranks of the global élite in her event.
Only Feofanova went higher than her yesterday. Monique De Wilt of the Netherlands and Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia both finished ahead of Whitlock but only by virtue of the countback system. The Briton took fourth place ahead of Dragila, who could go no higher than 4.34m.
"I have finished equal with her once before," Whitlock said. "But that's the first time I've beaten her. I feel very honoured." And so she should. Whitlock has been steadily taking British women's vaulting to heights of respectability since she first picked up a pole to earn points in a club match seven years ago but she has come back from the brink of retirement to make the major progress she did yesterday.
"I was very close to giving up," she said, reflecting back to 2000. "I wasn't vaulting very well and my coach had heart problems. It was only when I linked up with Steve that I decided to carry on." Steve – Steve Rippon – is the Australian coach who runs the UK Athletics High Performance Centre at Loughborough University. Whitlock has since moved there to train with him and the benefits were evident even before yesterday – with a notable second placing at the European Cup in Bremen last June and a British record 4.33m vault in Ghent eight days ago. She was not the only British record breaker yesterday, though John Mayock's feat came in the rarely-run, non-standard event of the two miles. Finishing second to the former world 5,000m champion Salah Hissou, the 31-year-old clocked 8min 17.06sec, an improvement of 1.34sec on the record held for 24 years by Nick Rose.
It was a blessing that the Britons were in record-breaking form yesterday because otherwise – with Feofanova (in the pole vault), Steffi Graf (in the 800m) and Berhane Adere (in the 3,000m) falling short in their world record attempts – the showpiece British event of the indoor season would have been remembered for the farce that surrounded the men's 60m final.
Jason Gardener settled into his blocks intent on attacking his European record time of 6.46sec. Instead, the sprinter known as the Bath bullet was unable to shoot from his blocks when the race got underway at the second attempt, after being the victim of a case of mistaken identity so blatant members of the crowd were screaming at the trackside officials to correct the situation.
Gardener's concentration, not to mention his composure, was blown apart when a yellow flag indicating a false start was placed on his lane number board, even though he had still been in his blocks when the American Brian Lewis – in the lane next to him – jumped the gun. When the race did get away, it was little surprise that Gardener, fearing the disqualification a second false-start would have given him, started hesitantly and trailed in third, behind Morne Nagel and Mark Lewis-Francis, clocking 6.54sec.
"I am absolutely disgusted," Gardener fumed. "That was a disgraceful decision." An investigation into the affair was being planned by the organisers as the meeting closed and the British selectors met to finalise their team for the European Indoor Championships, which open in Vienna on Friday week. Colin Jackson, winner of the 60m hurdles yesterday in 7.44sec, has decided to accept the place he will be offered. Daniel Caines, however, will not, despite winning the 400m in 46.06sec.