It was a moment that marked the darker side of last year’s golden Games: Holly Bleasdale wiping away the tears from her stained cheeks while sitting disconsolate on the pole-vault mat. It was a strangely discordant note in Britain’s summer symphony of success.
The then 20-year-old had looked lost in the sea of noise that roared her on inside the Olympic Stadium, repeatedly staring at her coach, Julien Raffalli, for inspiration. The golden spark they so desperately craved never came as the Lancashire athlete failed to clear 4.55m, a height she had surpassed with ease for much of 2012.
It is a subject that is regularly brought up, and even now she is bemused by the tears. “I’m not quite sure why I cried,” she says. “I was more disappointed that I’d only jumped 4.45m. I didn’t even know where I’d finished, and [when] Paul [Bradshaw] said I was sixth in the world, I was actually quite happy.”
Her recollection of the London Games has been helped by the event that followed, an unexpected wedding proposal by Bradshaw that night at the Olympic Park. In the intervening 10 months, there are just two sadnesses in her life.
One is that she no longer sees her family with great regularity, having relocated to Cardiff and Arizona, the other is her extremely fragile relationship with Raffalli, whom she replaced with Dan Pfaff, the American who guided Greg Rutherford to long-jump gold and someone Bleasdale describes as “the cleverest person I’ve ever met”.
Even now, the subject remains raw. “Julien had said that he could only offer two days a week and that if I found something better then feel free to leave. But when I told him my decision he was really upset and devastated. We talk now but it’s still not great. We’re still not friends like before.
“He’d taken me from nothing to 4.87m and the fourth highest of all time, and it’s a real shame we’re not friends. I hope to be friends again. He now says ‘Hi’ to me when I see him, which is better than it was. I appreciate everything he did for me. Without him, I wouldn’t be the vaulter I am today.”
On Saturday in the opening event of the European Team Championships in Gateshead she will find out where the upheaval has taken her. She is not entirely sure.
In the short term it took her to Cardiff following conversations with the former head coach Charles van Commenee among others at UK Athletics and away from the house she had just bought in Lancashire with Bradshaw, who recalls: “She came home one day and said, ‘We’re moving to Cardiff and, by the way, you have to quit your job and rent the house out.’ ”
Having relocated to a city where Bradshaw was a student they have rekindled friendships, and the couple have comfortably slotted into their new life. Bleasdale has also teamed up with another coach, Scott Simpson, when she is not in Arizona with Pfaff.
The changes are working. She has moved from a 4.45m to a 4.60m pole, also changing her grip and run-up. In the past, she ran with the top of the pole buried in her stomach; now she holds it to one side, giving more forward motion over the bar.
“It felt weird the first two sessions but now it feels normal, as it’s easier and feels like it’s working my body less,” she explains. “It’s a more fluid movement so it means I have great consistency. When I have windy conditions, there’s more of an element of control, so I should be able to cope better than I did at the Olympics.”
Bleasdale opened her year with an effort of 4.60m (her best-ever season opener) and cleared 4.77m to be crowned European indoor champion. But a back complaint led to her withdrawal from her planned 2013 Diamond League bow in New York last month.
She is very much the youngster in a sport dominated by athletes in their early 30s. A shared taxi with Brazil’s Fabiana Murer, the defending world champion, in the Big Apple revealed the gulf – the latter is a decade older. “She was like, ‘How old are you?’ I don’t think she and the other girls realised how young I was,” says Bleasdale. “They’ve got 10 years’ more experience than me, and that’s a lot in a sport where you learn something new every vault. If I was them looking at me, I’d be worried.”
That comment is far from a boast, but she aspires to become only the third woman to clear five metres and take the sport to new levels. “It’s a pretty new sport in Olympic and world terms so I don’t know what’s possible, but 5.10, 5.20 is a potential target,” she says.
She admits to being impatient for success but she also has a maturity that belies her 21 years. Equally, she is very down to earth and talks about wanting to get a real job – “to work in a cafe or Tesco to experience real life” – rather than the often insular world of a professional athlete.
Bleasdale is studying for a sports science degree and is a student of the sport, gobbling up the information given to her by Pfaff. She talks about 2013 as a year in which she wants to be “progressing”, but medals are realistic. Gold at the European Under-23 Championships is the most achievable target, while something similar at the World Championships in Moscow is not beyond the realms of credibility.
And after that? Well, 2014 has been earmarked for the wedding, complete with a bouncy castle and cookies and milk at midnight.
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