Kate Dennison: 'It helps being a little bit crazy'

Kate Dennison pole vaulted into an eccentric club when she cleared 4.50m this week, writes Simon Turnbull
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The Independent Online

It is 12 years now since the first female pole vaulter soared over 4.50m. That was Emma George, an Australian who spent her early teenage years performing as a trapeze artist with a circus troupe called the Flying Fruit Flies.

Kate Dennison has a somewhat less exotic background, although as a child gymnast she was good enough to finish fourth in the Under-14 British championships. As a twenty-something pole vaulter, she has become the first British woman to not so much hit the 4.50m mark as rise above it.

Born in South Africa but raised as a Staffordshire lass and now based in Loughborough, Dennison cleared 4.51m last Monday to claim a victory on the European circuit at the Josef Odlozil Memorial meeting in Prague. The performance has put the 25-year-old into 11th position in the world rankings for 2009, one place and one centimetre behind the woman who followed George and who preceded Russia's Yelena Isinbayeva as the global trail-blazer in the event, the veteran American Stacy Dragila. The first world champion in the women's pole vault (in Seville in 1999) and the first Olympic champion (in Sydney in 2000), Dragila spent much of her youth in California as a rodeo rider.

The first male vaulter to win an Olympic title with a 4.50m-plus height was Bob Richards in Helsinki in 1952 – or the Reverend Bob Richards, to give him his full title. A theology professor from California, he was known universally as "the vaulting vicar". So it is a pretty eccentric cast of characters that Dennison has joined now that her vaulting ambition has made her a member of the 4.50m club.

"Yes, I just did the gymnastics myself," she reflected yesterday after her selection in the British squad for the European Team Championships, which take place at Leiria in Portugal next Saturday and Sunday. "I think that helps in the pole vault, with the spatial awareness, and I suppose it also helps being a little bit crazy.

"I think most pole vaulters are a bit crazy. If you're going to put yourself upside down and over a bar, it's not the most sane of events. But it's definitely one of the most fun."

Well, pole vaulting for height rather than distance was pioneered in the home town of Stan Laurel – by members of the Ulverston Football and Cricket Club in Cumbria in 1843. Since then, as well as the trapeze artist, the rodeo rider and the vaulting vicar, the crazy event of track and field has also produced a Tarzan.

When Don Bragg cleared 4.70m to succeed the Reverend Richards (who also won in Melbourne in 1956) as Olympic champion in Rome in 1960 he delighted the crowd by celebrating with a Tarzan yell. Four years later the American was playing the lead role in the filming of Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, happily swinging from vine to vine in front of the cameras, when a court order halted production because of copyright infringement.

Perhaps Dennison could be dubbed the "pole vaulting psychologist". She has a degree in the subject from Staffordshire University. Dennison was born in Durban but her family moved to Alsager when she was four. She made her Olympic debut in Beijing last August, bowing out in the qualifying rounds with 4.40m. A month later Dennison underwent surgery to both achilles but since the turn of the year she has been in the finest of competitive fettle, under the guidance of her Australian coach, Steve Rippon.

Her 4.51m vault in Prague last Monday was a 4cm improvement on the British outdoor record, although she was already banging on the door of the 4.50 club with a 4.49m clearance from the indoor season. "At the moment I'm just thinking about clearing bars and edging towards 4.60m," Dennison said, looking to the European Team Championships and beyond. "I think it will take that to reach the final at the World Championships in Berlin in August. Every competition from now is a chance to chip away at that."

And, of course, at the gap to Isinbayeva, who has taken the world record to 5.05m. The bar has been raised somewhat for women's pole vaulting since the days of Emma George, the Flying Fruit Fly.