Rising star with vaulting ambition

Holly Bleasdale is one of only four Britons with a top-five world ranking – and she can climb even higher
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The Independent Online

Don Bragg was the first pole vaulter to clear 4.70m in the Olympic arena. When the American did so, in the Stadio Olimpico in 1960, he delighted the Roman crowd by celebrating with a Tarzan yell. Four years later, he was playing the lead role in the filming of Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, swinging from vine to vine, when a court order halted production because of copyright infringement.

When Holly Bleasdale soared over 4.70m in Mannheim, Germany, eight days ago, she was in no state to emulate that trademark celebration. "I couldn't believe I'd cleared it," she said. "I was in shock."

Having started the summer with a personal best 4.50m and improved it to 4.53m only the week before, the 19-year-old Blackburn Harrier had every reason to be stunned. In one afternoon, in an event where progress is traditionally gained centimetre by centimetre, Bleasdale raised her personal bar by 17cm.

She eclipsed Kate Dennison's British record of 4.60m, achieved the biggest-ever height by a teenaged female and propelled herself to joint fourth place in the world rankings – behind Anna Rogowska of Poland and Germany's Silke Spiegelburg, who have both achieved 4.75m this summer, and another German, Martina Strutz, who has cleared 4.71m. It was quite a quantum vault.

Since being reluctantly persuaded to turn her gymnastics ability to the pole vault three years ago, Bleasdale has been a steadily rising young star, taking bronze at the World Junior Championships last summer. Now, though, the Lancashire lass finds herself among the global elite in her event – level in the world rankings with European champion Svetlana Feofanova of Russia and the world indoor champion Fabiana Murer from Brazil, and just 5cm behind Rogowska, the pole-vaulting Pole who holds the world outdoor title.

Twelve months from the London Olympics, only three British athletes occupy higher ground in the world rankings: Jessica Ennis in the heptathlon, Mo Farah in the 10,000m and Phillips Idowu in the triple jump. "When you put it that way, it's quite a big deal," Bleasdale said on her elevatedstatus. "I still can't really believe it."

You could put it another way. Yelena Isinbayeva, the all-time queen of the pole vault, the Russian who holds the world record at 5.06m and is on the comeback trial after a sabbatical last year, was 22 when she first vaulted 4.70m. Her best as a 19-year-old was 4.55m.

"It's just given me a massive confidence boost," Bleasdale said. "It's made me realise what potential I've got. My main aim for the summer is still the European Under-23 Championships [in Ostrava this week].

"In terms of height, I think I can clear a little bit more this summer – maybe 4.75m or 4.80m. As for the World Championships [in Daegu, South Korea, next month], I'm just aiming for the final. Anything else would be a bonus."

Perhaps it is only right that the North-west should have a world-class pole vaulter. Pole-vaulting for height, rather than distance, was pioneered in Stan Laurel's home town in Cumbria – by Ulverston Football and Cricket Club in 1843. "Oh, my dad likes Laurel and Hardy," she said. "He's got all their box sets."

She is from Euxton, until recently working part-time in an Italian takeaway in nearby Chorley. The region has enjoyed its share of success this year with the Preston Harrier Helen Clitheroe striking 3,000m gold at the European Indoor Championships in March. "There's also Jenny Meadows," Bleasdale said. "She lives round the corner from my boyfriend, so I see her a lot. When I got back from Mannheim, she'd been round and put banners everywhere and bought champagne to welcome me home."

Bleasdale no doubt raised a glass to Julien Raffalli, the Manchester-based Gallic pole vault guru who has guided her since the rainy October day in 2008 when she turned up at one of his taster days in Blackburn. "I remember sitting in the car, feeling really nervous, not wanting to get out. My mum pushed me out and I'm glad she did, because Julien's taken me from a beginner to where I am now. I owe him so much. He's a brilliant coach. I'm lucky to have him."

She competes in today's Aviva Birmingham Grand Prix in a world-class line-up featuring Murer, Feofanova and Spiegelburg. The upwardly mobile Bleasdale has already vaulted a foot higher than a double-decker bus but, according to Raffalli, her far-from-perfect technique has left her with plenty of room for improvement.

"My coach knows my potential," she said. "Before I jumped 4.70m, he said, 'Look, I don't want you to get scared but I think you can win a medal'. I didn't really believe him, but now...

"To win a medal in London would be great but I'm still quite young. I think my Olympics will be Rio in 2016. To go to London and make the final would be a realistic aim. But with the home crowd there, everyone cheering for you, you'd get such a big buzz you never know what will happen."

Called to the bar

Bob Richards

The Olympic pole vault champion of 1952 and 1956 was formally titled the Reverend Bob Richards. The Americanwas known to the world as "the vaulting vicar."

Stacy Dragila

The first female pole vault world champion, in Seville in 1999, and the first Olympic champion, in Sydney in 2000, Dragila was a rodeo rider in her youth in California.

Don Bragg

The Olympic pole vault champion of 1960 dreamed of following the five-times Olympic gold medal swimmer Johnny Weissmuller into the film role of Tarzan. He was denied by a copyright dispute.