Bleasdale falls short as nerves take their toll


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The Independent Online

It just wasn't meant to be for the Lancashire lasses of track and field at London 2012. Poor Jenny Meadows and Helen Clitheroe, two stalwarts and international championship medal-winning stars of the British athletics brigade, have both been banjaxed by injury in this summer of summers and failed to make the selection cut for the Games.

Holly Bleasdale made it all right and went into the women's pole vault last night with serious designs on a podium finish. The 20-year-old from Euxton, near Chorley, won a bronze medal at the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul in March and started the competition ranked third of the 12 finalists on lifetime bests.

Sadly, it was not to be for the budding Holly (inset), who possesses a huge reserve of natural talent but remains short on experience as a first-year senior. When it came to the big occasion, the Blackburn Harrier was unable to rise to it.

In January she achieved the third-highest indoor clearance of all time, 4.87m, and at the Olympic trials in June she raised her outdoor British record to 4.71m. Last night, though, she struggled to get over 4.45m – succeeding at the third and final attempt – but could venture no higher.

After a third failure at 4.55m, Bleasdale cradled her head in her palms in resignation and was unable to hold back the tears before trudging to the side of the track to be consoled by her coach, Julien Raffalli. It was a second successive disappointment at a senior global championship for her to digest. At the World Championships in Daegu last summer she failed to register a height in qualifying.

Still, the fact that joint-sixth place in an Olympic final – behind the Jennifer Suhr, of the US, Cuba's Yarisley Silva and Russia's Elena Isibayeva, who filled the medal places in the order – qualified as a major setback showed just how far Bleasdale had come in a short space of time.

It was only in the autumn of 2008 that she first picked up a vaulting pole – at a "taster" session on a rainy day in Blackburn, run by Raffalli. "I remember sitting in the car, feeling really nervous, not wanting to get out," Bleasdale recalled. "My mum pushed me out and I'm glad she did. Had the session not been on, I don't think I would have become a pole-vaulter, I would probably still be doing the hurdles and the heptathlon."

Raffalli is a former French Under-20 pole-vault champion. He moved to Manchester on a six-month work contract but stayed, married a local girl and started coaching in the North-west.

Bleasdale's rise has been meteoric: world junior bronze medallist in 2010, European Under-23 champion in 2011 and world indoor bronze medallist in March this year.

She received a huge roar from the capacity 80,000 crowd when the finalists were introduced last night. The opening height was 4.30m but Bleasdale did not enter the competition until the bar was raised to 4.45m. After being given the big build-up by the stadium announcer as she stood on the runway she dislodged the bar with her first attempt.

When she sent the bar flying again with her second attempt, the pressure was on for her third and final effort. With Raffalli urging the crowd to up the volume of their rhythmic clapping, she showed her true grit, sailing over the bar to a deafening cheer. "Yes," she mouthed on her way down to the landing bed.

At 4.55m, though, Bleasdale struggled to get in to the groove again. With her first attempt she ducked under the bar. She was ready to set off for her second attempt but the competition was held up for the men's 3,000m steeplechase medal ceremony. Once again, her composure was shot. She ducked under the bar for a second time, clutching her hands to her face in despair before heading to the edge of the track for some steadying words of advice from Raffalli.

Sadly, it was not to be. At the third attempt Bleasdale knocked off the bar on the way down. The road to Rio starts here.