London Eye: A taste of the high life from the man who found Bleasdale

Coach Julien Raffalli's skill may put a Briton among the pole vault medals. But can he get our man over 1.50m?

From row two of the press box at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield last Sunday, the H-shaped outline of the pole vault bar and uprights across by the back straight did not look that daunting. Up close and personal at the indoor track at Sportcity in Manchester, it seems a very a different matter.

"So, what's the worst case you've ever had at one of these sessions?" London Eye inquires of Julien Raffalli. "Well, I've never had anyone break a pole," he replies. "And I've never had anyone break themselves."

The reassurance is welcome, even if it is difficult to stop thinking of Brian Sternberg. At Franklin Field in Philadelphia in April 1963 Sternberg became the first pole vaulter to clear 5m. In July 1963, while training for a match between the Soviet Union and Russia, he suffered a dislocated cervical vertebra and has been paralysed ever since.

Still, Sternberg was attempting a double somersault with twist on a trampoline. The hour ahead might be billed as a Pole Vault Master Class but, thankfully, it will be about mastering the very basic rudiments of the event rather than attempting to hit any scary heights.

If nothing else, the experience will put the remarkable rise and rise of Holly Bleasdale into some kind of perspective. It was at one of Raffalli's "taster sessions," just like this one, that the Blackburn Harrier first learned how to grip and carry a pole, how to set off down a runway with it, how to plant it – first in a sand-pit, then in a vaulting box – and how to lever herself over an elastic bar with it.

That was on a rainy day in Blackburn in October 2008, two months after the last Olympic Games. Five months ahead of the next Olympic Games, Bleasdale is the fifth-highest female pole vaulter of all time. At Villeurbanne near Lyons last month she cleared 4.87m. At 20, with only three and a half years of pole vault training behind her, the Lancashire lass is just 13cm shy of the 5m barrier.

"It's funny to think," Bleasdale says, as she helps Raffalli take today's novices through the basic steps, "but if that taster session hadn't been on at my club I probably would never have done the pole vault. It was a spur of the moment thing to even go along. If I hadn't, I'd probably still be doing the hurdles and heptathlon – probably at county level."

If Bleasdale has become an accidental hero for British athletics, so has her 31-year-old French coach. Raffalli hails from Saint-Leger des Vignes in Burgundy. He only came over to England, in May 2004, because the firm he worked for in France, selling information technology products, went into liquidation. He was supposed to be in Manchester for six months, training with his new employers, but Cupid intervened.

"I met a lovely girl, Ellen, who's now my wife, and instead of returning to France to open an office there the company allowed me to stay here," Raffalli says. "I met her at the track here. She ran the 100m for the GB under-23 team. She's a neurosurgeon and I couldn't do this without her support."

Raffalli works for D & P Data Systems in Manchester until 2pm each day, then heads to Sportcity to coach a pole vault group in which Bleasdale is not the only one rapidly going up in the world. At the UK Championships in Sheffield last weekend Andy Sutcliffe won the men's title with a lifetime best of 5.55m. Katie Byres finished runner-up to Bleasdale in the women's event with 4.37m, a UK junior indoor record.

Raffalli himself is a former French under-20 champion with a personal best of 5.20m. He learned to vault at the age of three while hanging about at the local track waiting for his father, Jean-François, an international decathlete. "My dad competed against Daley Thompson," he says. "He qualified for the 1984 Olympics but he had a bad injury in his leg about three weeks before, so he couldn't go.

"I remember ringing him about Holly when she first came along to my taster sessions. The weather was atrocious and I said to her, 'Look, in the rain it's a bit dangerous.' And she just kept jumping and jumping. She had no fear.

"I rang my dad and said, 'I've got this young girl who's only jumping 2m but I think she's the perfect person. She's tall. She's fast. And she's fearless.' He said, 'If she works hard, she'll become good'."

Which Bleasdale certainly has. Tomorrow the young woman from Euxton, near Chorley, is a star attraction at the Aviva Grand Prix in the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham. Beyond that, as Raffalli puts it: "We've got a huge competition in the summer in London."

"Most people are talking about medals but we're talking about making the final," he says of his charge's Olympic prospects. "What we're trying to do is keep Holly's feet on the ground because it's very easy to get carried away."

It is that – especially when you experience the powers of Raffalli's inspiration. Getting a just-turned-50 pole vault novice up and over 1.50m is no mean feat. And with no breakages, too. Not even to the ego, thankfully.

Holly Bleasdale is an ambassador for Alfa Romeo – official car supplier to UK Athletics. Visit: www.alfaromeo.co.uk

Olympic news you missed this week...

Instead of making his 2012 debut over 400m at the Camperdown meeting in Jamaica last weekend, Usain Bolt was in Munich to see the sports doctor Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt. The world's fastest man has suffered since birth from scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, and consulted the celebrated German medic on several trips last winter. Yesterday he signed up for a 100m at the Golden Spike meet in Ostrava on 25 May.

What's coming up...

In track cycling, the second day of the World Cup-cum-2012 test event at London's Olympic Velodrome features Victoria Pendleton and Jess Varnish in the team sprint. Tomorrow Pendleton goes in the individual sprint and Sir Chris Hoy in the keirin. Sunday's grand finale is the domestic scrap between Hoy and Jason Kenny in the men's individual sprint. In athletics, the Aviva GP has a host of stars: Asafa Powell (60m), Dayron Robles and Liu Xiang (60m hurdles) plus Brits Mo Farah, Holly Bleasdale and Jessica Ennis.

Who's up?

Jessica Ennis The world heptathlon silver medallist was in sparkling form at the UK Indoor Championships last weekend, winning the 60m hurdles and the high jump.

Jeanette Kwakye Won the national indoor 60m title in Sheffield after three years of injury

Who's down?

Asha Philip The former world youth champion made a false start in the 60m sprint semis in Sheffield.

Lawrence Clarke Commonwealth bronze medallist was also blanked by a false start in the 60m hurdles final in Sheffield.

Suggested Topics
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Sport
world cup 2014A history of the third-place play-offs
News
Tommy Ramone performing at The Old Waldorf Nightclub in 1978 in San Francisco, California.
peopleDrummer Tommy was last surviving member of seminal band
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
The Mexico chief finally lets rip as his emotions get the better of him
world cup 2014
Voices
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
Life and Style
Several male celebrities have confessed to being on a diet, including, from left to right, Hugh Grant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ryan Reynolds
...and the weight loss industry is rubbing its hands in glee
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
arts + entsReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice