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?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

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:

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.