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
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
tv
Voices
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
News
i100
Extras
indybest
Sport
Scottish singer Susan Boyle will perform at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
tech
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn