Staples vaulting under the sign of Zodiac

Mike Rowbottom meets the woman aiming at new heights in the indoor inte rnational against Russia
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The Independent Online
When Kate Staples breaks the British pole vault record - something she has done at least 20 times in the last two years - the acclaim inevitably goes to someone else. Not that she minds, as that someone is her alter ego from the Gladiators TV seri es, Zodiac.

"I don't see it as a slight on myself," she said. "Because of the phenomenon of TV, I have been projected as Zodiac every week to audiences of 15 million. When I go into schools they have marks on the wall to show how high I have vaulted, but they still call me Zodiac. I think it's quite sweet really."

At 29, Staples is established in the public eye at least as firmly as Sally Gunnell or Linford Christie, and yet in athletic terms her career is only in its infancy.

On 1 January this year the International Amateur Athletic Federation officially recognised women's pole vaulting, which will be in the European Indoor Championships and the Europa Cup - both of which Staples aims to take part in. There are even hopes that it might be included in next year's Olympics.

For Staples, the timing is perfect. Two years ago, having paid her own way to a British training camp in Nice, she was told by one British coach that she was wasting her time. "He just laughed at me," she said. "He said he couldn't understand why I was doing an event at which I would never be allowed to compete for my country."

This Saturday, Staples has the satisfaction of competing for Britain against Russia in the first international match to feature women's pole vault. And having raised the British record to 3.70 metres at Horsham on Sunday, she is in the mood to take on two Russians whose best is only 10cm higher.

Her athletic progress has often been checked by her other career - last season ended for her in June, when she began recording for a new Gladiators series. But she has given herself a full indoor season to discover just how close she can get to the best in the world, with the world record of 4.08m, held by Germany's Nicole Reiger, very much in mind.

Staples was fascinated with the pole vault long before it seemed possible to compete. As a 20-year-old she was a 400 metres runner training regularly at Woking with a group that included Brian Hooper, the former British pole vault record holder. "I had avery good idea of vaulting technique because I would go to all the meetings with Brian and watch the videotapes of the competitions," she said. "I was a fanatic about it. I was even told that I ran like a pole vaulter - very straight up with high knees.

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But a promising career - she was in the running to represent Wales in the 1986 Commonwealth Games - was brought to a halt when she suffered severe shin splints and faced an operation.

The offer of a marketing job for a Far East company came up, utilising the languages (French and Spanish) which this well-spoken wine merchant's daughter had learned while studying at a Swiss University. It seemed the fastest track on offer at the time, and she took it.

Within a few years, in partnership with Hooper, she had formed her own promotional company involving sports personalities. It was an area which led to some important associations - she met Adrian Moorhouse, the Olympic champion swimmer, getting engaged to him in 1992 before parting company last year. She also met one of the trainers for the Gladiators series who suggested she apply; she was chosen from 9,000 applicants.

Working with so many sporting successes began to make her think about what she might have achieved in athletics, however. At 26, she felt too old to resume the 400m. But as new disciplines such as the hammer and the triple jump began to be officially accepted within women's athletics, however, the rumour grew that pole vault would follow.

Emboldened by this possibility, she undertook her first vault in the grounds of Eton College, where she was running a sports scholarship scheme.

"Some of the girls there were looking a bit sheepish and apprehensive about having a go," she said. "I went over, and I kept coming back for another go. I was like a little kid. I decided then that I wanted to be the first British woman to jump over three metres."

In 1992, the pole vault was included as a demonstration event in the UK Championships. In her third competition, Staples broke five records in one afternoon, ending up with a height of 3.20m. She was on her way.

There is still opposition to the progression of women in the event. Despite IAAF recognition, the Southern League decided last week not to include women's pole vault in their programme. "I find it unbelievable," Staples said. "All they are doing is stopping talent coming through."

Her talent, at least, has arrived - and there is more to come. "I have lots more to learn," she said, "but the day I do get everything together in the right order I will be holding the world record."

In the meantime she is pursuing the event she describes as an "on-off love affair". If things work out as she hopes this year, it could be more on than off in future.

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