Athletics: Bleasdale proving she has a head for heights
LONDON (Reuters) - Yelena Isinbayeva took women's pole-vaulting to new heights and now American Jenn Suhr is threatening to soar higher still. Waiting in the wings, knowing her time will come, is Briton Holly Bleasdale.
Compared to the Russian, twice an Olympic and world champion and also world record holder outdoors and Suhr, the current Olympic champion who set a new indoor world record this month, Bleasdale is a mere novice having only taken up the sport in 2008.
Now 21, she trails her rivals in years and experience. But such has been the newly-crowned European indoor champion's rapid rise to prominence, many including Bleasdale herself are predicting a final to savor at the world championships in Moscow in August.
"Yelena will have a point to prove after the Olympics in front of her home crowd and Jen's in great shape... it could be one of the best finals in history," she told Reuters.
A jump of 4.87 meters indoors in January 2012 - only Isinbayeva, Suhr and Svetlana Feofanova have gone higher - marked Bleasdale out as a future champion and led to former men's Olympic and world champion Sergei Bubka tipping her as a medal hope in her first Olympic final in London last year.
With hindsight, Bleasdale said expectations were too high, too soon.
Bleasdale cut a disconsolate figure in the Olympic Stadium, fighting back the tears after failing to clear 4.55 in windy conditions - only good enough for sixth place.
"Expectations were a bit too high. My target was to finish top six and I did. I was happy about the position I came - but winning a medal was probably too soon," she said.
"The changes I have made this year probably would have allowed me to place higher than sixth. Last year, how I was vaulting and my confidence going into it was probably too soon for me to place any higher."
Since then, cake-loving Bleasdale has become, in her own words, a "better athlete".
"I feel more confident, technically so much better, more consistent. That's what I showed in the Europeans," she said.
She credits her improvement to changing coaches, now working under American Dan Pfaff who helped Briton Greg Rutherford win Olympic gold in the long jump in London.
Pfaff has quickly pinpointed Bleasdale's technical flaws, particularly in her runway speed.
"The main work this year has been changing the structure of my run up, focusing on making it more controlled and fluent, carry more speed into the vault," she said.
"Last year I just tried sprinting as hard as I could from the start and it meant I was over-striding and could not control the pole so we've been working really hard on that."
Bleasdale says she is a "work in progress" and will only get better in the next three or four years.
"Dan has identified 10-14 things to change in my technique. I can take confidence from that. I can improve so much more with these changes."
She has hit the ground running this season, beating Olympic silver medalist Yarisley Silva of Cuba in Birmingham last month before winning her first senior title in Gothenburg on March 2, after a rare jump off with Poland's Anna Rogowska.
"Dan said 'I don't expect you to be jumping as high as you were last year because we need to take a step back to move forward in the future. Change your technique and that will make you jump five meters down the line'.
"I went into the season open-minded thinking I wasn't going to jump 4.70, 4.77 and when I did I was really happy - it meant that the small changes we have made in such a small space of time have paid off really well," she added.
Isinbayeva and Suhr have surely taken note. Their accomplishments in the sport are also driving Bleasdale on.
Isinbayeva, 30, dominated women's pole vaulting after setting her first world record in 2003 but has struggled after failing to clear a height at the 2009 world championships.
"She's such a great role model for any athlete that wants to do pole vault. She is always going to be a role model for me even though I'm trying to beat her," Bleasdale said.
Suhr, 31, who leapt 5.02 meters to set a world indoor pole vault record at the U.S. indoor championships in Albuquerque - eclipsing the 5.01 mark Isinbayeva set last year, is a friend as well as a rival.
"We get on really well and it's really nice to have another girl up at five meters to push the event forward. It's really inspired me to get close to five meters now," Bleasdale said.
(Editing by Mark Meadows)