(Reuters) - Nearly a half a decade after Jenn Suhr thought she was ready to challenge Russian great Yelena Isinbayeva for women’s pole vault supremacy, the gritty American’s dreams are coming true.
In the high altitude of Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Saturday, Suhr soared to a height not even Isinbayeva had cleared indoors - a world record 5.02 meters (16 feet, 5 1/2 inches) - to add to her London Olympic triumph over the Russian.
“I knew if I could execute and stay focused and listen to the instructions I had that it could happen,” Suhr told reporters after eclipsing Isinbayeva’s 2012 record of 5.01 at the U.S. indoor championships.
“I knew where I was in my training, I just wasn’t going to let everyone else know.”
No one other than Isinbayeva previously had cleared five meters (16 feet, 4 3/4 inches) indoor or out.
Eight times the Russian, who has set 28 world records, had indoor jumps superior to Suhr’s 2012 indoor personal best of 4.88.
But in a night of near perfection, the 31-year-old American wiped away any doubt of her status as a pole vaulter.
In heights ranging from an opening 4.65 to the world record, Suhr cleared the bar on her first attempt.
“I was in a groove tonight,” the nine-times American record holder said. “I knew some big things could happen, I just need to be healthy and come down the runway.”
She took a swipe at the overall pole vault record, Isinbayeva’s 2009 outdoor jump of 5.06 (16 feet, 7 1/4 inches), missing three times at 5.07.
But all that was lost in the swirl of what Suhr did accomplish.
“I‘m glad that I got five meters out of the way, (with the) 5.02, because it is a mental barrier,” she said.
The former basketball player had thought she was ready to take a run at Isinbayeva at the 2008 Beijing Olympics after clearing a U.S. record of 4.92 at the American trials.
But the icy Russian summarily dismissed such thoughts, leaping to a then world record 5.05 meters that relegated Suhr to the silver.
However, the tide would turn in London.
Suhr, guided by her coach and husband Rick, won gold at the 2012 Olympics on countback from Cuban Yarisley Silva and Isinbayeva, who had not won a global outdoor championship since 2008 despite continuing to set world records, took the bronze medal.
Tears of joy flowed from Suhr on that cool, damp evening in London.
“Heartbreak and joy and some more heartbreak. To overcome it and come out on top, is something that whenever I thought of it, I started crying,” the New Yorker said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything so bad.”
Even as Isinbayeva struggled with her vaulting, taking time off from the sport at one point, there was no guarantee the gold would be Suhr‘s.
Celiac disease, a digestive illness caused by the protein gluten, had left her weak and struggling to recover from workouts in 2011, forcing her to change her diet.
Then months before the London Games, Suhr tore her right quadriceps muscle.
Somehow she persevered.
Maybe it was the winter workouts in frigid conditions in her native upstate New York that enabled her to withstand the biggest challenges.
“We train in our yard in a hut which is kind of like an aircraft hangar, and it’s powered by two ancient heaters, only one of which works,” Suhr said last year.
“It’s very cold. There’s frost on the poles, there’s frost on the runway. It’s brutal training. But I think it makes me tough.”
Now comes the challenge of beating Isinbayeva in her home country at August’s world championships in Moscow.
Only three times in 17 head-to-head clashes with Isinbayeva has Suhr emerged superior. Interestingly, though, it is in the pair’s last three meetings that the American has come out on top.
“Rick is already up and studying film and planning workouts,” a sleepy Suhr wrote on her Twitter account an hour before sunrise Sunday in Albuquerque.
Reporting by Gene Cherry in Salvo, North Carolina; Editing by Alison Wildey