lunes, 14 de marzo de 2011

Any alternative to Isinbayeva?

“I know that if I do my best, it is impossible for someone to beat me. The question now is only if I can keep improving. There is no chance for anybody. Sorry,” she said, with a smile, “but that’s the way it is.”

Yelena Isinbayeva, interview prior to 2007 Osaka World Championships (1)
Anna Rogowska, the 2009 World Champion.

                     As bold as it might sound, this statement of the great champion Yelena Isinbayeva could not be more accurate about the situation in nowadays women’s pole vault. In a highly emotive 2004, Svetlana Feofanova, at that moment the number one of the discipline,  and rising star Isinbayeva took turns in beating indoor and out world records, until the decisive Athens Olympic Games.  There, Yelena, who was really close of gaining just bronze, after facing a dramatic last try with the bar raised at 4.80, finished up with a 4.91 world record and a shocking victory over her compatriot. (2)
            From then on, there was no emotion anymore.  Isinbayeva was soon over 5 meters. Meanwhile, Feofanova, mentally and physically exhausted, missed almost the entire 2005 season, and when she came back she kept struggling for years against injuries and the bang over her confidence, which caused the now overwhelming superiority of her archrival in every competition. Svetlana was still consistent but remained in the 4.70-4.75 heights. (3) Polish Monika Pyrek and Svetlana Rogowska could not improve further, either.  As a result, Isinbayeva won easily every major competition until Beijing Olympics and obtained no less than 27 world records.  Among the newcomers, only Jennifer Stuczynski-Suhr put some pressure, reaching 4.92 in 2008.
Silke Spigelburg, one of the most consistent pole
vaulters right now.
       And then, suddenly, a totally unexpected first big failure: Yelena Isinbayeva does not height at 2009 Berlin World Championships.  Anna Rogowska, after 3 low key seasons is back to form and wins brilliantly over compatriot Pyrek and American Chelsea Johnson.  Yet, even the legend Sergey Bubka did not make any valid jump once at Barcelona Olympics, and the Russian star made amends with her 27th world record some days afterwards.  Unfortunately, for the second big championship in a row, Isinbayeva’s performance was again far from satisfying and she could only finish 4th at Doha’s World Indoors.  On the other hand, her training partner, Brazilian Fabiana Murer showed her amazing progression, clearing 4.80 for gold medal, the same height than a reborn Feofanova.  Now it is Isinbayeva who falls into the bottom and, with her confidence lost altogether, decides to take a long rest.  Rogowska is also absent by injury and Feofanova takes every major competition at stake during the summer: European Cup, European Championships and Continental Cup.   Fabiana Murer wins the inaugural Diamond League and Silke Spiegelburg continues improving.  No big marks anyway. (4) 

Liz Parnov: 4.40 at 15 years of age (Mark Nolan/ Getty Images Asia Pac)
Jirina Ptacnikova, the Czech school (Ian Walton/ Getty Images Europe)

       Isinbayeva’s return for the 2011 indoor season has been in style with two triumphs, clearing 4.81 and 4.85 respectively but it has not offer any hint about whether or not she has been able to get over her troubles in the last two seasons, because she finally missed the right occasion to check it: Paris European indoors.  In the end, the search of a way-out of her crisis have brought Yelena to another transcendental change: to return back to her former coach Yevgeniy Trofimov, which also means give up Formia facilities and return home.  Emotional and technical reasons merge in this decision, given a second chance to a professional relationship which carried remarkable sportive achievements but finished splitting up in the personal. Will this renovated athlete be back to her former astounding performances?  It seems very possible; but will she face a most challenging opposition than in the past?  It is very likely too.  This time she will be motivated enough for a bunch of well-known and newly-arrived pole vaulters, strong enough to push her to the limits.  
         Recently, World and Olympic champion Steve Hooker in his IAAF Online diaries has made some interesting observations about his counterparts in sport:  The general level of the women’s event is improving.  We will probably see four or five women at 4.80 regularly, which we have never really seen before.” (5)   
Injuries left behind, 2011 could be Jenn Suhr's year
(Jonathan Ferry/ Getty Images)

         Indeed, this indoor season results in pole vault invite to optimism.  First of all, Anna Rogowska has proved her triumph in the 2009 World Championship was no fluke, adding a second major title to her curriculum.  In Paris European indoors, Silke Spiegelburg’s jump over 4.75 pushed her to clear 4.85, a new overall national record and the best mark for a gold medal in a not-won-by-Isinbayeva major championship. While Monika Pyrek, who used to be the most solid Polish performer in big occasions, is having some difficult years, Rogowska has reached her maturity as athlete and is in her best form ever.
 She may well be the second woman over 5 meters, six years after Isinbayeva achieved it for the first time. 

Fabiana Murer, the world indoor champion
(Fabrice Coffrini/ AFP/ Getty Images)


 Nevertheless, there are at least two other candidates to join soon that one-person club:  Jenn Suhr and Fabiana Murer.  The Brazilian, not being scheduled a global championship, have not jumped much this indoor season, but by the way she won in Doha and her consistency on the subsequent summer competitions we can expect great things from her. Despite being her last two seasons cut by injuries, Suhr still managed marks over 4.80, and this winter has set a new area record of 4.86, becoming the second performer ever indoors. In her last appearance in a major championship, Beijing Olympic Games, she obtained the silver medal, but this time around, once totally fitted, she would not mind about climbing one step on the podium in Daegu.  It will be interesting as well to watch if her compatriotat Chelsea Johnson can repeat there her inspired Berlin's performance.
About Feofanova’s chances there are mixed feelings.  Last year, after her excellent performance in Doha, she said she was ready to improve at last on her back-in-2004 personal best of 4.88.  Notwithstanding, this winter she has not jumped higher than 4.70 and renounced to participate in the European indoor Championship.  During the Stockholm XL Galan, in the same meeting where the Swede teenage Bengtsson set her records, after one of her failed attempts at 4.80, she sat and bowed her head on despair.  This summer will be crucial for her future. 
Elizaveta Ryzih, one of the big hopes of German pole vaulting
Photo: Getty Images

        Amazingly, there are no new names among Russian top pole vaulters, once Volik and Kolesova have not lived up so far to the expectations they had created as juniors, and, without Isinbayeva and Feofanova, only Aleksandra Kiryashova could claim a place for the European indoors team. Germany has taken the relay as number one nation in the event, but curiously some of their best members are born in Russia: Kristina Gadschiew, the bronze medallist in Paris, and Lisa Ryzih, also spelled Ryjikh and in many other ways.  This one is one of the most intriguing athletes of the moment.  Daughter of one of the best pole vault coaches in the world and younger sister of Nastja Reiberger, the 1999 World indoor champion in the event, she became world youth and junior champion in 2003 and 2004 respectively as precocious as 14 and 15 years old.  Last year she obtained her first senior medals: bronze in Barcelona and silver at Split Continental Cup.
However, the best German option is always Silke Spiegelburg.  She was already a finalist in Athens Olympic Games at age 18 and has never failed in the big challenges.  Annika Becker is still waiting for her to beat her 4.77 overall national record, but she has jumped so many times in the 4.65-4.75 range and shows such security on those heights, so a big breakthrough is likely to happen pretty soon.  Now 25, Spiegelburg is the current silver European medallist both outdoors and indoors and much more is on the way.   
Silke Spiegelburg was one of the nine pole vaulters in the top-25 ranking lists of the 2011 season who established a new indoor national record.  A quite respectable statistic.  The most remarkable of them all were of course the 4 World Junior ones, which young Swedish sensation Angelica Bengtsson achieved in two days time, until a new best of 4.63;  no less than 15 centimeters over the former record .
Also noteworthy is how many athletes 23 years old or younger are  making the lists, in plain contrast with  most of the junior hopes of the precedent generation, who failed to arrive to the elite.  Last year bronze medallist at Moncton World Junior championships, British Holly Bleasdale has already reached 4.50 in her first year as a senior, same register as Malin Dalhström, another young Swedish revelation.  On the other hand, Slovenian Tina Sutej, who is a biology student at Arkansas University, has set a new collegiate  indoor record of 4.54 this same year. Unbeaten all over the winter, she ended up her season on a high note with her triumph at the NCAA championships, thus succeeding US hope Kylie Hutson, who had won four titles in a row.  
Li Caixia, the Asian Champion
(Mark Dadswell/Getty Images Asia Pac)
Minna Nikkanen, four national records in one championship
(Photo: Jussi Nikari)

 Neither Bengtsson nor Dahlström nor Bleasdale could qualify for the final in their first major senior championship, paying their lack of experience as it happened as well to Mariya Kuchina in the high jump event.  Only Jodie Williams, among this generation of young prodigees, achieved succes in Paris, thanks to an excellent 4th place in the 60 meters race.  Anyway, even Romanian hammer thrower Bianca Perie, who won no less than 6 major titles during youth and junior ages, needed three attemps to make her first final in senior categorie.
Minna Nikkanen performance at the European championships was, though, a groundbreaking one. The Finnish, European junior champion in 2007, had shown little progression in three years as a senior (from 4.35 to only 4.46).  Yet, in Paris, maybe inspired by Angelica Bengtsson’s feat at the XL Galan, where she was competing too, she improved the indoor national record thrice in the qualification (4.45/ 4.50/ 4.55) and once again in the final (4.60), to end 4th overall.  Nikkanen’s achievement was the most grateful surprise of the competition. Just one more step ahead and she would be on Daegu's medal picture.

Holly Bleasdale, the future of British pole vaulting
(Chris Trotman/ Getty Images North America)

      Among the finalists, two other athletes are worth of mention: Jirina Ptacnikova (5th), a brand new top pole vaulter for a classic country in the discipline, the Czech Republic; and Nikolía Kiriakopoúlou, who have beaten the national Greek record, both indoor and out in the last 2 years. A second promising athlete of this country is Ekateríni Stefanídi, freshly minted silver medal at the NCAA championship, behind Tina Sutej. Their neighbours, Cyprus, expect Marianna Zachariadou to follow in the steps of Kyriakos Ioannou, one of the best high jumpers in the world right now.

Tina Sutej from Slovenia, the NCAA indoor record holder
Chinese athletes were also expected to shine this winter, but nothing has really happened so far.  Lately, so many 18, 19 years old or even younger pole vaulters from this country after a couple of brilliant seasons have failed to improve further or even have returned back to 4.00/4.10 heights.As one of the pioneers in female vaulting, we hope there will be some Chinese athlete able to make the way to the elite, following the steps of Gao Shuying and others before her.  Caixia Li, winner of the last Asian Championships and Asian Games and 4th placer at the Continental Cup, along with Ling Li, are their more solid options right now.   
The outdoor season is already up in some countries and early sensational results in pole vault have been achieved.  Cuba, always a powerhouse in field events, seem to have found future champions in the only discipline of jumping they do not have any tradition.  Yarisley Silva has cleared an extraordinary 4.55 national record and Dailis Caballero, in her wake, has made the A Daegu standard as well (4.51).  On the other hand, Australia had had some of the greatest pole vaulters ever; Women who set the basis for the sport back in the 1990s as Emma George and Tatyana Grigoryeva.  Alana Boyd, already over 4.60 in this early season, will try to emulate her illustrious predecessors.

Svetlana Feofanova, more than ten years among the best
(Mark Shearman/ Samsung Diamond League/ IAAF)

A Grigoryeva's niece, Liz Parnov, born in 1994, flew last summer season to an astonishing height for her age as 4.40.  The Aussie, who finished second at the inaugural Youth Games in Singapore, behind Angelica Bengtsson can be compared with Lisa Ryzih, because of her precocity and also her background. As the German, Liz, whose father is Alex Parnov, one of the best coaches around in the discipline, is the youngest of a dinasty of pole vaulters with deep Russian roots. The elder sister, Vicky, was the world youth champion in 2007 and became in the same year in Osaka the youngest athlete ever to represent Australia at world championship level, at age 16.  However, she has not progressed since.
With so many outsiders, this summer season promise to be hottest than ever.  It will also be a key one for the future of the event, with the confrontation between the returning Isinbayeva and some of her rivals in the peak of their careers, with the addition of a new generation of pole vaulters extremely talented.  With everyone hopefully ready, for the first time since Beijing Olympics, it will be needed to jump really high to obtain any of the medals at Daegu World Championships.  Even Isinbayeva at her best cannot be sure of winning this time.  The emotion is back to the pole vault event:  Yelena Isinbayeva could perfectly, after her break, resume her stranglehold on the discipline.  Yet a radical change, the coronation of a new queen, are possible too. 
Yelena Isinbayeva will try this summer to become the undisputed number one again.
(Reuters/ Maya Suslin)

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