Almost eight years to the day since she set the first of 12 outdoor world records in the women’s pole vault, Emma George has decided she can no longer soar as high as a bird and has announced her retirement.
In 1995, the women’s pole vault was a fledgling event and George a novice participant. On November 30, at an A-grade interclub meeting at Melbourne’s Olympic Park, she slipped over a bar set at 4.25 metres to break the world record held by a Chinese vaulter.
Athletics Australia media officer Damian Booth almost broke his ankle leaping the fence to interview George. He rang from the car park to ensure news of the record went on to the IAAF website before accepting a lift to his car and checking into casualty on his way home.
George returned home to Beechworth the following day for a belated 21st birthday party held over from November 1. She returned to again improve the record in Perth 17 days later.
George was an engaging success story. A member of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus as a youngster, she seemed destined to fly. She continued to push the world record up, on her own, then in tandem with an American of similarly exotic background, Stacy Dragila, who had competed in rodeo events before taking up athletics and the vault.
Yesterday, George said she had finally concluded that if she tried to push on to Athens 2004, there were two realities. First, she would not be able to attempt the sort of heights that might be required to win a medal; second, she increased to unacceptable levels the risk that she might injure her back so severely that it might be difficult to run, much less vault. “It’s not a decision I wanted to make,” George said. “If I had my choice, I would have tried to get to Athens. Realistically, with my back, I knew after two bouts of surgery I had to take care of that.”
George famously damaged her back in a training fall before the 1999 world championships in Seville, the first outdoor world championships at which the women’s vault had been contested. The fall seemed to affect her confidence, but the physical damage had been accumulating insidiously all the while.
“(The fall) wouldn’t have helped,” said George, “but basically my back was not that strong. It was taking a lot of pounding and stress every time I ran in and planted the pole.”
George won the Commonwealth Games gold medal in 1998 and set her last world record in February 1999, when she cleared 4.60 metres in Sydney. Her Olympic chances were blighted by stress fractures in both feet. Then came the two bouts of back surgery.
As George sat on a bench in tears, she glanced across to the other qualifying pool on the adjacent runway where Dragila was also fighting back the tears. Dragila made as if to come over, but George motioned to her to focus on her own qualifying.
Dragila went on to win the gold medal, Tatiana Grigorieva taking the silver for Australia.
George regrets she will now not have a further chance at Olympic gold, but says she is satisfied to have been a pioneer in the event. “My dream was for the event to get international recognition, and it did,” she said. “I’ve loved being involved and watching the event emerge. It’s been an amazing experience.”
by: Lee Johnson
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