Disappointment rarely lingers for Holly Bleasdale. As a young pole vaulter intent on winning her first major championship medal, having only begun training in this event just over four years ago, Bleasdale seems able to soar above fleeting dejection. Her relative failure at the London Olympics, where she finished sixth, was followed an hour later by a marriage proposal from her boyfriend Paul Bradshaw.
The tears shed in the Olympic Stadium by a 20-year-old, who had been tipped as a likely medal winner, were replaced by a tweet and a smiley face as Bleasdale celebrated on Twitter: “6th in the Olympics and @bradshaaaw proposes to me 🙂 epic day!!!”
On Monday, Bleasdale, who is now 21, followed the mild frustration she suffered last Thursday, during a low-key competition in Stockholm, by shopping for her wedding dress. It is, she quips, one way to relax before the start on Friday of the European indoor championships in Gothenburg – where Bleasdale is Britain’s likeliest contender for a gold medal.
She does not just rely on romantic interludes to divert her from disillusion. After Bleasdale performed poorly in the 2011 world championships in Daegu she responded strongly in the following year’s indoor season – including a 4.87m vault which put her third on the best-ever list behind the eventual London 2012 champion Jenn Suhr and Yelena Isinbayeva, the Russian winner of multiple world and Olympic titles.
Bleasdale’s reaction to her letdown in the Olympic final has been even more impressive. She has reeled off a string of victories in 2013. Three weeks ago, in Sheffield, she cleared 4.77m, which was then the best in the world this year, and went on to beat the current Olympic silver medallist, Yarisley Silva of Cuba, at the Birmingham grand prix.
It suggests that steely resolve resides beneath the surface of the otherwise uncomplicated and cheery Bleasdale. “I’ve came back much stronger from what happened in Daegu and London,” she says. “You’ve got to have these bad times to get stronger and so I’m glad I’m getting these out of the way when I’m young. Further down the line I won’t make the same mistakes.”
Bleasdale believes that real success can emerge this weekend. “I’ve got so much confidence,” she stresses. “I’m in shape to jump 4.80 and 4.90 at the Europeans as long as I keep composed. If I don’t think of anyone else I’m in with a great chance. The early stages will be important because if I can have a clean card and not have many failures leading up to 4.70 that’ll have me up in the medals. That will be satisfying because medals weren’t part of my plan this year. I just wanted to enjoy it because I’ve changed coaches. But it’s gone so well that, now, I’d like to go to Gothenburg, get a medal and have a good battle with [Russia’s] Anastasia Savchenko for gold. I think I’ve got a good shot at it.”
The reasons for Bleasdale’s sustained improvement are technical as much as psychological. She has made significant adjustments to her run-up and begun using longer poles. After tough training camps in Arizona with her new coach Dan Pfaff, supplemented by work at her Cardiff base with Scott Simpson, the results have been convincing. “I went out to America and Dan changed quite a lot in my head, and in terms of technique. He changed how I structured my run-up and other technical aspects in my vault. He also changed my mindset as I run.
“Dan and Scott liaise a lot so it’s good to have a great coaching network around me because I’ve gained so much confidence. One of the things that really messed me up last year was my run-up. It had no structure. I’d just set off running and if it was windy I wouldn’t have any control over the pole – which is why in the Olympics I couldn’t vault. Scott and Dan have been working on me having a quick but controlled run-up. I had a couple of sessions in the States where it was really windy but it didn’t affect me at all.”
Last August, Bleasdale struggled in gusty conditions during the Olympic final. She resorted to staring at her former coach, Julien Raffalli-Ebezant, so that he might best gauge the moment when the wind dropped enough for her to begin her run-up. Bleasdale also showed her youth and inexperience in a momentous setting.
“I was really excited to compete in front of a home crowd of 80,000 people,” she says, “but as soon as I got out there and everyone started cheering it was really daunting. Even when I executed my warm-up jump people cheered as if I’d cleared the bar. It was nerve-racking. I did well in qualifying but, in the final, my nerves took hold. The conditions also weren’t in my favour. I felt down because I got it into my head that the wind was so much stronger. Looking back, I can see that I relied on Julien too much. That wouldn’t happen now because I’m much more confident in my run-up and control of the pole. But, at the time, I was very upset because I only managed to clear 4.45m. At the UK trails I’d made 4.71 comfortably. It was all a big letdown.”
She sounds briefly dejected, before brightening again. “Still, I wouldn’t change anything. I’ve gained so much from everything I learnt. And top six in my first Olympics looks OK now.”
Bleasdale also had the small matter of a surprise proposal from Bradshaw, a fellow athlete, to console her. “It was a big shock,” she says, “but it made me so happy. To come out of the stadium after my first Olympic final and be proposed to 40 minutes later was amazing. There’s a canal running through the Olympic Park. We were walking alongside it and that’s where he asked me. It was a quiet area so he even went down on one knee. If it had been busier I don’t think he’d have done that!”
Her professional life has changed, too, with a new coaching team. “If it wasn’t for Julien’s work circumstances I’d probably still be with him. It’s just unfortunate he had to go back into full-time work and so he would only have been able to coach me a couple of times a week. But it’s turned out to be the perfect time to move on.”
Pfaff, a close associate of the former GB head coach Charles van Commenee, helped Greg Rutherford win Olympic gold in the long jump. But, as Bleasdale admits, it has taken her time to adjust. “Dan gives you a lot of space so you can become an independent athlete. It’s been hard and strange sometimes with Dan because I like lots of feedback. But I now feel able to take my own decisions and that helps in competition. Dan and Scott also offer a good balance with their different approaches – and Dan knows such a lot technically.”
Bleasdale is now using her longer “money poles”, as she dubs them, in a further development. “I think they’re the key to my future success. I’ve outgrown the 4.45m ones and moved on to the longer 4.60m poles. I’ll definitely use them in Gothenburg because I need to be gripping higher and I can’t do that on the shorter poles. So they’re giving me more confidence.”
She’s still a novice at world level, especially in comparison to Russia’s haughty and experienced Isinbayeva, and her unlikely route into the sport bears repeating. “At the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 I was playing football. I was a striker for Euxton Girls, which is just a small village team near Blackburn, but we were in the top division against Manchester United and Man City in the under-17 league. I scored lots of goals because I was really quick.
“At the same time I was a member, like Paul, of Blackburn Harriers. I liked doing sprinting and hurdling and hanging around with the athletes as I had lots of friends. I’d gone to the English Schools championships as a hurdler but I’d never got out of the heats. So, at 17, I was just thinking about going to uni so I could become a PE teacher. I’d never done any pole vaulting but the club needed to find someone because they were missing out on points in Northern League meetings.”
Bleasdale, who then worked as a part-time waitress at a local Italian restaurant, Punchinello’s in Chorley, showed an immediate aptitude for “flinging myself across a bar on a stick”. Her dramatic rise ended her waitressing career. “I had to give up at Punchinello’s but my sister still works there.”
Her main objective this summer will be to follow planned success in Gothenburg with a tilt at the world championship title outdoors in Russia. “Isinbayeva said she’d retire after those worlds. But after her disappointment in London [where she finished third] she’s now saying she’ll go on until 2016. It’ll be good to have her competing because it will make me hungrier and want to train even harder to keep up with her. She’ll spur me on.”
This seems rather different to the quoted assertion from Bleasdale last year that she disliked Isinbayeva’s pouting prima donna tendency to enter a competition at a very late stage after huddling under her hoodie like “a tramp in a doorway”. Bleasdale now insists that, “I actually never said that. That’s been retracted by the American company who printed it. I would never say anything like that because I’ve always admired her.”
Isinbayeva will be missing in Gothenburg and Bleasdale’s main rival appears to be the Russian No2 – Savchenko. Last week, in Stockholm, Bleasdale was fourth after an unsatisfactory best vault of 4.45m. Savchenko cleared 4.71, and finished second to Silva, as the Cuban overcame her own disappointment in losing to Bleasdale in Birmingham.
“Savchenko has had a few 4.70s this year, so it’s not going to be easy. In Stockholm I felt really good warming up and I’m moving the best I’ve ever done. But the runway there is probably the quickest in the world so it affected my run-up. I was frustrated with how I jumped but we’ve gone through the videos. I can see now that if I’d been half-a-metre further back I’d probably have jumped a PB.”
Her wedding dress diversion in Cardiff on Monday was “a good way to take my mind off the Europeans. The wedding is only on 25 October 2014 so I’ve got lots of time. Shopping now is a good excuse to go out with my friends, try on a few dresses and see what style I like. I’ve got time to find the perfect dress.”
Bleasdale is intent on winning medals both before and after she wears her wedding dress next year. “I’ll only be peaking as a pole vaulter in my late 20s so I’m all set for at least two more Olympics – at Rio and then in 2020. I’m going to Gothenburg this week in the best possible shape and, from there, I’m convinced I’ll get better and better.”