After falling out of love with the pole vault, Yelena Isinbayeva is back at the peak of her powers as she bids to become the first female track and field athlete to win three successive Olympic golds in what is likely to be her last Games.
The peerless Russian, with 28 world records to her name, is brimming with confidence after overcoming the problems with form that led her to take an 11-month sabbatical in 2010.
“In London, my main competitor will be myself because I know how high I can jump and I know that height is almost impossible for my rivals,” the 30-year-old, who has vaulted 14 centimeters higher than any other woman, said earlier this year.
“My coach says that my potential is 5.10 and higher.”
Isinbayeva signaled her return to the dizzy heights of the event in February with an indoor world record of 5.01 meters to out-jump her opponents in Stockholm by 29 centimeters.
She then needed just two jumps to win the world indoor championships in Istanbul, her first major title since the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“I am so happy as if it was the first time,” she said of the victory in Istanbul. “The last three years showed me how important it is for me to win.”
Unrivalled since setting her first world record of 4.82 meters in Gateshead, England, in 2003, Isinbayeva has soared higher and higher in her pursuit of records and medals, winning six world titles and two Olympics.
The former gymnast almost single-handedly turned the women’s pole vault into a crowd-puller. Her enthusiasm, grace and seeming ability to break world records at will in one of track and field’s more perilous disciplines endeared her to athletics fans.
She came crashing back down to earth, however, after failing to register a height at the 2009 world championships in Berlin and then missed out on a medal at the indoor event a few months later.
“I didn’t want to compete. I just wanted to rest. My body was completely empty emotionally and physically,” she said of her shock fourth place in Doha.
“All I could think was I’m tired, I’m tired.”
Her response was to take a break in a bid to rediscover her passion for the sport – it seemed to work.
“I thought that I (would) miss some normal women’s life but now I recognize that my life is much more interesting, colorful,” she said a few months later when announcing a date for her return.
Isinbayeva had a low-key 2011, during which she parted company with Sergey Bubka’s old coach Vitaly Petrov to return to her native Volgograd and former mentor Yevgeny Trofimov, under whose guidance in 2005 she became the first women to vault 5.00 meters.
There was a disappointing sixth place in the Daegu world championships but even then Isinbayeva was looking ahead to Olympic year, saying: “I am going to jump higher and higher.”
Her goals are an unprecedented third Olympic title and to better her idol, Ukrainian pole vault great, Bubka’s mark of 35 world records.
The absolute women’s world record of 5.06 was set by Isinbayeva outdoors in Zurich in 2009.
She has previously drawn criticism for increasing the mark a centimeter at a time as she strived for Bubka’s total and also, as Isinbayeva has freely admitted, for the bonus money, but the tall Russian threatened after her last record to next time “get them to raise the bar by three or four centimeters instead of just one”.
Given that she set world records when winning the two previous Olympic finals and has stated several times her plans to retire next year, who would bet against her putting on an unforgettable show on the sport’s biggest stage?
By Clare Fallon