HELSINKI – Some track stars, Usain Bolt comes to mind, almost ask to be mobbed. Others, more like Yelena Isinbayeva, inspire respectful reverence.
When Isinbayeva went shopping for sports gear at a mall in downtown Helsinki recently, several customers watched from afar and snapped a few pictures, but didn’t dare approach her. It was only as she was about to leave that a shopkeeper mustered the courage to ask for a photo.
The Russian pole vaulter happily obliged.
Regal in her own way, Isinbayeva will be looking for her crowning achievement next month at the London Olympics. If she wins the gold medal in the pole vault, she will become the first woman to win three straight individual Olympic track and field titles.
“I will do all possible — and impossible — things to achieve this goal,” Isinbayeva said.
She pretty much has already done the impossible to get back to the position she is in after all the bleak years since winning her second Olympic title in Beijing.
She was as untouchable as they get in sports, like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. But suddenly, that magic deserted her. She lost her world championship and European titles and, approaching 30, it seemed an inevitable and inexorable downward slide had set in.
At the depth of despair, she knew there was only one way back and that was seeking inspiration from her youth. And it meant going back to Yevgeny Trofimov, the coach who had already turned her from a gymnast into a pole vaulter almost half a lifetime ago.
Fast forward to the XL Galan meet in Stockholm in February and the magic was back. Isinbayeva broke her indoor world record, clearing 5.01 metres to beat the old mark by 1 centimetre. It was her first improvement of a world record in 2 1/2 years, and ending the drought brought her back to life.
“It showed me that my decision when I came back to my old-new coach Yevgeny Trofimov, showed us we are on the right track and that everything will be fine,” she said.
A month later in Istanbul, there was gold around her neck again when she recaptured the world indoor title she had lost two years earlier.
Within a winter season, it seemed those golden times were a given again, with another Olympic title ready to be picked up at will. All those tricks of the trade, sprints, twists, lift off, elevation that need to be in perfect split-second co-ordination were turning her into the best again.
Then all went quiet. The outdoor season started and there were no Isinbayeva spectaculars, not even meet announcements. And rumours about the start of her season kept being pushed back.
She even decided against participating in the European Championships in Helsinki. Where were her Olympic ambitions?
“I am 30 years old,” Isinbayeva said, looking as fit as ever. “I am not that young as I was before.”
After Istanbul, she took two weeks off, and all those perfectly honed skills were lost.
“After that rest of course, I have to start again from zero. My shape had disappeared,” she said. “That is why we decided not to make two peaks and not do the European Championships. … I have to train more right now. But I have no injury worries.”
With London the only target, she will start slowly and open at the Sotteville meet in northern France on July 10 before following up with her only big pre-Olympic competition at the Monaco Herculis meeting in Monaco on July 20.
Between now and departing with the Russian team, she will be going to her home base in Volgograd for fine-tuning with Trofimov.
As so often, it should be a fight against herself.
While her outdoor world record stands at 5.06 metres, the year’s top performer is outdoor world champion Fabiana Murer of Brazil with 4.77, leaving a huge gap in between.
“Right now, I am ready for 90 per cent,” Isinbayeva said.
Mathematically, that wouldn’t be good enough for gold. But it’s pretty close.
By Raf Casert