Is Monaco a good place to live and train?
Yes, Monte Carlo is a very good place to live and especially for training, because the stadium is always almost every time empty, so no other athletes. So, I have everything for me here and the weather almost 360 days per year is sunshine, so it’s a very comfortable place for training.
Very different than Volgograd [in Russia] where you come from?
Yes, Monte Carlo is very different than Volgograd. Everything is different. Life, people, the weather, the nature. But Volgograd is my home town. I grew up there, I was born there and also it is a historical city. They have a lot of monuments since the Second War and in Volgograd we have a victory spirit, so the people also have a very magical aura over there.
When you compete, do you feel you are competing for the people of Volgograd?
Yes, yes, yes. I represent my country and my Volgograd. Now a lot of people know where it is and everyone associates me with Volgograd.
Do your family still live in Volgograd?
Yes, my family still lives in Volgograd, except my younger sister, she is one year younger than me, now lives in Las Vegas, because her husband works for Cirque de Soleil. I go back home during the preparation season, but once I am competing, it’s less often.
When you were young, your family gave you a lot of support?
Yes, my family gave me a lot of support. They dedicated themselves to me. Even my sister dedicated herself to me, because at home I didn’t have to do anything. I was just sleeping, eating, sleeping. My sister did all the homework for me. My mother was always cooking. My father also was taking care of me. So, everything was just for me, and now it is giving us very good results.
You started as a gymnast, why did you switch to pole vault? When you started it was not so popular, it was not a big women’s sport.
Actually, it was not my choice about pole vault. I had been practising ten years for gymnastics and when I was 15 my coach from gymnastics asked me ‘do you want to try pole vault, because in gymnastics you have no chance to be anything more than master of sport?’. I was saying no, I don’t know what is this pole vault, I never heard about this event. He said ‘ok, just try it. If you don’t like it, you can come back to gymnastics’. So he brought me to Yevgeny Trofimov, the only coach in Volgograd for pole vault, and I was his first experience of working with a woman. After two months he saw that I can achieve something great, that I have a good potential for the pole vault, because it was young event, very developing, started in 1996 and first time in the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000. So, now everything happens like a special scenario for me. I just come to pole vault and everything happens for me.
Did it help that Sergey Bubka was dominating the men’s pole vault and came from Donetsk, not far from where you came from?
Of course, Sergei Bubka he’s a role model for many athletes, He was a star at the time I was starting. So, I didn’t see his performance while he was an athlete, I just saw his jumps once he retired.
This has been a fantastic start for you for 2012. You have won World Indoor Championship gold medal in Istanbul and broken the world indoor record in Stockholm.
Yes, my winter season started fantastically, so I’m happy about that and I’m happy that my work with Yevgeny Trofimov bring us such a result so fast and, of course, my victory in the World Championship gives me more confidence for the rest of the season and for the main competition, the Olympic Games in London. My world record in Stockholm brings me back on top, so I am again No 1 in the ranking. It’s such a great feeling to come back to the same level as I was before. It’s great to feel again that I am able to jump five metres and higher. But the world record is like a second part of my performance. Victory in competition is the important thing for me and I was so happy about Istanbul, because it was my first gold medal since all the troubled years I have had.
Can you just talk about the troubled years, as you call it? What do you think was responsible?
The main problems of those terrible years for me was so many years of competing. I was tired from everything. My body, my mind was tired because I was almost ten years competing at winter season and summer season. I never missed anything and I was on the top, I would say, the last six or seven. All the time I had big pressure on me and when I stopped breaking world records, but I was still winning, the media were considering my victories like a defeat. It was hard for me because at the same time, if some other girl will jump somewhere the same height, like 4.70, 4.80 or 4.85 metres, for them it was sensation. But if I do the same jump, it was no story. So that was hard and it hurt me a lot and I say ‘ok, if you don’t care about me anymore, I will go and take some break, you’ll have other people to watch and to follow’. So, yes, I decided to have some rest without competing, without training, without everything.
It worked because everyone is interested now you are back?
Yes, I think so. It confirmed my decision was at the right time. If I would have this rest in 2011, it could be a big risk before Olympic year. But my break in 2010 was just an exact time and everything I have done was a right decision.
One right decision was to get Yevgeny back as your coach. What does he give you?
To work again with Yevgeny Trofimov was my best decision ever in my life, because I trust him. I grew up with him as a pole-vaulter. He loves me like a daughter. I do not consider him just a coach. He is my coach, he is my friend, he is my second father. I trust him 100%. I am confident with him 100% everywhere. He is 24 hours for me. [The first time] I was with Yevgeny, I never lost anything, I never missed anything. I was winning all main competitions, I was breaking world records. In 2004, I break eight world records. In 2005, I break nine world records. And therefore, I guess if I had stayed with him, I think my number for world records could be more than 30 for sure, or even, I don’t know, maybe close to 40. Yes, there was a difficult situation, but now I again trust in our work with him and I feel it that I’m rising to the top again. I fell down, I fell really, really down and now I’m elevated again.
This is a good time to be elevated, because in a few months time in London you could become the first woman to win a track and field gold medal in three different Olympics. Does that excite you?
I’m excited and happy that Olympic year is coming soon. Of course London is the main competition for this season. I will have two competitions before London and we will try to make those competitions like a warm-up.
Who do you think are your main competitors going to be in London?
In London, my main competitors will be myself, because I know how high I can jump and I know that height is almost impossible for my rivals. I know at this time that if I am fine with myself and my personal condition is fine, and the weather is good, then the whole of my body will react in the right way and everything will be fine. I will not worry about the Olympics. I am confident because I know that right now everything is fine in my life. I have a very good coach, I have my parents with me, I have my friends. Everyone supports me. I have my fans all over the world. They are very supportive and they love me. Before, maybe, I was a little bit lonely or alone, or I did wrong things, but right now everything is going in the right way.
What are your special memories from your gold medal winning performances in Athens and Beijing?
In Athens, it was special. It was my first Olympics and there was another favourite, Svetlana Feofanova, and we were on the same level. I missed my first attempt at 4.70 metres, then I passed for 4.75 and she took it at the first attempt. I missed again and then I made 4.80 with my very last attempt to win. That was very special and I would never forget about that. In Beijing, it was a different situation. I would say I was the favourite and nobody was close to me, I won Olympic gold with only two jumps, 4.75 and 4.85. The gold medal was in my hands, but for me it was not enough. I knew that everyone waited for the world record from me and that was more difficult. I felt confident that I will do 5.05 without any problem, but then the first two attempts were missed. I was thinking it will not be a complete gold without world record. The tribunes were crazy, they are clapping, they are screaming, they are waiting for the world record. I started telling myself ‘ok, just believe that it will happen’. And it did, so of course that was over-emotion, emotion.
Your record is 5.06 metres. How high can you go? Is there a limit?
Well, it’s difficult to say what limit I have. I always answer the sky is my limit, because I never know how high I can jump, but my coach Yevgeny says that my potential is 5.10 and higher, so that right now and with my present preparation, I am able to jump 5.10.
Sergey Bubka created 35 world records, do you have that as a goal?
It was my goal from the beginning to set up 36 world records. I would like to make one more than Sergey did. So, yes, this is still in my mind and now I feel that I can achieve it.
Now you have your appetite and excitement back, how long will you go on?
Not that longer, as you could think. For me, I decide that another two years and then I will retire. Training becomes difficult, hard and, of course, every year the body is getting old it becomes harder and harder to prepare for the competition. I enjoy competition more than training. When I’m on the track, I always think, oh my goodness it’s so easy. Why can’t it be all the time the same. But once I get off the podium, I was like ‘oh, I’m too tired for the training’.
What will you do when you retire? Will you always want to say involved in sport?
Of course, I would like to be involved in sport, because everything I achieve now is because it is through sport and I feel the obligation that I have to give back, I have to share my experience, my knowledge, my emotions with the young generation, because I cannot just throw away all my experience I’ve got through so many years in sport. So this is my No 1 obligation once I’m retired.
The Laureus Sport for Good Foundation believes that sport can help young people. You obviously believe the same and I believe you help an orphanage back home.
I am very proud to be a supporter of the Laureus Sport For Good Foundation which enriches the lives of so many less fortunate children. This is my philosophy too. The orphanage is in my home town of Volgograd. First time I went there, I asked the children to write down one thing that they wanted, something personal that could be theirs. Some wanted a computer, mobile phones or balls, some of the girls wanted toys like Barbie. So I collected all these letters and spent a day buying these things and one week later I went back to the orphanage to give these small dreams come true to everyone.
You have won two Laureus Sportswoman of the Year Awards. Maybe if you win an Olympic gold medal in London, you might win a third Laureus Award?
It is my dream to be a three times winner of Laureus Awards. For me, Laureus is something special, something unbelievable. At the same time you have different people, actors and actresses, singers, business people and sportsmen and women coming together in the same place. It’s so nice that sport can connect these people. It is such a big honour for me to be the winner. I keep my two Laureus trophies here in Monaco. I have a special wall at my apartment where I put all my trophies and the Laureus have the two best places on it.
You were a member of the delegation that went to Zurich to persuade FIFA to give the 2018 World Cup to Russia. I believe you ended up making a presentation?
I was there just to be part of the furniture without saying anything, but one of the delegation was unable to get to Zurich and they said to me ‘Yelena, we have a problem, you will have to make a speech at 10am tomorrow. You can speak English and have a good memory’. And I have to speak in front of such people like the President of FIFA. So all night I was reading it. Then during my speech, I forgot the beginning, but it went fine. And of course we were given the World Cup. So it was a good experience.
I believe in Zurich, unexpectedly, you were able to get some new equipment for your sports club in Volgograd?
Yes, that is true. While in Zurich, we had a lunch and I was on the same table with Roman Abramovich. He asked why I was training more in Europe, not in Volgograd and asked me about the facilities there? I just explained that we don’t have such good facilities. Our indoor hall is quite old. The windows, a lot of windows, have been broken and, of course, if it’s winter time, inside it’s just plus seven. A lot of our members of Olympic teams get injured. So we have trouble right now and we don’t know what to do, so that’s why I prefer to come to train in Europe, because it’s always warm and there is good facilities. He says ‘how much money do you need to repair the window holes?’ He says without thinking. ‘I will help you’. I was like ‘that happens for the first time in my life. Are you sure?’ ‘Yes, I’m sure’, he said. So I was happy. Once the lunch finished, I just asked him ‘excuse me Roman, you wouldn’t forget about your promise?’ He was like ‘Yelena. I never forget anything.’ It was such good news. I came back to Volgograd after this and I say listen, now we’ll have a good indoor hall, now we’ll repair the windows, the electricity, the lights, everything. Now we have the best indoor hall in Russia. It just happened. That’s the best thing in life.
Yelena is a supporter of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation which uses sport to help disadvantaged children worldwide.
By Richard Hookham