Feature18 Jul 2016

As Rio looms into view, Stefanidi strives for higher


Ekaterini Stefanidi competes in the pole vault during the 2015 world championships (© Getty)

When your sights are set on the ultimate prize, sometimes victory alone is not enough. At the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Monaco on Friday night, Ekaterini Stefanidi dispatched her rivals with a near-flawless series of pole vaulting, but in the aftermath it spoke volumes that she was not content. 

“I should’ve jumped higher," said the Greek athlete, who cleared a best of 4.81m on the night to take victory by 10cm over Cuban rival Yarisley Silva. "I have no excuse.” 

Twelve months ago, Stefanidi had never cleared such a height in her life, but 2016 is different.

The women’s pole vault has seen a sharp increase in quality; seven women have cleared 4.80m or more this season, which has never happened before. 

Stefanidi has been a central figure in that drive. Her mark in Monaco was her fourth consecutive clearance of 4.80m or better (in finals), making her the third athlete in history to achieve such a run outdoors. The others are Yelena Isinbayeva and Jenn Suhr, outdoor and indoor world record holders respectively.

That fact is not lost on Stefanidi. Though the 26-year-old is disappointed not to have gone higher still at the Meeting Herculis, Stefanidi was nonetheless content to continue her incredible run of form, even with a new pole. 

“There are many positives about tonight,” she said. “One of the best things is that 4.80m becomes an easy bar. I'm pleased that I used the five-metre pole and that I'm getting used to it.”

Scaling new heights

Her winning mark in Monaco was equal to that which she cleared to win gold at the European Championships the previous week, which broke Isinbayeva’s championship record by a centimetre. 

Having to manage a changeable cross-wind in Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium, the Stanford University graduate scraped over that height at the third attempt to take victory. She described the moment as “huge”. 

"I was ready to jump higher, but we had pretty bad conditions,” she said.

Not that the delight with her first major international title as a senior was in any way diminished. “I was able to attain two long-term goals at once,” she posted on social media. “First winning a European gold medal and second taking a record from someone we consider a legend in the sport.” 

Stefanidi's rise has been swift, but not unexpected. The former NCAA champion's 2016 indoor campaign hinted at the form that has followed this summer. 

She set an indoor national record 4.90m to win the Millrose Games in February. A few weeks later at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Portland, she played her part in the highest quality final of all time.

It was the first contest ever where five women made it over 4.70m. Stefanidi topped out at 4.80m to claim bronze, while Suhr won with a championship record of 4.90m. Only twice before at the world indoors had the winning mark been higher. 

Sandi Morris, who won silver in Portland, has talked of this year being a “women’s pole vaulting movement” and there is little doubt that Stefanidi is one of the key components of that golden generation.

The Greek athlete can be considered a member of the second generation of female pole vaulters: it was only at the Sydney Games in 2000 that the event was first contested by women at Olympic level.

Stefanidi first started in athletics as a six-year-old, four years before Stacy Dragila won gold at that inaugural Olympic contest. Her first forays in the sport were in the sprints and long jump but she moved to the pole vault as a 10-year-old in 2000 after her club permitted women to compete in it for the first time.

“It was really what inspired me,” Stefanidi has said of the liberation of the event that she has stuck with ever since.

Golden goal in Rio

Unlike Dragila, the 2012 NCAA champion has grown up knowing she will be able to compete at the Olympics and in a balancing act of an event, she has timed her newfound equilibrium perfectly for a medal tilt in Rio. 

Stefanidi has not finished outside the top three at a single IAAF Diamond League meeting this season; the Monaco win was her third on the circuit, cementing her firmly at the top of the Diamond Race standings. Before Amsterdam she set the Greek outdoor national record of 4.86m in Filothei, ranking her second in the world.

Though she “dreams” of clearing five metres, the mark is not the most important thing for her as her mind now drifts to events due to play out at the Estadio Olimpico Joao Havelange next month. The women’s pole vault qualifiers take place on 16 August, with the final set for 19 August.

“I know I compete better when I've got competition,” says Stefanidi. “But if I want to jump five metres I need to get used to jumping alone.”

She says reaching that target “can wait till next year”, adding with intent: “this year is a year to win.”

Thomas Byrne for the IAAF