Thiago Braz during the medal ceremony at Rio 2016 (© AFP / Getty Images)
Thiago Braz had an entire country celebrating in the streets when he won a historic pole vault gold at Rio 2016. We find out what’s next for Brazil’s new athletics superstar.
“That night, everything was possible,” recalls Thiago Braz with a sparkle in his eyes.
You can’t blame the Olympic pole vault champion for dreaming about 15th August 2016, the night he became a Brazilian hero by sailing over 6.03m to win his nation’s first Olympic gold in athletics for 32 years.
Joaquim Cruz was the last Brazilian track and field athlete to top the Olympic podium. Yet it wasn’t his golden 800m performance at Los Angeles 1984 that inspired Braz to embark on his own Olympic adventure, but another of his nation’s greats.
“I wanted to compete in the triple jump at the beginning of my career,” Braz, 23, tells SPIKES.
“I looked at the guy from Brazil – I think you know him, Jadel Gregorio [triple jump world silver medallist indoors and out] – he was an amazing guy. He is from my city.”
"This is amazing, you can fly!"
Braz had always been a fan of jumping. As a 12-year-old he would climb up on the roof of his house, a one-storey building, and jump down, “just to feel what’s happening when you’re falling” (don’t try this at home). Fortunately his mother never caught him in the act, otherwise he might not have become a pole vaulter.
Aged 14, he tried the triple jump, but quickly realised “no no no, this is not my event”. With a decathlete for an uncle, there was no lack of inspiration to give other disciplines a go. Braz tried his hand at the high jump and long jump before eventually turning to the pole vault.
“I said ‘this is amazing, you can fly! You can feel your body, it’s not on the floor!’ There was a lot more emotion. So I accepted the pole vault as my event.”
He has never looked back. In 2012, aged 18, he won gold at the Barcelona World Junior (U20) Championships with a 5.55m clearance. A year later he cleared 5.83m to claim the senior title at the South American Championships.
He was a sucessful athlete, but far from a household name. Before the Games, he was able to walk down the street in Brazil just like anybody else. That has changed since winning gold in Rio.
“People find me. It’s like ‘oh look, it’s Thiago Braz’ and then I need to walk really fast!” he jokes, adding “or I’ll wait and talk to them.”
With his main base in Formia, Italy, he doesn’t experience the star-treatment all the time, so hasn’t grown tired of the attention.
“It’s amazing, I like it,” he insists. “I’m new to them, they saw something different in the Olympics and they ask how I won, they want to know.”
It’s a good question: how did he win?
Rio’s pole vault final was one of the most gripping events of the Games. Defending champion Renaud Lavillenie ramped up the pressure by clearing 5.98m at the first attempt. Braz had cleared 5.93m, equal to his PB and NR, and was guaranteed silver. With nothing to lose he opted to have the bar lifted to 6.03m – 10cm higher than he’d ever vaulted before and a height never cleared in any Olympic competition.
Both athletes failed their first attempts. Then Lavillenie failed his second attempt. The door was open.
Urged on by the deafening cheers of the patriotic home crowd, Braz cantered down the runway, rose to the occasion and cleared the bar. The crowd erupted in ecstasy. He had timed his season to perfection.
“I tried to clear 6 metres on three other occasions before, but I’d do bigger steps, 5.60, 5.70, and then straight up to 6 metres because it was my plan this year to break 6m.”
Lavillenie failed his attempt at 6.08m. Braz had secured the gold.
Over 6 metres ✅ Olympic Record ✅ Gold Medal ✅
Mission accomplished and with an Olympic title under his belt, the Brazilian is looking to continue his meteoric rise where he left off in 2016. The victory over world record holder Lavillenie filled him with confidence.
“My next point is [to become] world champion,” he says firmly. “I want to win a medal in London. And at the next Olympic Games I want to get another medal. To complete two golds for one vaulter [would be] very, very special.”
First, though, the roles of hometown hero versus intruder between Braz and Lavillenie will be reversed. The pair will meet on French soil for their season openers in Rouen on Saturday (28th January) and then at the Frenchman’s very own All Star Perche meet in his hometown of Clermont-Ferrand (5th February).
“I have a great respect for Renaud,” Braz told the French press ahead of the highly anticipated rematch. “I always wanted to be as strong as him.”
They say competition is good for business and with more than one vaulter capable of clearing 6m, ambitions grow easily. With his goal of 6m ticked off, Braz now has his sights set on something new. That something starts with a ‘w–’ and ends in ‘–orld record’.
If the conditions are right, he insists, more leaps like his 10cm improvement in personal best are possible.
“I am training really hard to jump higher. I can’t say to you ‘sure I’m going to do it’, but I am improving.”