When Claudio Michel Stecchi started to struggle with injury problems after the 2019 indoor season, the late scheduling of the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 appeared to be a blessing in disguise for the Italian pole vaulter.
He opened his outdoor campaign in mid-August with an outdoor PB of 5.66m and improved to 5.72m just two weeks later in Rovereto. But injury struck once again, this time his hamstring, and he was unsure if he would be at his best – or able to compete at all – in the Qatari capital.
Thankfully he was able to recover in time and he tested his form before heading to Doha with a 5.70m clearance in Castelporziano. He was good to go.
Nine days later, Stecchi was on the runway at Khalifa International Stadium for the qualifying round of the men’s pole vault.
“In the qualifying round I decided to gamble by opening at 5.60m, but this strategy paid off as I cleared it on my first attempt,” said Stecchi. “I also hoped to jump 5.70m and 5.75m at the first time of asking to save energy for the final, but I needed two attempts to clear these heights.”
Nevertheless, his second-time clearance at 5.75m was not only an outdoor PB, it was also the automatic qualifying standard for the final. It meant Stecchi became the first Italian pole vaulter to reach World Championships final since 2009.
“The main goal in Doha was to reach the final and I am happy that I achieved it and that I jumped very well,” he said. “My unsuccessful attempts at 5.70m and 5.75m were even better than my successful jumps. It’s a blessing to reach the final after injury problems slowed my preparations for the summer season. Thankfully I recovered from it and I felt in my best possible shape.”
In the final three days later, Stecchi finished a respectable eighth with 5.70m. He shared the same height as Germany’s Bo Kanda Lita Baehre, Olympic champion Thiago Braz Da Silva, 2013 world champion Raphael Holzdeppe and France’s Valentin Lavillenie, but finished behind them on countback. Had he cleared 5.70m on his first attempt, Stecchi would have finished fourth.
Still, it was a highly respectable performance from someone who had battled injuries for much of the year, but it also left Stecchi wanting more.
“I’m happy that I had the chance to compete in a World Championships final,” he said. “A top-eight placing would have seemed a good result before Doha, but now I am not entirely happy with my performance in the final, especially after the qualifying round. I messed up my run-up at 5.70m and I wasn’t able to deal with it.
“I wanted to jump 5.80m in the final,” he added. “But this is only the beginning and I’m already looking ahead to the World Indoor Championships in Nanjing and the Olympic Games in Tokyo.”
Born in Bagno a Ripoli near Florence, Stecchi acquired his passion for pole vault from his father Gianni, who in 1987 set an Italian record of 5.60m, reached the finals at the World Indoor Championships in Indianapolis and World Championships in Rome, and won the Mediterranean Games title.
Stecchi’s earliest sporting interests were karate – he was a black belt – and water polo, but he tried pole vault for the first time in 2005 and was hooked. He started vaulting under the guidance of Riccardo Calcini, a coach from Florence, who has been training Stecchi ever since.
“My father did not push me to pursue a pole vault career, but he is of course very proud of my results,” says Stecchi. “He came to Doha to watch my competition.”
Stecchi’s ability became apparent in June 2008 when he broke Giuseppe Gibilisco’s national U18 record with 5.11m. Two years later, he improved Gibilisco’s Italian indoor U20 record by clearing 5.31m in February 2010.
His international breakthrough came five months later when he took the world U20 silver medal in Moncton with 5.40m. In 2012, still aged just 20, he improved his best to 5.60m and finished eighth at the European Championships in Helsinki.
Since then, though, Stecchi’s progress has been hampered by a series of injury problems. He underwent surgery on his right achilles tendon in November 2015 and then his left achilles in March 2017. The injury lay-off allowed him to finish his masters’ degree in law and he later enrolled at the University of Physical Education.
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He returned to action in 2017, equalling his PB of 5.60m and earning bronze at the World University Games. His momentum continued into 2018 when he finished 11th at the European Championships in Berlin and improved his personal best after six years by clearing 5.67m in Linz.
But it wasn’t until 2019 when his progress really got going.
In the first two months of this year, Stecchi improved his career best four times by clearing 5.70m in Nevers, 5.71m and 5.78m in Szczecin and 5.80m in Clermont Ferrand at the meeting organised by world record-holder Renaud Lavillenie.
His performance there meant Stecchi became just the second Italian pole vaulter to clear 5.80m after Gibilisco, the 2003 world champion, who still holds the national outdoor and indoor records at 5.90m and 5.82m respectively.
Stecchi capped his impressive indoor season with a fourth-place finish at the European Indoor Championships in Glasgow, where he narrowly missed the bronze medal with 5.65m after clearing 5.70 in the qualifying round.
“It was a big honour to be invited by Lavillenie,” said Stecchi. “The Clermont Ferrand competition was outstanding. It was a great day at a big meeting. After jumping 5.80m, I decided to stop jumping to save energy for Glasgow.
“At the European Indoors I achieved my goal, but it was not easy,” he adds. “I was a bit disappointed to finish fourth in the final because I felt cramps during my attempts at 5.75m.”
With his short but successful outdoor campaign having now drawn to a close, Stecchi is already looking ahead to further improvements next year.
His mentor, Gibilisco, has been part of Stecchi’s coaching team since 2018, but after the World Championships in Doha, the 2003 world champion became Stecchi’s personal coach and will guide his preparations for the 2020 Olympic season.
“I have a very good relationship with Gibilisco,” says Stecchi, who now trains in Castelporziano. “Thanks to his advice and the great work of my team, I have found a good balance in my training.”
Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF