Sandi Morris at the 2016 IAAF Diamond League final in Brussels (© Getty Images / AFP)
Sandi Morris brought the 2016 IAAF Diamond League to a fitting conclusion at the second of this season’s finals in Brussels earlier this month.
The US pole vaulter was the last athlete in action in the 14-meeting series, with everyone else having finished competing in the Belgian capital, and she had the eyes of the King Baudouin Stadium trained upon her as she made three attempts at a world record height of 5.07m.
“It was the coolest feeling ever because I was the last person competing on the night and everyone was still in the stands. Whether it was because of me or whether it was because there was a fireworks show afterwards, who knows?” she joked down the telephone line from her current home in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
“Having so many thousands of people, 44,000 people clapping me – more than at the Olympics – was unbelievable. But, to be honest, in the moment, I was so focused that I didn’t even realise that the meet was over. I have tunnel vision and I’m so focused during meets that I almost didn’t realise what was going on around me.
“It was only at my second attempt at 5.07m that I realised that nothing else was going on and all those people were cheering and clapping for me.
“It was a very weird feeling but a very cool feeling. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to finish the season.”
Neither could the IAAF Diamond League.
Her clearance at 5.00m was a US outdoor best, a world-leading mark and an IAAF Diamond League record.
Morris became just the third person to clear 5.00m or better, with only her compatriot and world indoor record-holder Jenn Suhr and world record-holder Yelena Isinbayeva ahead of her on the world all-time list.
However, on the evidence of Brussels and several other competitions this year, Morris could soon be ahead of everyone.
Isinbayeva’s record on borrowed time
“I'm definitely very confident that I have the world record in me," she said. "I hope I can put it together in the coming season but I feel that in the next couple of years I’ll have the potential to jump that high.”
Morris now believes that her show-stopping feat in Brussels was partly brought about by a modicum of frustration at having to settle for the silver medal on countback at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games just a few weeks earlier.
“I credit my silver medal, and wanting more, for me jumping five metres in Brussels," she said. "I was so driven that my energy continued to carry over. If I had won the gold, I don’t think I would have jumped five metres.
“I got so much attention after Rio but the gold medallist will get so much more media attention. I’m sure Kat (Greece’s gold medallist and Diamond Race winner Ekaterini Stefanidi) didn’t get any sleep for weeks. She looked tired in Zurich and Brussels, and that’s fully understandable.
“I was tired as well but because I just missed the gold, I was that much more driven.”
In Rio, the only thing that separated Morris from Stefanidi was a failure at 4.70m. That aside, their scorecard was identical. Had Morris cleared on her third attempt at 4.90m – as she was jumping after Stefanidi who had notched up three failures at that height – it would have given her the Olympic title.
But it just wasn’t to be, and audible groans rang out around the Olympic stadium as the bar came down.
“You know what, in the air, I thought I had cleared it," said Morris. "But then I saw the bar wobble and fall, and I knew I had the silver medal. But after everything, the wrist fracture (when her pole snapped at the IAAF World Challenge meeting in Ostrava and she missed five weeks of technical work in her training sessions) and still making it through to the final, and jumping 4.85m – that’s a very respectable height – so I stood up and smiled, and appreciated what I’d accomplished.
“If I hadn’t fractured my wrist and been out for a few weeks, I would still have been happy with my silver medal in Rio,” added the irrepressibly cheerful and charismatic Morris, who also took the silver medal at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016.
“If you think about all the things that you have to accomplish just to get to the Olympic final, that alone is a huge feat.
“You have to make it through prelims and then the final at the US Olympic Trials, then you have to get through the prelims at the Olympics.
"You have to have four good competitions if you want to do well, you just can’t have a bad day. You need three good days just to get a chance at a medal, and that alone is a huge accomplishment.
“I just try to look at things in the grand scheme of life. I look at every single day as a chance to get better and don’t let thoughts of failure creep into your brain as that’ll make you nervous.”
Morris is currently having some time off, and house hunting in Fayetteville among other things. “After years of renting, I’m finally trying to buy somewhere and, having moved last year, once I've moved this time I don’t want to move again for a long time!"
However, she will be back in training in about two weeks’ time building up to what she and pole vault fans everywhere hope will be a 2017 season to remember.
In the immediate aftermath of her Brussels performance, she excitedly talked about improving Isinbayeva’s world record of 5.06m, which has stood since 2009.
Her tone has become a bit more measured in the intervening few weeks but there has been no change in her level of determination.
“The main issue is that I think I'm going to have to get on that next series of poles and grip just a little bit higher," she said.
“If I can do the same jumps I have this season but just grip a few inches higher on those poles, I think I’ll have it.”
Phil Minshull for the IAAF