Jennifer Suhr in the pole vault at the London 2012 Olympic Games (Getty Images) © Copyright
Feature London, UK

Suhr steps up to claim Pole Vault ultimate prize

London, UK - Jennifer Suhr took the big, significant step up here in London from Olympic Pole Vault silver medallist, which she became in Beijing four years ago, to Olympic gold medallist, against a field which included the Russian who has been her, and every other vaulter’s nemesis over the past decade, Yelena Isinbayeva.

When a final failure at 4.75m by Yarisley Silva had confirmed a silver for the Cuban on count-back, Suhr ran over for an emotional embrace with her husband and coach, Rick, with whom she works in a hut they constructed themselves in the back yard of their home in Rochester, New York. This was a truly home-grown victory.

When Suhr was asked on the eve of the 2011 Daegu World Championships how she handled working with a coach who was also her husband, she replied with a smile: "You have to learn how to keep cool at all times. And, when you train in your back yard, you have to learn how to joke, I guess.

"We train in our yard in a hut which is kind of like an aircraft hangar, and it’s powered by two ancient heaters, only one of which works. It’s very cold. And that’s how we train. There’s frost on the poles, there’s frost on the runway. It’s brutal training. But I think it makes me tough."

Suhr was tough enough to compete in South Korea with a painful back problem, although she was unable to make the podium. But she posted an indication of her form and intent early this year in winning the Boston Indoor Grand Prix with a US indoor record of 4.88m, re-establishing herself as the second highest female vaulter of all time behind – you know who.

A year on, it was Isinbayeva who, it turned out, was suffering from the injury problems as the World record holder revealed she had suffered a muscle tear in May which had severely affected her London Olympic preparations.

Isinbayeva certainly had to settle for bronze on a night of swirling wind and intermittent rain which created awful conditions for all the vaulters. ("It wasn’t bad weather," the Russian said. "It was TERRIBLE!")

Suhr concurred. "I agree," she said. "I think it was really a guessing game. You were never sure which height to go for, or which pole to use. The wind would die down and you would make adjustments and shift your mark. And then the headwind would come on stronger than before. It was crazy."

Crazy it may have been, but the progression which Suhr was able to accomplish in the Olympic stadium, four years after Beijing, made perfect sense.

"It definitely is a dream come true," said the 30-year-old who grew up in Fredonia, New York, where her parents – Mark and Sue Stuczynski – earned a grocery store. "There’s one place up from silver and a lot of places below it. This is a blessing."

But it was a blessing that had been hard earned by her and her coach in their easy reach shack.

"We have both spent a lot of time in that training facility. There has been a lot of blood, sweat and tears there. It doesn’t have all the facilities, but it is the best place to train because it’s home.

"Since the US trials we have both been training for this moment and putting everything into it. That’s why it was so emotional at the end, because it came after all the hard work we had done together. There is a lot of stress and anxiety in this sport."

Asked if she had ever had the "yips" over jumping a height, she responded: "I’ve never had anything like that. I think my coach would scare that right back out of me. It wouldn’t be accepted. We plant the pole and go…"

She made it clear that competing in the vault, particularly on a night such as she had just negotiated, was something of an elemental experience. "It’s survival," she said. "It’s a battle. When we enter a vaulting competition it is about being a survivor.

"To be competing out there is hard. Everyone has the same goals, and with Yelena in the field the bar is raised literally and figuratively because she is the greatest of competitors, so you know you always have to be on your toes, you can never afford to relax.

"When she is out there you know you have to keep going. The way I look at it, it is an honour to be competing against her. There is just a lot of respect there."

At which point, Isinbayeva responded: "Thank you."

Suhr, a talented softball and basketball college player, recalled in Daegu how she was persuaded to take up pole vaulting by the coach who, since 2010, has also been her husband.

"My first reaction was 'No way. It’s just too scary. Who would want to do that?’" she recalled. "But once I started - it was an addiction. I just fell in love with the event and loved every minute of it."

But some minutes, as she learned tonight, are even more loveable than others.

Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF