Katerina Stefanidi has a rather impressive medal collection.
Following her title-winning performance at the European Championships in July 2016, the now 28-year-old embarked on a winning streak at major championships that saw her secure gold medals at the Rio Olympics later that summer, the European Indoor Championships 12 months ago and the IAAF World Championships in London in August.
The Greek athlete is undoubtedly the vaulter to beat in championship competition, but one title still eludes her: the IAAF World Indoor Championships.
“Since Rio it feels like there’s a target on my back and everybody’s goal is to beat me,” she smiles.
And if one athlete has come close to denying Stefanidi over the past 18 months, it’s Sandi Morris.
The 25-year-old took the silver medal in both Rio and London and, with a season’s best of 4.90m, appears to be in better form than her friend and rival, which all contributes to the sense of anticipation ahead of Saturday’s final.
“Sandi has been the only one (to have beaten her) – twice actually,” notes Stefanidi.
“There is pressure, but this is what works for me. It’s a privilege to have this pressure. Going into a championship, the first goal is to get on the podium and get a medal, but you can’t control what the other girls will do. I know if I do what I should do then I will be on the podium and contend for the gold medal.
“They say ’Pressure is what you put in tyres’ and I think there’s the perfect amount, just like with cars. Too little and you just go to the meet and don’t care as much, but too much and you kind of choke, so I think this is the perfect amount of pressure for me.”
Indeed, championships are where Stefanidi feels most at home, albeit she recognises the scale of the task ahead.
“Every championship I go into, I say this is the one that’s going to be most difficult to win. I said that in Amsterdam, I said that in Rio, I said that in London and I say that now – this is going to be the hardest one to win.
“I think this kind of pressure is what I want. I like training, I love pole vault, I love competing and the thing I truly love is competing at championships. I think this is what track and field is. So, I’ve done well during the season, but I’m ready for a championships performance here.”
Morris, on the other hand, arrives in Birmingham hoping to secure a first global title, despite logistical issues meaning that her poles arrived late to the UK and having to overcome a minor but troublesome back injury.
“The poles are officially here. We have a picture of them so I know that they’ve arrived,” she confirms.
“My back is fine now. I had a small protrusion in a disc and it was pressing on a nerve stem. Back problems are very common with pole vaulters. I had a cortisone shot and it shrunk the protrusion right back into my spine.”
“The key will be not doing anything to irritate that, which is a little bit difficult because I’m going to go pole vault. I think it’ll just be kind of managing that and learning how to stay strong but stay healthy and I think that’s the key to being an athlete in general: pushing your body to its limits without breaking it. We have things that we have to manage whether it’s your ankle, your back or your brain and we have to manage those things.”
The pole vault community is renowned for the support they give to each other. Morris, who holds the outdoor North American record, is no different in that regard.
“I think that’s the beauty of track and field – we’re all here for each other, even if it’s a competitor,” says Morris.
“I think all of the pole vault world is that way. We’re all just a little bit different. We’re bubbly and outgoing, you have to be to pole vault. We all hang out and spend time together. I don’t know why, it’s probably all of the time we spend together.”
Offering her support to all of the competitors and taking special interest in Stefanidi and Morris’s duel will be IAAF Ambassador and women’s pole vault pioneer Stacy Dragila.
“Obviously you’ve seen these two women go head to head several times and their rivalry that they have out on the field and the technical cues that they take from their coach to just get a little bit better than the other. That’s really fascinating to see,” enthuses the 46-year-old, who took the inaugural women’s pole vault world indoor title in Paris in 1997.
“I think seeing them compete and to know that they’re both so neck and neck in competition and anybody at any given time could take the win, it just shows how strong they are mentally and physically. So it’s exciting to see the women’s pole vault grow and be so strong and dominant.”
Dean Hardman for the IAAF