A few weeks have passed since Yarisley Silva became the first woman to win three consecutive Pan-American Games pole vault titles, but the Cuban still has unfinished business – not just for this season but for 2020 and beyond.
At the recent Pan-American Games in Lima, the 32-year-old cleared 4.75m to take gold ahead of USA’s Katie Nageotte and Canada’s Alysha Newman. Along with securing her third successive title, Silva maintained her record of clearing a season’s best at the Games – a trend that began on her debut in 2007.
That’s not to say it was an easy victory, though. The humid winter of the Peruvian capital made the competition more challenging to all athletes. They only had 40 minutes of warm-up instead of a full hour. Needing to start vaulting at lower heights than usual, Silvia struggled with her run-up with the bar at 4.35m, finally getting over it on her third attempt.
From then on, though, she was her usual self and kept fighting for gold.
“It’s been 12 years of good and hard times,” said Silva as she reflected on her past competitions. “It’s been a road of perseverance, lots of lessons learned and positive things to move forward. I am very happy. I have accomplished goals that many athletes would have hoped to achieve. I feel privileged to have competed in four Pan American Games. I am still strong at 32 years of age.”
Silva took bronze in 2007 at the age of 20 with a national record of 4.30m. Four years later, she beat the then world champion Fabiana Murer to the title in Guadalajara and then defeated the decorated Brazilian again in Toronto in 2015 with a Games record of 4.85m.
USA’s Pat Mason won three consecutive Pan-American pole vault titles between 1991 and 1999. Eight other women, meanwhile, have achieved three consecutive Pan-American Games titles, but Silva is the first to do so in a women’s jumping event.
“All of my Pan-American titles have the same value,” she says. “I have fought hard to win all the Pan Am golds and other titles. I drew a new and positive experience from every competition.”
Ten days after winning the 2015 Pan-American gold, Silva cleared a lifetime best of 4.91m. Three weeks later, she won the world title in Beijing. So, naturally, she takes a lot of confidence from clearing a season’s best in Lima ahead of the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019.
“It has been a great boost,” she said. “I knew I was in great form, but that height was elusive until Lima. To achieve such a performance when it mattered most gives me a lot of confidence to improve my results.”
Silva’s win in the Peruvian capital is even more impressive considering the challenges she faced during her preparation in Cuba.
With a new track being installed at her training stadium in Havana, she missed a lot of vaulting sessions. She did not vault at all in between arriving home from the IAAF Diamond League meeting in London on 20 July until her arrival in Lima one week later.
Silva, however, doesn’t like to dwell on such problems.
“I am used to facing and overcoming obstacles along the way,” she says. “I have had a lot of support and my sponsor Puma has provided me the opportunity to compete in many events.”
With all eyes now focused on Doha, Silva is confident in her ability to repeat her world title from 2015.
“I have been world champion,” she says. “I was also the bronze medallist in 2013 and 2017. I want to be world champion again. The ladies are very competitive, but it is how we perform at the right time and the right place that matters most.”
Silva – who usually has nine poles with her at each competition – admits the women’s pole vault has evolved significantly since she started.
“The level is much higher,” she says. “We now see more women at 4.70m or higher. At the 2015 World Championships, we had seven women at 4.70m or higher. More women have taken up the event and we all have the desire to succeed. And this has been a close year with many of us around 4.65-4.80m.”
The 2014 world indoor champion believes her faith has been key to staying among the world’s elite for eight years since her fifth-place finish at the 2011 World Championships.
“My faith has kept me focused on my goals, despite all the obstacles along the way,” she says. “I am also thankful for the hard times. In times of need, you come to appreciate what I have achieved and who your real friends are. You come to realise that you have a lot to learn, nothing to lose. I have overcome any ‘can’t do’ thoughts and how to handle fame.”
The three-time Olympian is also motivated to support the new generation of Cuban pole vaulters, including her 18-year old training partner Rosaidi Robles, who broke Silva’s national U20 record earlier this year with 4.30m.
“I loved seeing Rosaidi compete with me at the Pan-Ams,” said Silva. “I am happy to share my experience, how to overcome difficult challenges. I am excited to teach the younger generation – both men and women – so that they can continue this winning path for Cuba after I retire.”
Silva isn’t rushing into retirement just yet, though.
With the support of Alexander Navas, her coach for 17 years, the 2012 Olympic silver medallist is focused on two unfulfilled goals: vaulting five metres and winning an Olympic gold.
“My main motivation is to reach five metres,” says Silva, who is fifth on the world all-time list and one of nine women in history to ever vault 4.90m or higher. “I do not know when it will happen.
“I also want the Olympic gold,” she added. “It’s the only title missing in my pedigree. I hope to stay healthy so I can keep my dreams alive.”
Javier Clavelo Robinson for the IAAF