Dutch pole vaulter Rens Blom caused one of the biggest shocks in World Championships history when snatching pole vault gold in monsoon-like conditions in Helsinki 12 years ago.
Yet if it hadn’t been for the wedding of US high jumper Amy Acuff and pole vaulter Tye Harvey in Hawaii the previous year, Blom may well not have even been in the Finnish capital to enjoy crowning moment of his career.
Blom had enjoyed some international success, most notably when taking world indoor bronze in Birmingham in 2003. But he had disappointed on his two previous appearances at the World Championships, no-heighting in the final in Edmonton in 2001 and failing to advance to the final two years later in Paris.
Desperate to make a big impact at the 2004 Athens Olympics, he was left devastated to place ninth with a best of 5.65m, 16 centimetres shy of his lifetime best set earlier that year.
“I was terribly disappointed,” he adds of his Olympic display. “In fact, it was such a disappointment I didn’t train for three months and I wondered whether I wanted to continue vaulting.”
It was only when rubbing shoulders with a large contingent of pole vaulters attending that wedding was he inspired to take to the runway once more.
“I thought, ‘I should not be so hard on myself’ and that I had unfinished business,” he explains. “The one big promise I made to myself is when I got to Helsinki, it would be my best performance of the year.”
Fully focused on delivering when it counted, he enjoyed a solid build up to the 2005 World Championships. He cleared 5.80m – just one centimetre shy of his lifetime best – in Rechberghausen, secured a host of top-three finishes and landed the Dutch title.
Significantly, he also twice performed well in rainy conditions, finishing second to Brad Walker in Paris and winning in Zaragoza.
“A lot of guys wanted to stop the competition (in Paris), but my coach (Marc Osenberg) insisted I jumped because he said these could be the conditions I would face in Helsinki.”
Osenberg’s assessment provided prescient as the vaulters were greeted with wet and windy conditions for the World Championships pole vault final – weather which characterised much of the nine-day event.
Yet unfazed, Blom – who had cleared 5.45m to advance to the final – came fully prepared for the inclement weather.
“I turned up in the call room and one of the officials commented on my big bag which contained all my extra shirts,” he adds. “My physio rubbed Vaseline all over my legs to avoid them becoming too wet, while I spent much of the competition trying to keep my poles dry and putting tape on and off to ensure I had a good grip. I changed my vest four times during the competition and during warm-up I jumped in a Dutch vest complete with the Athens Olympic logo.”
Blom was also encouraged by the attitude of several of his key rivals before the competition.
“I remember Tim Lobinger (2003 world indoor champion) and Giuseppe Gibilisco (2003 world champion) tried to convince everyone not to jump because it was such bad weather,” recalls Blom. “I thought, ‘okay, I’ve already beaten you two because you are not focused on jumping’.”
However, Blom’s medal quest was almost over before it started. He committed two fouls at his opening height of 5.55m and was staring down the barrel of an early elimination until his coach came to the rescue.
“He told me to go back half a metre on my run up,” says Blom. “I normally might move back maybe 10 or 15 centimetres, so to move back so far was huge.”
Blom heeded the advice and it worked as he cleared 5.55m to remain in the competition.
“I will never forget that clearance,” he says. “It was one of the most important decisions of that day.”
Yet if 5.55m proved difficult, his next height at 5.65m served up a miracle. On his second effort, he landed on top of the bar, dislodging it by at least 20 centimetres. However, rather than plunging to the mat as expected, it somehow dropped safely back on the crossbar pegs. The bar wobbled but remained intact.
“It was the luckiest thing that happened in all my (pole vaulting) life,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘I have to make the most of this luck’.”
Competing in temperatures of about 9C, Blom then cleared 5.75m at the second time of asking, by which point only one other vaulter – USA’s Brad Walker – remained in the competition.
Yet it was advantage to the Dutchman after he negotiated 5.80m without touching the bar with Walker registering a foul with his first crack at the height.
“Brad moved up to 5.85m, but I was comfortable in that position because I knew I could react to whatever Brad was doing and I had one more attempt than him,” he explains. “My first attempt at 5.85m was a good effort, and that gave me more confidence.”
Walker failed at his two attempts at 5.85m and the Dutchman had secured an unlikely victory.
“There was a full crowd in the stadium and everyone was clapping and cheering but for about half a minute everything to me was quiet,” he recalls. “I felt like I arrived at the destination of a long journey but because I had envisaged and fantasised this moment in my head so many times in training, it was like I had experienced it before.”
Aged 28 at the time, Helsinki was to be his last major championship appearance as chronic injuries sadly took their grip. After missing out on qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and in such much pain and distress from his multiple injuries, he quit the sport.
However, this was not to be the end game and he returned to the competitive fold from 2012-2014 for several seasons of fun.
“Because my career did not end well, for me to return for these few seasons was the best thing I did,” he explains. “I knew I wasn’t on top anymore, but I had a great time.”
After finally packing his poles away in 2014, Blom now works for an ICT company in the Dutch city of Sittard, where he lives with his wife, Maud, and his three-year-old son, Rafa (named after Spanish tennis star Rafal Nadal).
He describes living with his wife and child and enjoying a good job as idyllic.
Yet his athletics career will forever be defined by that wet day in Helsinki when he ruled the pole vaulting world.
“I was never the most talented vaulter; there were always vaulters who were taller or stronger than I was,” he says. “But I was willing to put the hard work in to be the best and I think Helsinki was an example of that.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF