The problems all started in Brussels. It was August 2018, the Diamond League final, and I was taking my first jump of the competition.
Two days earlier, I’d cleared a PB of 5.86m at the train station in Zurich. I was 21 at the time, and I remember some of the older, more experience guys that night saving themselves a little, not taking the bigger poles, making sure they were ready for the final.
I was naive, maybe a little selfish, and decided to go for big heights, thinking it wouldn’t be an issue. It was a lesson I learned the hard way.
On my first jump in Brussels, I was still fatigued and wasn’t running as fast as I’d like. I came in, took off too close, and planted the pole on the wrong side of the box.
I like to plant it on the right side so the bend in the pole goes left, but I planted it in the left side and it rocked back, the bend taking me to the side. I was sent flying to the right, my feet up, head down, and luckily I managed to run and get my feet underneath me before I hit the ground. I landed on the base of the uprights.
At the time I thought I should be able to walk this off, but then I started to walk.
I had fractured the calcaneus – my heel bone – on both legs. I had to get carried off the track by Piotr Lisek and Sam Kendricks. In times like that, it helps to have some friendly faces around.
Going back to 2016, my first competition against those guys, they’d been looking out for me.
I first met Sam at the Rio Olympics. I was 19 at the time, and had jumped 5.70m just before the qualification deadline. I thought I was the coolest kid on the block at the time, until I showed up to the Olympic village and there were all these guys like Sam, Renaud Lavillenie, Thiago Braz – the beasts of the sport.
I’m nothing compared to these guys.
In the call room, I was sitting next to Sam and he looked over at Renaud: “Hey Renaud, this is the new guy, got any tips for him?”
Renaud smiled. “Just make sure you enjoy it, mate.”
That changed my whole approach to pole vaulting because I used to be a stress head going into competitions. After hearing that, on the sport’s biggest stage, anything is chill.
Renaud was so right, as I soon learned. Those guys go out and enjoy it every time. That’s the thing about our event: it’s such a family, a tight-knit group. It’s not hostile at all.
I learned that when I travelled the circuit with them. We all just respect how technical and hard the event is, we respect one another’s ability to get over such huge bars.
In the years after Rio, my career seemed to be sailing along smoothly. I cleared 5.73m in 2017 and made the world final in London, and the following year I won gold at the Commonwealth Games. Then came that night in Zurich, when I cleared 5.86m.
And then came Brussels.
Before that, I never had any injuries. My body was perfect, and I got a little arrogant to the fact.
I’ll never get injured.
But that one mis-timed jump set off a chain reaction. For the next six weeks I had to use an immobilisation boot – wearing one for half the week on one foot, half on the other, trying to allow them both heal at the same time. The alternative was to spend six weeks in a wheelchair, and I wasn’t having that.
Coming back from that injury, I was playing catch-up ahead of the European indoor season and I rushed things, trying to do too much, too soon. It led to a niggling pain in my shoulder, which turned out to be a tear in the tendon of my rotator cuff.
After I got over that, I started compensating in my jump and this is where it all started falling apart.
When I hit take-off I was trying to have a loose right shoulder to take the majority of the stress through my back, whereas you should have both arms strong into the pole, both shoulders, and an even weight distribution amongst your whole back. I was using parts of my back too much, loading it with acute pressure, and that caused me to get a stress fracture in the L5 disc of my spine.
I got the diagnosis in June last year, one week before I was due to head to Prefontaine Classic in Stanford, and all of a sudden my season was finished.
I was trying to push through, to salvage the World Championships, but everyone in my team was telling me to take my time.
You’re still young. You don’t want to make this a full fracture. Get yourself back together and you’ll come back red-hot in 2020.
It was six months before I could pole vault again, and even then it was only off a two-step run-up. Over the weeks that followed we slowly progressed: two to four to six steps, eventually building up to my full run-up of 18 steps.
In my first competition of 2020, I cleared 5.80m at the Perth Track Classic, but a week later the back pain returned. Then Covid-19 happened, and all of a sudden there was no rush to get ready for anything.
For me, the pandemic was a blessing in disguise.
I’m based in Perth, purely for pole vault, while my family is in Adelaide and my girlfriend lives in Gold Coast. When the Olympics got postponed I was like, screw it, I’m visiting my girlfriend, and that trip ended up being 10 weeks long. During that time I nurtured my back, my shoulder, my feet and the break really consolidated my body back together.
All along, I had great support from Athletics Australia and from adidas – despite the time out they saw there was something in me that would keep going.
There’s been so many people who’ve helped along the way. My first coach, Kym Simons, took me from zero to 5.80m and the Commonwealth title. He was the guru behind my technical model – the Bubka model of pole vaulting.
After that I move to Alex Parnov, who got me to understand no one is going to be exactly like Bubka – you have to modify it to your own specifications, your body weight and speed.
At the start of 2020 I moved coaches again to Paul Burgess, and since then I’ve been solidifying all the things I’ve worked through the years.
Even in an individual sport it takes a whole team to succeed, and without my physio, my manager or the Western Australian Institute of Sport, it’d be impossible.
It also helps to have supportive rivals.
Over the past year Mondo Duplantis has been my inspiration. We came up through the ranks at a similar time, and we both made the podium at the 2016 World U20 Championships.
We’ve competed against each other 10 times in total, and I think the score is 5-5, but he’s obviously gone to a different level over the past year.
To see someone go from the puny, skinny kid I knew in 2016 to this proper boss-man, this beast of a guy who jumps 6.18m, is so inspiring.
We’re still close, we chat on the phone every now and again and he’s like, dude, everyone is forgetting about you, make sure to get yourself back out here this season.
It’s so good for the sport that he’s tearing up the stage. Because of that the limelight is on pole vault. Even if I could push him past six metres and sometimes get the win because I’ve jumped it on my first attempt and he’s had a bad day, that’s where I’d like to be.
But most of all, I’m just looking forward to getting back out there.
I’ll have some domestic competitions here in Australia over the weeks to come and my hope – if the situation allows it – is to be back in Europe for the indoor season, starting with Karlsruhe on January 29.
Everything is aimed towards Tokyo, and things are starting to come together. I’ve been jumping PBs off short approaches so it bodes well.
There’ll be highs and lows in everyone’s career, but the key is maintaining as close to the highs as you can and to minimise the lows – creating that consistency.
You look at guys like Sam, who can jump 5.80m at every competition, and that’s who you want to be – the guy you know will turn up and jump high. Then Renaud’s career has been phenomenal, a guy who just keeps raising the bar.
When I get out there against those guys again, I’ll cherish the experience even more.
The last two years have definitely been humbling, but going through those tough times makes you appreciate the highs and successes a lot more.
Yeah, athletics can be tough when you have to have a season off, but that makes you savour the times you are on the circuit, living the best life. It makes it all that bit sweeter.
It’s been an awesome journey so far, and I can’t wait to continue it for the next 10 years.