In 1994, a young, athletic cowgirl grabbed a pole and easily catapulted over a bar positioned ten feet above the ground. Stacy Dragila was shocked to learn she had just set an American record in the women's pole vault.
It was a cornerstone moment in American vaulting. Still, Dragila had a lot of ground (or should we say "air") to make up, as the rest of the world was a bit ahead of the curve. Emma George (AUS), Daniela Bartova (CZR) and Sun Caiyun (CHI) were trailblazing uncharted territory in those early days, less than 20 years ago.
The 13-foot barrier had already been breached but it would not be until the 2000 Sydney Summer Games that women's pole vault would be recognized as an Olympic sport. Dragila took gold, becoming the first Olympic champion in the event.
But that was then, and this is now. Today, the world record stands at 16'7" and a whole new cast of characters will be contending for the podium at the World Championships in Daegu, starting August 27. And, if anything, the drama has only increased as the "chicks with sticks" have transformed a former exhibition-style sideshow into one of the most anticipated and competitive events in track and field.
Yelena Isinbayeva, 29, Russia—Any conversation about women's pole vault begins (and usually ends) with Isi. Despite a recent show of vulnerability and a year-long layoff in 2010, Isinbayeva has to be regarded as the favorite, even if based solely on her remarkable legacy: current world record-holder indoors and outdoors, multiple Olympic and World gold medals, and owner of the top 13 vaults ever. She knows the rare air above 16-feet like no other.
Add a determined motivation to re-establish her dominance and a decent comeback season in 2011, and Isinbayeva is the vaulter to beat.
Jenn Suhr, 29, USA—Probably Isinbayeva's most serious threat, Suhr is one of only three vaulters to eclipse the 16-foot barrier (five times)—and she has quietly been developing a legacy of her own: American record-holder both indoors and outdoors and silver medalist in both Beijing, 2008 and 2008 World Indoors.
After solving a mysterious energy-robbing malady related to gluten flour, Suhr appears to be peaking just in time for Worlds and has a legitimate shot at her first major global gold.
Martina Strutz, 29, Germany—One of the most active vaulters this year (23 competitions), Strutz has been having a career year, improving her personal best on six occasions. She seems to be in her prime at 29, and apparently sees actual competition as a critical element in her training regimen.
Whatever works. For Strutz, it works.
Silke Spiegelburg, 25, Germany—Don't be fooled by Spiegelburg's youth. She has been vaulting seriously since age 13, and consistently progressing every year since. She's in the high 15-foot range and, if the favorites should falter at Worlds, she could easily sneak into a podium spot.
Anna Rogowska, 30, Poland—The defending world champion from 2009 also had a nice win in the Prefontaine Classic this year. Rogowska has long been a consistent top-three finisher.
Fabiana Murer, 30, Brazil—The one-time training partner of Isinbayeva had the year of her life in 2010, including a World Indoor gold medal—in the absence of Isi. She would definitely be higher on this list if not for a sub-par 2011.
Svetlana Feofanova, 31, Russia—Sveta makes this list simply on the merits of her former days of glory. She was the indoor and outdoor world champion in 2003, and the only other vaulter (besides Isinbayeva and Suhr) to clear 16 feet.
Kylie Hutson, 23, USA—2011 US National champion
Angelica Bengtsson, 18, Sweden—Just a kid. No fear. Update: Bengtsson out with injury.
Tina Sutej, 22, Slovenia—Bowerman Award finalist (Arkansas) and Slovenia national champion.
(Note: Every woman mentioned in this list has vaulted 15 feet or higher this year).
Given the marks we've seen so far this year, a new world record in Daegu seems unrealistic. However, conditions permitting, it is absolutely feasible to expect at least three vaulters to battle it out above the 16-foot barrier. This would be a first—and a most entertaining way to set the stage for London, 2012.
Stranger things (like that ten-foot American record) have happened.
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