In the first part of a new series in which athletes explain why they love doing what they do, Greece’s world and Olympic pole vault champion Ekaterini Stefanidi talks about her passion for pole vaulting.
“The first ever Olympic women’s pole vault at the 2000 Sydney Games provided the inspiration for me to try the event.
“I had been involved in athletics from a young age. My parents had both represented Greece at a junior level – my dad as a triple jumper and my mum as a 400m sprinter – and I had tried a number of events, but found I got bored very easily.
“My dad was watching the women’s pole vault on TV at the Sydney Olympics and he suggested I try pole vault. Because he had connections with the national team, he put me in contact with the pole vault coach of the Greek athletics federation.
“I adapted quickly to my new event. I cleared 2.30m in my very first competition and set a world age best at the age of 11. I found the event fun and I enjoyed the variety of training. But for many years I liked, rather than loved, pole vaulting.
“Study has also been important to me. I knew I wanted to do a doctorate programme and I thought it was possible to do both, but when I started to travel more with pole vault, it became harder to combine the two.
“Honestly, a big reason I do pole vault came following a conversation with my college coach in the US shortly after I had just qualified for the London Olympic Games. I told him I’m going pro and he said, ‘why? Why don’t you go to grad school and start a career?’ I thought, ‘I think I’m a pretty good pole vaulter (she had won the 2005 world U18 title); if I work hard and with the right guidance, I can do well’. His comments acted as a big motivation to prove I could be a professional pole vaulter.
“Another reason I do pole vault is it is part of who I am. I have pole vaulted for 16 or 17 years – a longer period of my life than I haven’t pole vaulted. I remember arriving as a freshman at Stanford University and when people asked me what I did, I said, ‘I’m a pole vaulter’. It has become a big part of my identity.
“I’m so grateful to the pole vault. It has taught me so many life lessons that I have used both inside and outside of sport. It has helped my time-management skills, which has helped me succeed in my education. It is an individual sport but it has helped me work as part of a team. I have so many happy memories and emotions from vaulting.
“Yet the thing I enjoy most is competing at major championships, and when I retire this is what I will cherish most. Competing on the biggest stage brings high pressure and high expectations – but I love that feeling of being able to control the nerves and perform well. To be able to shut my brain down and think of nothing as I sprint down the runway is the best part of vaulting.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF