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World Indoor Championships bronze medallist is aiming to hit new heights

HOLLY BLEASDALE was "heartbroken" after her Olympic sixth place in the pole vault.

Holly Bleasdale clears the bar in the 2012 Olympic final, right, but still finished disappointingly. Picture: Getty Images
Holly Bleasdale clears the bar in the 2012 Olympic final, right, but still finished disappointingly. Picture: Getty Images

One marriage proposal and several sports psychology sessions later, the Lancashire lass says emphatically: "A negative experience? Definitely not."

The one-time gymnast is wintering in Arizona, where "winter" is a euphemism. While it snowed back home she has been training in temperatures of 84ºF, she said during an exclusive Herald Sport interview. She has a champion's ability to draw from potentially undermining experiences, dismissing online forum insinuations that she is overweight: "I need to be strong to do what I do."

After failing to record a height at last year's World Championships in Daegu, she was drinking Diet Coke in a lift. World champion Veronica Campbell-Brown was present, and former UK head coach Charles van Commenee. He pointedly asked the Jamaican her views on drinking it. Campbell-Brown dismissed the very idea.

"At the time I didn't know it was bad for you," revealed Bleasdale. "Now I know it is just empty calories that kind of rot in the inside, but you have to take the sort of things Charles says with a pinch of salt. He only says it to help you, and it's something he thought would help. Charles never said anything to upset me. Anything he ever said was to help me improve and learn. I was a little disappointed when he left. I really value his advice, and still have his email address."

Bleasdale, who first picked up a pole less than four years before London, is working with relocated UK coach Dan Pfaff alongside two of the world's leading male vaulters, and looking forward to her first post-Olympic appearance for Britain in Glasgow on January 26.

Just 20, she was ranked third in the Olympic field on a gusty, fickle-winded evening. She managed only a single clearance, at 4.45m. Having cleared a world-leading 4.87m earlier in the year, it was little wonder aspirations had soared.

Yet in the 2012 cauldron, a procession of lofty performers succumbed modestly. Before her final attempt, Bleasdale had seen Poland's Anna Rogowska (World and European indoor champion) and Australian Alana Boyd (Commonwealth champion) go out at the same height.

Public agony and potential humiliation loomed before an 80,000 crowd as her nerves seemed to shred. Beyond the pit, her coach, Julien Raffalli, aped a demented John McCririck as he watched the wind sock and signalled when to go, or stop. That clearance brought only temporary respite, and she dissolved in tears when she went out at the next height.

Two hours later, she became engaged.

"I really enjoyed the whole Olympic experience," she insists, "although at the time I was disappointed – 4.45 was way below what I was aiming to jump. Considering the conditions, that it was in front of a home crowd, and that I didn't know how to cope with my emotions, I was really happy to finish sixth. I took a lot from it. I was still enjoying myself out there, though coping with the wind was tough. I can only take positives from it. No negatives came from any part of the Olympics."

In fact, analysis shows no competitor cleared the bar other than with a tailwind: "It was basically pot luck."

UK Athletics have "a really good team of psychologists" she says, and since the Games they have dealt with the wind issue: "But I hadn't been through that before the Olympics – so I never had anything in my mind, no psychological practice, to help put it behind me. We have worked on that, and we train outdoors in Arizona. Any wind there is, we have to plough through."

She and Raffalli parted amicably and Bleasdale is continuing her Manchester Met sports degree by distance learning with Pfaff, the former Loughborough coach. In the group are Britain's Commonwealth silver medallist Steve Lewis, and Steve Hooker. The Australian held the Olympic and World indoor and outdoor titles at the same time, and at 6.05m is the second highest vaulter ever behind Sergey Bubka.

"They're always giving me advice and tips. It's a perfect situation. Just watching them is like videoing and analysing it live. I can see how they vault, and it makes my mind process so much better," Bleasdale said.

Pfaff has been in Arizona for the past four weeks, and Bleasdale will spend a further two weeks there, then a further 10 after the European indoor season.

"Dan is teaching me mental toughness," she says. "I have a 'mental resilience workbook' which helps me identify icebergs and pitfalls. If the wind comes, you have to be positive – put it to the back of your mind. If you think you can't jump, next time, even if it's only a small amount, you're thinking: 'the wind – I can't jump'. You have to get over that, or it's setting you up for a big fall. Here the wind picks up towards the end of afternoon training, so it's good to practise in those conditions."

Bleasdale has at tempted 5.01m, after having set personal bests at 4.80 and 4.87. "On my seventh bar of the comp it was very tiring, but I don't find the height intimidating at all."

She feels she will clear five metres next year, and that the world record will be beyond Isinbayeva's 5.06m within three or four.

The European Indoor Championships (Gothenburg) and world outdoor (Moscow) are in her diary, "and I'd like to defend my European under-23 title." World indoor bronze medallist, she is relishing the prospect of the Emirates arena in Glasgow. The all-comers' record of 4.76m (held by Svetlana Feofanova and Yelena Isinbayeva) is within her grasp.

"I've been looking at lots of pictures online. It's like world and European indoor venues I've competed in abroad. It looks fantastic, and being the first British event after the Olympics the atmosphere is going to be amazing. When I heard they were putting a women's pole vault on, I was desperate to do it."

But there will be no French announcer in Glasgow, as was required for the Olympics. The announcer there was her coach's father, who always called her 'Olly – a source of amusement to the French, given the pronunciation – au lit: to bed.

Tickets for the 2013 British Athletics Series: www.uka.org.uk

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