Jeff Hartwig Talks Vaulting:
On The Isinbaeva "X Factor"


by Jon Hendershott


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In Part 3 of a long interview with T&FN Associate Editor Jon Hendershott, vaulter-turned-agent Jeff Hartwig discusses the greatest women’s vaulter ever, Russia’s Yelena Isinbaeva, starting with how she took this year off, admitting that she needed some mental time off after so completely dominating the event in the second half of the decade:

Hartwig: That’s the big X factor for her. She’s done it all. I wouldn’t go as far to say she is the Sergey Bubka of the sport, but she’s the closest to that that we have ever seen. She is undeniably the class of the sport.

And along with that, from ’03 when she was 3rd at the Worlds in Paris until virtually ’09 at the Berlin Worlds, she was basically undefeated. A few nominal no-heights here and there, but I don’t think it was until [Poland’s] Monika Pyrek beat her in Stockholm ’09 that she actually lost a top-level competition against a worthy adversary where she just got outjumped.

One thing about Bubka that I always believed, over and above the actual heights he jumped, was his ability to stay hungry and focused for as long as he did. You look at a career that spanned 16 years or more—from the ’83 Worlds in Helsinki, through his last full year in ’98—Sergey never lost that burning desire to be absolutely the best guy in the world.

And that mental edge that he had… we’ve seen a lot of pole vaulters reach that pinnacle who then have to step back and say, “OK, now what? What do I respond to now?”

Rens Blom from Holland won the ’05 Worlds in a tremendous upset. No one, including Rens himself—because he told me so since we’re friends—would have predicted him to win that title. So he jumped 5.80 [19-¼], just a centimeter below his PR, and a reporter stuck a microphone in front of him and said, “When will we see a 6-meter [19-8¼] jump from you?”

All of a sudden, instead of feeling a sense of accomplishment and reward, suddenly there was a world of pressure placed on his shoulders. And the strongest athletes are the ones who can deal with that.

We talked a lot about that and Rens said at some point he realized, “I don’t care if I no-height in every meet for the rest of my life! I won the World Championships because that’s what I set out to do.”

You go into a Worlds thinking that way: “In a perfect world, I’m going to have the best day of my life and win.” For some reason, Rens couldn’t do that; he couldn’t realize, “I did what I was committed to do.” So then he thought he had to jump 6.00.But realistically, it wasn’t going to happen. It was beyond what he had the ability to do.

With Yelena, I think she’s sort of in that situation because it’s seen as almost a failure if she doesn’t at least attempt a World Record, if not make one. It’s even a “failure” if she doesn’t win every competition. So that becomes a tough load.

I think what she did this year was brilliant; absolutely the smartest thing she could do. She took the time to regroup. Financially, she had no concerns

But now the big question becomes, what does the time off do to her? Does she become complacent? When the training starts back up—the grind and the pain and the frustration—is that something she’s no longer willing to overcome and press through?

Or does it become a situation where she’s fresh and motivated? Does she wake up each and every day with a renewed spirit to go out and regain that form of previous years?

I think that even if she only gets back to her previous level, she still is the best one out there. Only an extremely healthy Jenn Suhr has any chance at all to beat Isinbaeva.

In installment 4, Hartwig will begin his 4-part analysis of the leading U.S. men by looking at Brad Walker & Derek Miles.

Part 1: Hartwig’s long career leads to a new role as athlete-agent

Part 2: What sets Steve Hooker apart as the world’s best men’s vaulter