Greek pole vaulter Ekaterini Stefanidi enjoyed the best season of her senior career to finish 2014 joint second in the world. We chart her journey of ups and downs that have taken her from child prodigy to world-class performer.
It’s been an intense 14-year relationship, but finally Ekaterini Stefanidi appears to have sorted out any past differences she may have endured with the pole vault.
In a breakthrough 2014, the Greek athlete improved her lifetime best by 20cm, racked up seven PBs, claimed her maiden Diamond League success and snared a European silver medal.
Success has not come overnight for the 24-year-old Arizona State University PhD student. Her journey to the top owes much to persistence, hard work, talent, and most importantly an enduring – though occasionally testy – passion for pole vault.
Athletics is in the Athenian’s blood. Her father, George, and mother, Zoi, were both former Greek internationals in triple jump and sprints respectively.
Stefanidi's father introduced his daughter to the pole vault when she was aged just ten. She set world age-group records at 11, 12, 13 and 14. In 2005, at the tender age of 15, she was crowned world youth champion in Marrakech and lauded as a future superstar.
Stefanidi with Lisa Ryzih, Ebony Collins and IAAF President Lamine Diack at the 2005 World Youth Championships
“I was carefree, having fun and jumping high,” she explains of this record breaking early phase of her pole vault career. “There was a moment when [I was so confident] I thought I was going to jump the world record for the men,” she adds with a smile.
“But when I was 15, I was still so young, I didn’t really understand what it meant. I used to think why do people cry on the podium? I don’t get it.”
Yet that carefree attitude unravelled and the pole vault became “more like a job”. It was no longer fun and she quit the sport for six months in 2006. Some viewed the decision as baffling for an athlete with the world at her feet, but Stefanidi is adamant – with the benefit of hindsight – she needed the break.
“I’ve always loved pole vaulting, but I wanted to make sure I was pole vaulting for myself,” she explains. “That year I changed coaches, the sport became fun again and I regained my motivation.”
The global podium finishes continued. In 2007 she won silver at the world youth champs, the following year bronze at world juniors.
A gifted academic, she took up a scholarship from California’s Stanford University in 2008, but in her freshman year her passion for pole vault start to waver again.
"I’ve always loved pole vaulting, but I wanted to make sure I was pole vaulting for myself."
“If you’ve heard of the phrase freshman 15, well, I had freshman 25. I gained weight and became discouraged because I wasn’t jumping as high.”
In her sophomore year she received a huge boost with the arrival of a new coach at Stanford – 2004 Olympic pole vault silver medallist Toby “Crash” Stevenson.
“He was my favourite pole vaulter when I was younger, so to have him arrive was the most motivating thing in the world,” she explains. “We immediately got along great, he was a Stanford graduate and I felt connected by that. Everyone in the training group had a lot of fun. It was perfect timing.”
In 2011 she won medals at NCAAs, European U23 championships and the World University Games. In 2012, her final year at Stanford, she secured her first NCAA pole vault title and earned a spot on the Greek team for the London Olympics.
But change was soon to follow when Stevenson announced he was moving to live in Sweden and suggested Stefanidi should move to Phoenix, Arizona to be coached by Nick Hysong, the 2000 Olympic pole vault champion.
“Toby left me, so I was mad,” says Stefanidi. “It was hard to leave Stanford, which had been such an amazing place, and I hated everything about moving to Arizona for the first few months.”
The first year under Hysong proved difficult. She picked up plantar fasciitis in both feet, performed way below expectations and abandoned her 2013 season in June – ranked joint 55th in the world.
2014 proved a breakthrough year for Stefanidi's career, as she took silver at the European champs
Yet slowly she bought in to life at Phoenix and into Hysong’s philosophy.
“Nick has definitely pushed me in ways that I was uncomfortable with both physically and mentally,” she admits. “I always knew the importance of quality over quantity, but he has taught me the value of both to the extent that I now have to do everything better and more often.
“I used to be a wuss at practise. I would work on my technique, but not with the bigger poles. Nick has managed to get me to train with the bigger poles.”
Regular cardio sessions have been introduced to give her the base to withstand the additional training load.
“The little things he has added have made me better,” she adds. “That was the biggest focus, to make me stronger and faster.”
In 2014, she has reaped the rewards, advancing her best from 4.51m to 4.71m. She also claimed a Diamond League win in Birmingham and silver at the European championships in Zurich.
“Setting a PB in Monaco [4.71m] was pretty special,” she says. “When I was a kid, I would always watch the meet on TV with my dad and I always wanted to jump there, so to get my PR there was even better.
“The Europeans were a little bittersweet. Anzhelika [Sidorova], the girl who won, was fourth until her final attempt and moved into gold. But when athletes do that, I really respect them.”
Sidorova and Stefanidi on their lap of honour in Zurich
As for 2015 she is “excited” by the prospect of competing at the European indoor championships in Prague and chasing the Greek record of 4.72m, but the primary target is the Beijing world champs.
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” she says. “We don’t know who is coming back next year. Is [Yelena] Isinbayeva really competing? Holly Bleasdale will be back, and if we add one or two others, suddenly there could be five or more girls jumping. It [the world championship] is definitely a goal, up there with jumping 4.80m or higher.”
Now her relationship with the pole vault is once more rock solid, anything is possible.