She's jumped higher than any youth vaulter in history, but for Sweden's Lisa Gunnarsson the long journey to where she is now all started with a bold decision – to quit.
Lisa Gunnarsson was 12 years old at the time, training about 30 hours a week, when she decided that this was not the life for her.
The official motto for the London Olympics was ‘inspire a generation’, but if anything they had the opposite effect on this talented young Swede. Back then, she was a dedicated gymnast who’d been in the sport since the age of six, and one summer night in July 2012 she settled down in front of the TV to see how her countrywoman, Jonna Adlertag, got on in the Games.
Adlertag could only finish 39th in the all-around qualification, and soon after Gunnarsson turned to her mother with a surprising declaration.
“I said, ‘I’m not spending all this time to only get 39th,’” she recalls. “I had seen Jonna training so much, so hard, she was always in pain, and I decided it’s not worth it – I’d rather do something else.”
Her parents didn’t approve.
“They were really upset, they wanted me to continue,” she says. “They said you have a talent and you should pursue it, but I said I didn’t want to do it.”
And that was it, her first love discarded in an instant.
For two weeks, Gunnarsson did nothing before boredom got the best of her and she figured she should channel her energy elsewhere, which led to her mother Ulrika – a former high-jumper – bringing her down to the local athletics club.
She started with sprints and hurdles, though when coaches got wind of her gymnastics background they encouraged her to try the pole vault, an event she fell in love with from the start.
“I had the athleticism, I was strong but I just had to learn how to run,” she says. “I learned to pole vault decently quite quickly, and within a couple of months I jumped 3.50m.”
This all occurred at the Swedish teenager’s local club in Paris, France, and if that seems like a misprint, it’s probably a good time to go back a few years.
Make no mistake: Gunnarsson sounds Swedish, looks Swedish, is Swedish, but to chart the 18-year-old’s journey from Stockholm to her current residence in Blacksburg, Virginia, USA, is to zig-zag across the world a dizzying number of times.
“I’ve moved like eight times in my life,” she says. “I’ve only lived in Sweden for three years.”
Due to her Dad’s work, the family first uprooted from Stockholm when Gunnarsson was three months old, and since then she’s lived in Argentina (once), Luxembourg (twice), Sweden (twice) and France (twice).
She’s fluent in three languages, but after all that time abroad, does she still see herself as Swedish?
“I think so,” she says. “Every time someone asks me where I’m from my first response is Sweden, so I have that patriotism because my parents are from there.”
She’s had to leave her friends behind more times than she’d like to remember, but there are benefits to being a young globetrotter, too.
“The negative is starting over every time, having to find new friends and missing the old ones, but even if that’s the case I’m really glad I had the possibility to move around – I know so many cultures and languages and I have experienced so many things.”
While training with Stade Francais athletics club in Paris, her pole vaulting improved rapidly in her mid-teens, Gunnarsson clearing 4.25m at the age of 16. The following year, in May 2016, she hoisted herself over a world U18 record of 4.50m.
Last summer she went higher again, clearing 4.55m to secure a place at the IAAF World Championships in London, where she competed in front of a packed stadium as the youngest athlete in the women’s pole vault.
“It was very scary,” she admits. “I was so scared and so amazed about everything that I lost focus.”
Gunnarsson bowed out in qualification with a best of 4.35m, but at the age of 18 that could never be considered a failure. “It was a good experience to do my first world championships,” she says. “I’ll take that for next time.”
After London, she barely had time to unpack before her suitcases were loaded up again – Gunnarsson this time taking flight to the US to enrol at Virginia Tech University.
As the highest youth vaulter of all time, she had an array of scholarship offers on the table, and opted for Virginia after being impressed during a recruiting trip to the colleges on her short-list.
“I wanted to come to America because I wanted to do something else,” she says. “Here in the US you have good pole vaulters and I picked Virginia Tech because the group was really good, the coach was good and everything fit. I thought: this is the place I want to be.”
Since uprooting herself – again – last August, Gunnarsson has felt the familiar pang of homesickness, not so much for a place but for people, specifically her parents, who now live in Buenos Aires.
“It takes a while to form the habit of being on your own,” she says. “It’s been a bit hard, but I’m fine.”
A student of engineering, Gunnarsson has found the student-athlete setup of the NCAA to be far more accommodating to training demands than her high school in Nantes, or indeed the prestigious institute of sport, expertise and performance that she later attended in Paris.
Most of the time she trains once a day, sometimes twice, though given the workload she undertook as a 12-year-old gymnast, it feels relatively easy.
“I have never come close to 30 hours a week in athletics,” she says. “I feel more healthy.”
And it’s showing. At the Texas Relays in late March, Gunnarsson came up against 2012 Olympic champion Jenn Suhr, but far from being intimidated she used the competition to drive her higher, soaring over a Swedish U20 record of 4.60m to finish second to Suhr.
That makes her a leading contender ahead of next month’s NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, and after that Gunnarsson will again don the Swedish colours for July’s IAAF World U20 Championships in Tampere, Finland, where surely, gold is the only thing on her mind?
“Yes,” she says, “yes it is.”
She hopes to step up against the seniors at the European Championships in August, where she will join her teammate and friend Angelica Bengtsson in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.
But as good as she is, Gunnarsson knows there is plenty left to work on in the years ahead, the final few steps for the teenager who has traversed the world, and one day wants to conquer it.
“There are details everywhere that could take me higher,” she says. “But first of all, my goal is to just enjoy pole vaulting, do a lot of competitions and then become one of those elite vaulters that do world championships, Diamond Leagues. I want to go on that journey.”