Vaulting his way to record

In a stunning effort, Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie rewrote legendary Bubka’s long-standing Indoor mark in Ukraine.

The bar in men’s pole vault is set so high by a legendary figure in the sport that it takes an extra special effort to grab the eyeballs of the fans. Renaud Lavillenie did exactly that a couple of weeks ago, and in the lion’s den itself, so to speak.

Sergei Bubka, former Olympic champion, six-time world champion and world record holder indoors and out, was the prime witness on the night of February 15 at Donetsk, Ukraine, as Lavillenie took out his indoor mark off the books with a stunning vault.
The Frenchman cleared 6.16 metres, erasing the record of 6.15 set by Bubka 21 years ago at the same venue. Since the heady days when Bubka used to raise the bar by a centimetre almost at will, the event had hit a trough with no one able to touch even the six-metre mark consistently. So much so, that the Ukrainian’s outdoor record of 6.14 and indoor mark of 6.15 seemed set for a long stay in the record books.
That is till Lavillenie came along.

Enjoying a splendid start to the 2014 indoor season, the 27-year-old Frenchman had given hints that he was ready for a big one when he cleared 6.08 metres in Bygdoszcz, Poland, early last month. It was the second best effort of all-time indoors – behind Bubka’s record – and gave him the confidence to go higher.

"I will need time to get back down on earth,” said the ecstatic Lavillenie at Donetsk. “It was a mythical record. I knew I had the potential to do it. But beat it so early, that's something else," beamed Lavillenie, who had received encouragement from Bubka himself just the previous day to try and go for the record. And the big man was at trackside to watch him go over.

"That's fantastic. It's history and I'm very happy that Renaud does it here in Donetsk, my town," said Bubka, who came on the track to congratulate the Frenchman. "I'm happy because my job is to help athletes perform. Athletics is my life. I'm pleased for him and for athletics," added Bubka, who is the vice-president of the International Association of Athletics Federations now.

Riding high on adrenaline, Lavillenie didn’t stop at 6.16. He even attempted 6.21 metres but in the process hurt his left ankle that required 12 stitches, ruling him out of the World Indoors at Sopot next weekend.

Lavillenie has been the top vaulter in the world with some outstanding performances in recent times. Indoor world champion in 2012, he won the Olympic gold medal the same year but has had a disappointing time at the outdoor World Championships, with one silver and two bronze medals being his collection. He was the favourite at last year’s World Championships in Moscow but was pushed to second place on a countback by Germany’s Raphael Holzdeppe after both had cleared 5.89 metres. The disappointment only spurred on the passionate vaulter.

Early starter

An early entrant into the sport, Lavillenie has credited his father Gilles, who was also a pole vaulter, for his success. “I have pole vault in my blood,” he told the IAAF last year. “My father gave me the opportunity to start my passion and to do the best that I could.”

The little Lavillenie was only seven when he made that move. His progress since then has been steady. From a country that has produced some fine vaulters, Lavillenie’s rise was keenly watched. He won the bronze at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, where one man towered over the entire competition -- sprint king Usain Bolt.
Success outdoors proved elusive for Lavillenie at the 2011 Worlds in Daegu as well, with another bronze landing in his bag. But 2012 was to prove his breakthrough year. First came the gold at the World indoors in Istanbul before he soared over 5.97 metres for the gold in Olympic Games, becoming the fourth Frenchman to win the event. Soon after, he made the surprising decision to part ways with his long-time coach Damien Innocencio and joined the group under Phillipe DÉncausse and last year, he made another switch, vaulting with longer poles to target the world mark.

In his quest for perfection, Lavillenie has even set up a pole vault runaway at the backyard of his home, his obsession with the sport prompting his German rival Bjorn Otto to remark that he is “just like a machine.”

Lavillenie, whose brother Valentine is also a promising vaulter, has skills outside the pole vault arena too, as she showed a month after the Moscow World Championships. He competed in a decathlon competition in Talance, tallying a decent 6676 points. He also made an entry into motor sport, riding his bike at the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race last year.

For a high-flyer, Lavillenie is a down to earth guy who realises world records aren’t every day happenings. “I am never going to stop (attempting to improve the record),” Lavillenie said after his Donetsk leap. “There is just no reason to stop fighting to better this record. It’s certain I am not going to clear 6.35 metres. To have done one world record, it’s huge. If in the years to come, I can do one or two others, that would be extraordinary. But there is also every chance that it may never happen.”

One record Lavillenie would definitely chase belongs to the man he nudged out from the indoor books. Bubka is still the proud owner of the outdoor record at 6.14 metres and Lavillenie has work to do to come close to that, given that his personal best outdoors is ‘only’ 6.02. One big vault for the Frenchman will surely be one big leap for the athletics world, in this case.

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