She can justly claim to be the most successful woman athlete of all time but for Yelena Isinbayeva the dream was never simply to become a great champion.
For the 27-year-old Russian pole vaulter, who grew up in a cramped family apartment in the former Soviet Union, admits that she always harboured a desire to become one of the beautiful people.
The irony for Isinbayeva is that when she finally achieved her goal and moved from Volgograd – the city whose former name, Stalingrad, still resonates for its pivotal role in the Second World War – to live among the rich and famous in Monaco, she cried herself to sleep because she felt so lonely.
Back to form: Isinbayeva broke her own world record in Zurich
Last week, as she took a break at the Principality’s Louis II Stadium from the punishing training routine which she hopes will help her recover the aura of invincibility she lost, along with her world title, in Berlin last summer, Isinbayeva talked for the first time about the roots of her almost fanatical dedication to her sport.
From the age of five, she had set her sights on becoming the best gymnast in the world.
She had been told all about her fellow Soviets, Olga Korbut and Nellie Kim, by her father and mother – a plumber and shop assistant – and as she watched them compete, on the family’s tiny TV set, she allowed herself to dream.
‘I’d watch famous, beautiful, rich people on TV and find motivation from them,’ she said. ‘I reasoned that they’d worked hard to get to where they had in life and that was what I had to do as well.
‘Our apartment was only 48 square metres, which is very small for a family of four, and it meant I had to share a room with my younger sister. My parents had three jobs to support my gymnastics but I still wore second-hand clothes because we couldn’t afford anything nice. I dreamed of being rich.’
Rare disappointment: Isinbayeva was in tears after her failure to win a medal at August’s World Championships
At the age of 10, Isinbayeva was a national gymnastics champion but, five years later, her dreams were shattered when her coach told her she had grown too tall to be a gymnast and her career in a sport in which Russian women had always excelled was over.
‘It was the worst day of my life,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know what to do. Everything I had worked for, everything I had dreamed about was over. I cried for days.’
Stunning: Isinbayeva always wanted to be one of the beautiful people
But there was a chink of light for Isinbayeva. She was encouraged to take up the pole vault and promised she had the potential to emulate one of her country’s sporting legends. Not that his name meant anything to her at the time.
‘The coach said to me, “If you follow my instructions and if you trust me, you will be like Bubka”,’ said Isinbayeva. ‘I replied, “‘Bubka? Who’s she?”’
Isinbayeva laughs as she recounts the story. But with 27 world records to her name already, she is indeed within sight of equalling the achievements of the great Ukrainian Sergey Bubka, who broke 35 world records in the men’s pole vault in the Eighties and Nineties.
‘When I joined the class there were 10 of us and I was the only girl,’ she said. ‘I started learning the pole vault in November 1997. In June 1998 I won the World Youth Games in Moscow. That’s when I knew I might be special.’
Her instincts were correct. By 2005, Isinbayeva had been crowned Olympic and world champion and she was well on the way to acquiring the wealth she had craved as a young girl.
She then made an extraordinary decision to improve her sporting lot. ‘I felt uncomfortable in Volgograd because everybody knew me and I was struggling to get motivated,’ she said.
‘I was a big fish in a small pond and if I couldn’t improve then I was going to stop. I felt empty inside. That’s when I decided to change everything: my coach, my home, my lifestyle. I moved to Monaco but spent the first few weeks crying every night because I felt so lonely. But it also made me confront myself. I had to prove myself all over again.’
Pure joy: Isinbayeva clears the bar to set a new world record at the 2004 Athens Olympics
Four years after she upped sticks, Isinbayeva went to Berlin last August with another Olympic title, two more world outdoor gold medals and a host of other titles and world records to her name.
What happened in the German capital has created the next chapter in her story. EVEN Isinbayeva struggles to explain her crushing disappointment in those world championships.
She failed with her first attempt at 4.75metres, then failed twice more at 4.80m to finish last in the final and leave the Olympic stadium in floods of tears. It was the first time since 2003 that she had not won a major pole vault competition.
One week later, however, she broke her own world record in Zurich with a vault of 5.06m.
‘You know what the problem was,’ she said. ‘I knew what everyone was thinking. “Oh, here comes Yelena. She turns up, she wins, maybe she breaks another world record. Big deal. Same old story”.
‘The truth is, that’s what I was thinking, too. It felt like just another day, not the world final.
‘When I missed with my third attempt I landed on the mat and didn’t know what to do. For a split second I convinced myself that none of it had happened, I would wake up, discover it was all a bad dream and then go and win the world title.
Brilliant: Isinbayeva in Gateshead in 2004
‘I almost burst out laughing because it was such an unusual situation for me to find myself in.
‘Then I started to cry as it began to sink in. I’d just lost my world title and I was angry with myself.
‘Later that same evening I was eating in the athletes’ restaurant when the medals ceremony for the women’s pole vault came on to the big TV screen on the wall. I forced myself to watch it. It was hard. It really hurt my ego. But I’m glad that I did.
‘I’d forgotten what it was like to lose and I really don’t like being called the former world champion.
‘It has given me fresh motivation. I feel strong again. My mentality is fantastic. I proved it the following week when I broke the world record in Zurich. It shows that Berlin was an accident.
‘That’s why I’m feeling more focused at this time of the year than ever before. I plan to win the world indoors next year and the European championships, then get back my world title in 2011 and then win my third Olympic gold medal in London. I plan to break Bubka’s record of 35 world records as well.
‘I’ve achieved many great things but I’m not 100 per cent happy. I want to be seen as the greatest woman in the history of athletics.
‘There is still so much I can achieve. But it took a defeat to tell me this.’
courtesy : By Ian Stafford