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Inside the beating heart of a world championship final

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Tom Fordyce | 22:23 UK time, Monday, 17 August 2009

For years I've wondered what goes on when you see a coach seated trackside, shouting to their athlete in the middle of a world final. What are they saying? What can they see? Can the athlete even hear them, let alone change technique and performance?

So, for the women's pole vault final, I abandoned the usual seat on the BBC commentary row and went down trackside with Steve Rippon, coach to British record-holder Kate Dennison. And it did not disappoint.

You think you know a bit about a sport. Then you watch it from mere feet away with a real expert, and suddenly it's brought into new and stunning focus.

Team Dennison is four-strong. Along with coach Steve, there's current men's British number one Steve Lewis; a former track official called Nick noting down on a clipboard who's cleared what on which attempt; and a video analyst filming it all for instant playback.

GB pole vaulter Kate DennisonThe rest of the coaches are in the front row, side-on to the vault runway so they can see approach, take-off and clearance. Team Dennison moves 14 rows further back. "You can see much better from up here," says Rippon, his feet bouncing and hands grabbing his knees as the tension ratchets up.

Dennison stands on the runway, the bar at 4.30 metres, pole resting on her shoulder. "Now I start reaching for the beta-blockers," says Rippon. He shifts forward in his seat and glugs from a water bottle. "Watch the wind reading," he mutters. "Come on, Kate. Don't mess about with your grip..."

Dennison sprints down the runway, plants, leaps, rotates and clears. Rippon is on his feet even as she lands. "KATE!" he yells. He waves his arms furiously and points up at the giant screen, wanting her to watch and learn from the replay.

The video camera is passed to him. He touches the screen and watches four or five times before dashing down the steps. Dennison jogs over and Rippon shouts across the five metre-wide gap that separates them.

The vital information? He wants the stands that support the bar to be moved five centimetres closer to the take-off. Each athlete can adjust the position to suit the parabola of their jump, and Rippon has spotted that Dennison is reaching her maximum height early. Dennison nods and walks slowly back to her kit-bag.

The adrenaline fizzing through Rippon is patently obvious. As Dennison gets ready for her next attempt he has his arms folded tight, hands squeezed under his armpits. "Get up! GET UP!" he shouts, as she drives up towards the bar, rotates and skims clear again.

"This is the worst part," he says, watching the replay again and again. "As a coach you feel helpless, but you have to stay logical. A final like this is a game of chess. There are so many variables, so many tiny things you can change."

Each coach goes through the same process. They stand rigid as their athlete vaults, watch the giant screen and then bellow instructions and adjustments.

The crowd go wild for German favourite Anna Battke. "She hasn't got a chance," whispers Steve. "She told her coach that she'd had a dream last month, where she failed at every competition until the Worlds and then won the gold medal." He shakes his head. "She's got the first part right, anyway."

Battke crashes through the bar. A few minutes later she is out.

"If Kate can finish in the top eight, that would be brilliant," says Rippon. "That would get her an invite to the meet in Zurich next week, and maybe Brussels." Nick scans the list of clearances and calculates overall positions on countback. Dennison is in seventh. "Prize money!" beams Steve.

The rest of the stadium goes bananas as Usain Bolt appears for the 100m medal ceremony, and the pole vault competition is put on temporary hold. The coaches talk among themselves. Do they all get on? "Yup. We sit together, we travel together."

And the athletes - do any of them try to put their rivals off? "Never. They're competing against gravity, as much as each other. Whoever beats gravity wins."

The competition restarts. Vaulter after vaulter fails. Russia's Tatyana Polnova rolls away from the metre-deep landing bed, clutching her bloodied nose. "She's broken that," says Steve, grimly.

Dennison waits for her first attempt at 4.55m, just three centimetres below her British record. If she clears this, she'll be guaranteed to finish in the top eight - a big achievement in her first major final.

"GO ON DENNO!" bellow the four men, clapping rhythmically as she sprints down the runway. The bar crashes down.

Rippon sits back down with a grimace. "No! That's a big missed opportunity." Now it's Lewis's turn to shout at Dennison. Having been deputed to watch her take-off stride, he's spotted that she was leaning back a fraction as she came in. The momentum that she lost cost her the clearance.

In the background is the familiar figure of double Olympic champion Yelena Isinbayeva, lying by her poles. Having cleared 4.70m in her warm-up, she is yet to enter the competition. Face hidden under a white cap, swathed in a red Russia tracksuit, she appears to be asleep.

Dennison steps into position again, her hands checking the glue on the grip and then her fingers. "Come on..." mutters Rippon, and then whoops with delight as she goes clear.

"Rock on!" The adrenaline is surging through him again. "I'd take that!" he shouts at Lewis. "Start a rain dance!"

The bar goes up to 4.65m, seven centimetres higher than Dennison has ever cleared before.

GB pole vaulter Kate Dennison in action in Berlin

Rippon has a list in his hand which details which of the eight poles that Kate has with her she should use at each height. While each pole is the same length, the grips are in different places. There is also variation in how much flex each pole gives.

At this height, the plan is to use a stiffer pole to give her maximum elevation. Dennison, however, has decided to stick with a softer one, and Rippon is extremely agitated. "She's not convinced she needs the stiffer one," he scowls.

Lewis too looks anxious. "Come on Kate!" he shouts. Dennison tears down the track and then, just before planting the pole, drops it and runs through onto the mat.

"DON'T DO THAT!" roars Rippon. He runs down the steps and leans over the advertising hoardings. "Come on!" he bellows, clenching his fist at Dennison's back.

He is now both fuming and highly stressed. "She is not going to get it on that pole," he tells Lewis angrily. "If I could get close to her, I'd get right up here. Now is the time she has to gamble."

Dennison tries again. Again she fails to get even close to the bar. Without looking up at her coach, she walks back to her bag and flops down, covering her legs with a towel.

Rippon slumps back in his seat. "She's going to do what she wants," he warns Lewis. "I can tell you what's going to happen - she's going to blow through that third jump, and then say she should have used the other pole."

Lewis nods. "She's not even looking," he says.

Rippon shakes his head. "She doesn't want to look." The adrenaline has dumped him right back down. "She's gone. I think she's achieved whatever her personal goal was."

When Dennison rises for her final attempt, so does the entire support team. Rippon is suddenly back up, the testosterone surging. "LET'S GO KATE!" he shouts, his voice hoarse.

It is no use. She gets only halfway through her vault before abandoning. The four men stay on their feet, now applauding their beaten charge.

There is pride on Rippon's face, along with the disappointment. Dennison has ended in seventh. A few minutes later she is boosted a place as IIsinbayeva fails to clear a single mark and finishes a shock last.

As the drama dies down, Rippon becomes more reflective. He knows that his athlete has done well. She has added 18cm to her personal best in a year, broken the British record eight times indoors and outdoors and continued the progression that he hopes will have her in medal contention by London 2012.

"It takes a special person to stand out there and go through what she has," he says. "It's impossible to overstate how much courage and commitment and concentration it takes to do that."

He waves at Dennison as she trudges out of the arena. When she finally looks up he jabs at his ankle and wobbles his hand from side to side. She gives him the thumbs-up and walks on. "I was worried she'd hurt her Achilles again," he explains.

Tomorrow he will upload the video footage to his laptop and hers. They will go through it separately and then come together to share thoughts and analyse.

"I'm up at 6.30am," he grins, as I head off. "Where's the bloke who sells beer?"


  • Comment number 1.

    As a kids cricket coach it is hard enough to stand as an umpire in their game and contain yourself. The pressure of a world champs is immense on the whole team. What it will be like for team Dennison at London 2012 is hard to imagine. Thanks for the insight and good luck to them...

  • Comment number 2.

    A fascinating insight - these blogs from the World Championships have been the finest sports journalism on here for ages. Please can we have more like it for other sports.

  • Comment number 3.

    I was gripped reading this from start to finish, why can't more blogs be like this, I read yesterday that 40% of twitters are drivel, I would say 40% of Blogs are pointless. This was concise creative and interesting keep it up Tom.

    Are you going to be at the Oval?

  • Comment number 4.

    A great insight to a day in the life of a coach and a performer.

    However I fail to understand why she wasn't willing to take the opinion of her coach on board with the stiffer pole. As for the personal goal having been hit, I think her psychologist has something to answer for.

  • Comment number 5.

    In last nights ladies 100m final it looked to me like Kerron Stewart put her whole foot in Shelly- Ann Fraser’s lane just before they both crossed the line. Did anybody else see that?

  • Comment number 6.

    To martinbrando, there are a dozen or so threads for your post - not this one, thanks. Now, don't be a bore and slink off elsewhere - ta!

  • Comment number 7.

    Yes - Kerron Stewart actually looked like she finished more in Shelly-Ann Fraser's lane than her own. However, this would only result in a DQ on a 100m if she impeded her compatriot. Since Fraser won and wasn't knocked/put off ect. there was no infringement. However, if this was on a 200m/400m race with bends (and hence effectively running a shorter race), she probably would have been disqualified if spotted by the judges.

  • Comment number 8.

    magic/blam/ham - glad you enjoyed it. Was fantastic sitting at the heart of it all.

    typhoon - you're right about Stewart. No advantage, no DQ.

  • Comment number 9.

    Meant to say too - if there's anything else like this you'd be interested in reading about, drop me a line here and I'll try to sort it out. All suggestions welcome...

  • Comment number 10.

    very good blog..thanks. it is always so much more interesting to sit with the coaches at these meets...and smaller ones. Kate Dennison (..and team) have really had a great season...if she can get over 4.60 before the end of the season then she should be world-ranked which would be very impressive. Not to be under-estimated is the effect that her performances have on other younger vaulters in the UK. Now, let's hope that Steve Lewis can do as well when he vaults. he has not been nearly as consistent as Kate has this year but maybe he will be a big event performer too..He will need 5.70 to get into the final i would think..but he certainly can do it.

  • Comment number 11.

    Blam11, you read that 40% of twitters are drivel? I'd put that figure much higher. The same with blogs.

    Great blog though Tom.

    It's odd to read about what happened when the bar went up to 4.65. I remember feeling like that sometimes in high-jump competitions. You fail a height badly and all of a sudden you know that you're going to fail the next jump at that height, even if you refuse to believe it. You can psych yourself up and hate the bar all you like as you aggressively charge in, but something inside your head has clicked. The bar has won — your mind is no longer focused enough on getting the routine and technique right. For some reason I though that international athletes would have a way to avoid the situation, or would be so mentally tough it doesn't affect them. Maybe a sports psychologist should be added to team Dennison.

  • Comment number 12.

    Great read, well done. I'm a full time coach for a University hockey team and recognise the feelings shown by the coach, it's a roller coaster of emotion at any level of competition.

    Good to see he understands his role in the process of the athlete; ocaches can only offer support and guidance, the athlete delivers at the end of the day!

  • Comment number 13.

    Hi Tom. This was most facinating - a good read.

    Could you do your next one from the physios room? As a sports therapist who has only recently graduated, I have ambitions of being part of the team in a major champinships and would be interested to hear the experiences from this perspective.

    Thanks. Well done on a great blog.

  • Comment number 14.

    That was a great read, you could just imagine the intensity on Rippins face! Good work Mr Fordyce!

  • Comment number 15.


    Sorry! :o(

  • Comment number 16.

    Those world Championship insights have been great!!!
    Such a different perspecitve on sport: refreshing and eye opening. Please keep it coming!

    Can the BBc do the same for Rugby?

  • Comment number 17.

    Notwithstanding the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" I'm not sure that Kratovilova can be held up as a poster-girl for athletics.
    Can you tell us anything about a Nikki Hamblin Britrish born lass representing NZ in the women's 800m & 1500m? What sort of record does she have in the UK?


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