by Young Reporter Thiam Peng Tan
The first thing that strikes you upon meeting Yelena Isinbayeva is how sweet the Russian pole vaulter is.
For all the world records and distinguished accolades, the two-time Olympic gold medalist, who has 27 world records to her name, is one of the most adorable and down-to-earth human beings you can find. She is here in Singapore as one of the three Youth Olympic Games Ambassadors.
“Six years”, amidst incessant giggling, was the overdue reply after taking what seemed like ages to count how long it took her to break her first world mark.
Asked about her first meeting with fellow pole-vaulting legend Sergey Bubka, she turned into a hyperactive fangirl, describing in animated detail how she had once sought a photograph with him at Sydney 2000.
All this recounted with the Ukranian seated beside, at the Chat with Champions in the Youth Olympic Village on Tuesday.
The two superstars met young athletes in the sharing session after she had participated in several Culture and Education activities on Monday during her informal visit.
The Isinbayeva we usually know is the one with a pole in her hand. Focused. Ready. Even scary.
Bubka couldn’t have said it better if he was a prophet, “I saw her great potential for the future.” Facing more than a hundred athletes and asked to speak, Isinbayeva was in jitters and gushed, “I’m a little nervous.”
When she had settled, her dedication showed.“Sacrifices,” she said, were her biggest challenge, because “all my life as a young girl was sacrificed for sports. And all of you must do it too.”
Her pre-competition routine includes staying alone in her room the night before, not doing anything at all. “I focus on myself. I imagine.” She imagines her best jump. She imagines looking over the bar as if she has cleared it.
The two-time Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year and three-time IAAF World Athlete of the Year holds the honour of being the first woman to clear the holy five-metre mark.
But it was not all smooth sailing. Last year, Isinbayeva lost twice, including at the World Championships in Berlin. “I cried two days after the Berlin defeat last year. I couldn’t believe it.”
“Winning, not so hard. Breaking records, a little harder. I thought I could do it forever. So I was relaxing and wasn’t 100 per cent focused.
“When I was looking at the new world champion from a lower position (on the podium), I realized how important it was to be a world champion. I want to be first. Losing once, maybe an accident. Twice, no. I wanted to be the best again.
“I took a break, went out, and did everything I like. I had a lot of ice cream. It brings me happiness. There was no pressure from the people around me.”
Isinbayeva rewrote the pole vault mark to 5.06 metres just eleven days later. “There is so much I can achieve. It took me a defeat to realize this.”
Talking on her Ambassador role she said, “Make friends and learn about each other’s culture. When you go home, share with others what you learnt here. After this, you are young ambassadors of sports.”
And on her own career she commented, “I hope to set world records that will stay forever.”