Craig Salmon talks to Team GB pole vaulter Holly Bradshaw ahead of this summer’s Rio Olympics
Making that small step up onto the medal podium inside the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro this summer would be a dream come true for Euxton pole vaulter Holly Bradshaw.
But just being able to compete alongside the world’s best athletes at this summer’s Games should also signal the closure of a traumatic few years for the 24-year-old and hopefully herald a bright new future.
Having burst onto the world scene just over four years ago when she cleared an incredible 4.87m at an indoor meeting in Villeurbanne, France, Bradshaw has long been tipped for greatness.
That particular vault placed her third on the indoor all-time list behind greats Yelena Isinbayeva, of Russia, and the USA’s Jenni Suhr.
And with the London 2012 Games just a matter of months away, Bradshaw – who was then competing under her maiden name of Bleasdale – was highly fancied to win an Olympic medal.
Unfortunately, she was unable to produce the same sort of form in England’s capital, but still managed a respectable sixth-placed finish with 4.45m, as Suhr claimed gold.
Having achieved so much, so young, it was expected the Team GB star would push on over the following few years and achieve great things.
But barring a brilliant gold medal at the 2013 European Championships, in Gothenburg, Bradshaw has seen her career cruelly interrupted by a debilitating back injury.
The condition cut short her outdoor season three years ago and when she tried to make a comeback the following year, she broke down again.
Having undergone surgery and several rehabilitation programmes, it was only last summer that she managed a return to competition.
She proved that her long lay-off had not erased any of her ability to compete at the highest level.
A jump of 4.55m saw her attain the qualifying standard for last year’s World Championships at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, China.
Despite finishing outside the medals, Bradshaw managed to post an excellent mark of 4.70m to secure a seventh-place finish overall.
That clearance was only a centimetre below her personal best outdoors – set in 2012 – and has handed her a huge amount of confidence heading into Olympic year.
Now back to full fitness, Bradshaw is hoping the dark days of the last few years – when she even contemplated her future in the sport – are firmly behind her.
“It’s been very difficult the last few years,” said Bradshaw, who returned to her old school, Parklands High, in Southport Road, this week to give a talk to a group of gifted and talented Year Eight pupils.
“There’s been a lot of lows and not too many highs. There have been times when I have questioned myself as to whether it is all really worth it.
“I was putting my life on hold and all I was doing was getting knock back after knock back after knock back.
“But the World Championships in Beijing last year were so special for me.
“To come seventh after the terrible year that I had – I had two surgeries that year – was just fantastic.
“To do something like that is what I do this sport for – it’s what I live for.
“It’s definitely given me a huge amount of confidence going forward for this year.”
Bradshaw, who is based in Cardiff, has a lot of fond memories from the last time she competed at an Olympic Games and is excited about what lies in store for her in Rio.
“When I think back to how amazing London was, it just gets me excited for Rio,” she said.
“My memories from London are of an amazing atmosphere where everybody was just getting involved.
“It just nothing like anything else I have experienced.
“Everybody loves the Olympics.
“You have got all the sports coming together and the spectators just get behind you.
“I just remember feeling constantly happy and excited, but also nervous.
“I just loved every single minute and the thought of competing at the Olympics just gets me super excited.”
Finishing sixth at the last Games was certainly a creditable result for Bradshaw, who at the time was still several months short of her 21st birthday.
But was she disappointed that she was unable to add her name to the list of British Olympians to win a medal on home soil?
“I was happy to finish sixth,” she said.
“I think there were a mixture of emotions.
“There was also relief that I got to the final.
“There were a lot of people saying that I was going to win a medal.
“I think it’s easy for people to underestimate how hard it is to win a medal.
“The media like to say things like, ‘You’ve jumped this height or you’ve run this fast and that would have won the Olympics for the last 12 years.’
“But it’s always very different when you get out there in the middle of an Olympics and everybody is fighting for medals.
“It’s the biggest stage for an athlete and people get nervous or anxious.
“The Olympics is always a different ball game and when you’re out there, it’s anybody’s game.”
As one of the home favourites four years ago, Bradshaw did feel a weight of expectation was on her shoulders.
She feels that she will be carrying a little less burden in Rio, although the pressure will still be on.
“There was a lot of pressure at London,” she added.
“The winter before I had obviously had a really good indoor season.
“I jumped 4.87m and I was clearing 4.70m consistently outdoors during that summer.
“There was that pressure from people who were saying if I jumped that at the Olympics, I would be getting a medal.
“But I think people forgot that it was my first Olympic Games – it was my first major championships outside.
“Add to the fact that it was a home Olympics – it was very overwhelming.
“But I have learned so much from the experience.
“I have learned just to be a more professional athlete and how to manage stress and pressure.
“It’s funny – I walked into Glover’s Bakery the other day while I’ve been home and the women behind the counter said, ‘You’re that Olympian aren’t you? You’re definitely going to win gold this year’.
“The thing is every time somebody says that you have to deal with that expectation.
“You have to put all that in perspective and channel it – hopefully I can do that in Rio
“I feel like I have got a really good chance of competing for medals.
“There’s probably six or seven girls who maybe have the potential to win a medal, including myself.
“But for me to be successful, it’s all about me being the ultimate competitor on the day and trying to fight all the way for one of those medals.
“I definitely feel like a medal is in me.
“Gold would be a dream come true and you never know what might happen on the day.
“It could be windy, it could be rainy – the conditions might suit one athlete over another.
“Somebody might get injured before the event.
“With pole vaulting you just never know.
“My aspiration is to go to Rio and just focus on the process of jumping technically well and dealing with the pressure.
“If I can focus on myself, be in the zone – hopefully that will equate to a medal.”
There is a chance that one of Bradshaw’s main rivals may not go to Rio.
Double Olympic champion Isinbayeva and the current world record holder may not be able to reclaim her Olympic crown she last won in 2008.
The Russian athletics federation was barred from international competition in November after a World Anti-Doping Agency report revealed a state-sponsored doping programme being operated in the country under the supervision of the country’s secret service.
As it stands Isinbayeva, who will be 34 at the time of the Olympics, will miss out on the opportunity to compete at her fourth Olympics, despite having never tested positive for drugs.
She is also not implicated in the Russian doping abuses detailed by WADA.
If Isinbayeva does not go to the Olympics, it will certainly make Bradshaw’s route to a possible medal position easier.
However, the Euxton ace will feel slightly disappointed that she will not get the chance to compete against her.
“I don’t really think about whether her absence will help me.
“To be honest, I like competing against the best like Isinbayeva.
“Competing against the best in the world is why I am doing this sport. I feel like it makes me step up and helps me perform at that level.
“I don’t really have an opinion on it.
“I just hope that the right people in the right places are doing the right thing to move the sport on”
Holly Bradshaw is supported by the Sky Academy Sports Scholarship scheme, helping young athletes fulfil their potential on the international stage and achieve their goals for Rio 2016: skysports.com/scholarship