2001 – Stacy Dragila:
Women didn’t pole vault when Dragila was growing up, so her athletic career meandered from gymnastics to rodeo, then finally to track and field in high school, where she had her best success as a hurdler. She eventually evolved into a heptathlete and didn’t begin vaulting until she was a college junior, at which point she promptly set a U.S. women’s record when she cleared all of 10 feet. Dragila quickly became a pioneer of the women’s pole vault, winning the first-ever women’s World Indoor championship in 1997, outdoor World Championship in 1999 and Olympic gold medal in 2000.
Dragila began an assault on the record book in 2001, breaking the indoor world mark four times, beginning at the Millrose Games, where she cleared 4.63 meters (15 feet, 2¼ inches). A week later she improved the mark to 4.65/15-3. She then extended her record twice at the Golden Spike Invitational in Idaho, clearing 4.66/15-3½ and 4.70/15-5. The only downside to her indoor campaign was a fourth-place finish at the World Indoor Championships.
With the indoor record book battered sufficiently, Dragila turned to the outdoor mark. She broke it twice in an April meet near her home in Idaho, leaping 4.65, then 4.70. She repeated her feat at the U.S Open in June, clearing 4.71/15-5½, then 4.81/15-9¼. At the World Championships, both Dragila and Svetlana Feofanova cleared 4.75/15-7, but the American won her second consecutive title on fewer misses. Dragila also won the U.S. indoor and outdoor titles, the Goodwill Games and the Grand Prix final that season.
2002 – Paula Radcliffe:
The British distance runner was transitioning to the marathon in 2002, but she still won at a variety of distances. Paula Radcliffe’s
victories included her second straight World Cross Country Championship in the long race, as well as the Commonwealth Games 5000 meters and the European Championship 10,000 meters. Most notably, however, Radcliffe won her first-ever marathon, in London, in 2:18:56, just nine seconds behind Catherine Ndereba’s world record. In the fall Radcliffe won the Chicago Marathon in a world record 2:17:18. She went on to set the current world mark
(as of 2012) the next year, though the performance later generated some controversy because she was assisted by a male pacesetter. Unusually, Radcliffe was the only runner to earn a female Athlete of the Year honor in the 5-year period from 2001-05, with the other four awards going to jumpers.
2003 – Hestrie Cloete:
The South African dominated high jumping in 2003. At the time when Cloete was given the Athlete of the Year award, in September, she’d won 22 of 26 meets that year. Cloete won her second consecutive World Championship in 2003, topping every height on her first attempt up through her personal best clearance of 2.06/6-9. At that time, only two other women had ever jumped higher, world record-holder Stefka Kostadinova (2.09/6-10¼) and Lyudmila Andonova (2.07/6-9½). Cloete also won the initial IAAF World Athletic Final at Monaco, clearing 2.01/6-7.
2004-05 – Yelena Isinbayeva:
Like Dragila, Yelena Isinbayeva
started as a gymnast. She left the sport on the recommendation of her gymnastics coach at age 15, when she grew too tall. Her remarkable run of record-breaking performances began in 2004, a year in which she won the World Indoor championship, the Olympic gold medal the World Athletics Final. She broke the indoor world mark twice in a February meet in Donetsk, clearing 4.81/15-9¼ and 4.83/15-10. She then lost the record to fellow Russian Svetlana Feofanova, but took it back with a 4.86/15-11¼ performance at the World Indoors. Isinbayeva soon established her first outdoor record at 4.87/15-11¾. She was again edged by Feofanova, and again took it back, improving it twice more before the Olympics, where she bumped the mark up to 4.91/16-1¼. She then enjoyed her eighth record-breaking vault of the year, clearing 4.92/16-1¾ in Brussels.
The next year was similar, as she improved her indoor and outdoor world marks five times each. The indoor record moved up a centimeter at a time, from 4.87 in Donetsk to 4.91 in Madrid. She broke the outdoor record twice in Lausanne, then once in Madrid. Isinbayeva reached the 5-meter milestone (16-4¾) in London, then cleared 5.01/16-5¼ to win the World Championship in Helsinki. In 2009 Isinbayeva went on to set the indoor and outdoor marks that still stand, entering 2012.