Today, a statement that women don’t make good pole vaulters would seem absurd. For most of the 20th century, however, the track and field establishment took it for granted that women weren’t suited for an event that combined speed, strength and efficient body control. Then, in the last decade of the century, women began proving that the conventional wisdom was actually unwise. As a result, the sport of women’s vaulting rose quickly from non-existent to accepted to appreciated throughout the track and field world.
The IAAF began recognizing a women’s pole vaulting world record in 1992, when China’s Sun Caiyun cleared 4.05 meters (13 feet, 3¼ inches). The record remained on the books until 1995, when the sport’s increasing acceptance led to a steady improvement in the quality of women’s vaulting. The women’s mark fell 15 times in 1995, then was improved at least twice each year through 2001.
Sun and another Chinese competitor, Zhong Guiqing, both leaped 4.08/13-4½ in May of 1995, but Daniela Bartova of the Czech Republic improved the mark to 4.10/13-5¼ just three days later. Like many of her contemporaries, Bartova moved to vaulting from another sport, in her case gymnastics. She improved her record six more times in June and July of 1995, reaching 4.17/13-8 on July 15. Germany’s Andrea Muller interrupted Bartova’s reign briefly, by clearing 4.18/13-8½ in August, but Bartova returned to the record books two weeks later with a jump measuring 4.20/13-9½. Bartova improved the mark twice more during the year, peaking at 4.22/13-10.
Australia’s Emma George, who formerly did acrobatic feats for a circus troupe, dominated women’s vaulting in the late ‘90s. She broke Bartova’s record in November of 1995 by clearing 4.25/13-11¼. As a result, the women’s pole vault record increased by one-fifth of a meter – eight full inches – during the year. George, the first woman to clear the 14- and 15-foot barriers, improved the mark 10 more times through February 1999, topping out at 4.60/15-1.
Dragila Rises to the Top
American Stacy Dragila picked up the torch as the top woman vaulter in the late 1990s and continued her reign into the 21st century. An all-around athlete who participated in events such as running, hurdling, cross-country skiing and volleyball, Dragila didn’t begin vaulting until she was in college. She developed her technique at Idaho State in the mid-1990s, then became the first women’s pole vault gold medalist at the World Indoor Championships (1997), the outdoor World Championships (1999) and the Olympics (2000). Dragila tied George’s record in 1999 by clearing 4.60 at the World Championships, then took the record for her own with a leap of 4.61/15-1½ in 2000. The latter mark was set indoors, following an IAAF rules change that recognized indoor vaults for overall world record purposes. Dragila improved her mark twice in 2000, reaching 4.63/15-2¼.
Svetlana Feofanova of Russia edged past Dragila by clearing 4.64/15-2½ indoors on Feb. 11, 2001, but Dragila took it back with an indoor vault of 4.66/15-3¼ six days later. Dragila matched or beat her record four more times in 2001, including an outstanding performance in California in June when she improved her mark by 1 millimeter, then had the bar set a full centimeter higher and cleared that height as well, setting her 10th world record with a jump measuring 4.81/15-9¼.
The Isinbayeva Era
Dragila’s record stood for two years, until a former Russian gymnast took the crown – Yelena Isinbayeva. The 21-year-old cleared 4.82/15-9¾ in 2003 to set the first of her many world records. She improved the record to 4.83/15-10 indoors on Feb. 15, 2004, then Feofanova increased it to 4.85/15-10¾, also indoors, one week later. Isinbayeva answered the challenge by topping 4.86/15-11¼ to win the World Indoor Championship, then cleared 4.87/15-11½ outdoors, in June. Feofanova broke the mark for the third time on July 4, leaping 4.88/16-0 to become the first 16-foot women’s vaulter. On July 25 it was Isinbayeva’s turn as she cleared 4.89/16-½. She improved her record three more times that year, including a 4.91/16-1¼ gold medal performance at the 2004 Olympics and a 4.92/16-1½ effort in September.
Isinbayeva improved the record five times in 2005. She broke it twice at a London meet in July that included the first-ever 5-meter vault (5.00/16-4¾). Isinbayeva closed the year by winning the outdoor World Championships in Helsinki with a world-record vault of 5.01/16-5. She failed to top 5.02/16-5½ several times during the next two years, so she decided to change things up in 2008 and successfully cleared 5.03/16-6 in Rome. She improved the mark twice more that year, eventually vaulting 5.05/16-6¾ to win the 2008 Olympic gold medal. She set her 17th and final overall world mark in Zurich in 2009, clearing 5.06/16-7. Along the way, Isinbayeva also set 13 indoor world records, some of which doubled as the sport’s overall mark. In March of 2013, American Jenn Suhr broke Isinbayeva’s indoor world record by clearing 5.02 at the U.S. Indoor Championships.