Lavillenie: “Pole vault is so much fun I built a runway in my garden”

Few athletes enjoyed such a dominant 2012, and even fewer, at 26, are poised to become a legend in their sport. But as SPIKES finds out, Renaud Lavillenie has more important things on his mind: like having fun.

image

Anything Harting can do… Lavillenie commandeers a buggy after winning gold in London

“Find Greatness Within” is the advertising slogan of one of the world’s leading cognac brands. And for one famous son of the French town of Cognac, it is a motto fit for his career.

It is said that it takes around five decades for Cognac’s brandy drink to reach its best yet for Lavillenie, the Olympic champion, it has taken around half that time. 

Already leading the world indoor rankings this season with an impressive 5.92m in Rouen, the 26-year-old appears to be at the very peak of his powers. But the Frenchman doesn’t think any of his success could have been achieved without a genuine love for vaulting, passed on to him by his father, Gilles.

“My father was a coach at the local athletics club and also a 4.41m vaulter,” says Lavillenie. “My first memory of the pole vault was jumping with my father aged seven. He gave me the opportunity to start my passion and to do the best that I could.”

“Remember, aged 21, I was far from the best,” he says. “The most important thing was, I took pleasure from pole vaulting. I have pole vault in my blood. It is a great feeling to fly over the bar for those few seconds.”

Lavillenie has a rare ability to translate his childlike enthusiasm to the elite stage with great success. In fact, he even manages to bring the elite stage to his own back garden: where he has built a pole vault runway.

“I don’t train there, I just play at the pole vault,” he says. “It was my dream to have a lot of fun at home for many years. Sometimes I might vault there three times a week, other times only once every two weeks.”

The fun really started to pay dividends in 2009 when Lavillenie showed off his world-class credentials by improving his outdoor personal best from a respectable 5.65m to a national record 6.01m. 

He then landed gold at the European Indoor Championships and bronze at the World Championships in Berlin, behind Australia’s Steve Hooker.

In 2010 the Frenchman took the European outdoor crown; retained his indoor continental title in the spring of 2011, and secured a second successive world outdoor bronze later that year.

image

The only way is up: winning European outdoor gold in Barcelona, 2010

But it was the 2012 season that proved his pièce de résistance. Competing from February to October he won 16 out of 20 competitions, taking gold at the world indoors; European outdoors and the Olympics.

He has even been labelled a “beast” by fellow vaulter Holly Bleasdale, the British women’s champion.

So will it be more of the same for the dominant Lavillenie in 2013? Not quite. He surprised many by ditching his long-term coach Damien Inocencio last autumn, to team up with Philippe d’Encausse, twice an Olympic pole vault finalist.

“It was a hard decision but it is what I needed,” says Lavillenie. “After four months together and some good competitions, I have the proof that this is a good choice. I spent four years with Damien and I got the feeling it is what I needed. I am not training alone with Phillipe [unlike he did with Damien Inocencio].

“I train with four guys and that’s a good thing for my training in general. I’m working a lot more on the runway, especially the mechanical aspects, and also trying to be more energy efficient at take-off.”

The one major title missing from Lavillenie’s collection is up for grabs at in Moscow this summer, but he remains typically relaxed about it.

“Like all the competitions, I go to have pleasure, be the best that I can, and never give up until the last attempt.”

And if he wins, will he celebrate afterwards with a glass or two of cognac? You’re more likely to find him playing in his back garden.

“Sorry, I don’t drink a lot,” he says. “Not even to celebrate winning the Olympics.”

There’ll be no brandy for Lavillenie but perhaps the locals will be able to make a toast to world championship gold in August? Few would bet against it.