Jenn Suhr tells SPIKES how she won the mental battle to crack Isinbayeva’s record, and why she’s the underdog in Moscow.
As the ultimate risk takers in athletics, it is hard to think of any pole vaulter as being cautious. Yet the USA’s Olympic champion Jenn Suhr can be just that. And it took harsh words from her husband and coach, Rick, to help shake-off any complacency and propel her to a new world indoor record of 5.02m earlier this month.
Talking exclusively to SPIKES, a little out of breath after just stepping off the bike (world record holders never stop), Suhr explains: “Rick told me I’d not been reaching my potential to go up to the next level. At first I thought it was a harsh statement and I got a little bit angry.
"But when I sat back, it was true. I was not reaching my potential. I was only looking to win the meet but if I wanted to jump higher, I had to take more chances.
"I couldn’t always play safe, jump every height and play the 5cm game. It was time to break through that plateau I had reached.”
In short, Suhr, 31, needed to gamble to scale the heights that, up until that point, only Russian great Yelena Isinbayeva had scaled before.
Emboldened by her new attitude, Suhr set about approaching training in a more aggressive, positive manner. She managed to iron out some technical faults but it was a new psychological approach that helped bring about real change.
“Throughout the years I’ve always known it [the world record] was a possibility, but I’ve never put things together at meets or really believed it,” says Suhr. “It was a mental thing.”
New name, new hair: Jenn Suhr, the vaulter formerly known as Jenn Stuczynski, speaks to the press in 2011.
This winter, such was her confidence, she could pinpoint the moment she knew she would break the record.
“The week before the nationals I jumped 4.84m at a small meet in Indianapolis. It wasn’t the height I jumped, but the height and clearance over the bar that showed me it was possible.”
One week later, possibility turned into reality at the US Indoor Championships in Albuquerque, where Suhr put together her perfect competition.
With first time clearances at 4.65m, 4.70m, 4.80m and 4.90m (at that point her best ever indoor jump) she was in the zone. With her next vault she gently brushed the bar and cleared 5.02m, becoming only the second woman in history to break the five-metre barrier.
“It is nice to be a world record holder but especially nice to take the record from someone who was so dominant, too,” she says. “It was such a well-documented world record, and that’s what makes it so special.”
Spot the difference: Suhr and Isinbayeva on the Olympic medal podium in 2008, and again in 2012.
Not bad for a woman who only took up pole vault nine years ago, after Rick Suhr spotted Jenn Stuczynski on the basketball court and persuaded her to give it a go.
They stuck together on and off the track, marrying in January 2010. Jenn is fulsome in her praise of the man who has guided her pole vault career from the outset.
“I was lucky to find Rick as my coach because I was taught the right habits from the word go,” says Suhr, who trains in a makeshift indoor facility built by Rick in their back garden in Riga, New York state.
“I didn’t have to re-learn any bad habits. His understanding of the vault is unique. He can coach diet, speed, technique and strength and conditioning. I don’t do anything in my training that is not going to help me jump higher.”
With both the men’s and women’s pole vault coming to the fore this winter, outdoor competition is set to sizzle: with Suhr taking on Isinbayeva in her own backyard.
It could well be one of the highlights of the Moscow World Championships, although the American is keen to downplay talk of a head-to-head confrontation.
“I’m not counting my chickens, as first I have to qualify for the team at the US nationals,” she says. “I also think any time you go to someone’s country and take them on, you are instantly the underdog.
"The way I look at it is: there’s going to be 12 people in the final and all those girls are striving for the same goals and the same position. There is not just one person to worry about.”
Maybe not, but after winning Olympic gold last summer, and setting a world record in the indoor season, you can bet that more than one finalist will be worrying about the six-foot tall American in the Russian capital. Whether she likes it or not, Suhr is the woman to beat.