by Angelica Bengtsson

When I was in the box, it felt like I was there forever.

It was shortly after my third attempt at 4.80m in the world pole vault final last year, and I was lying in the box where we plant our poles, my competition over – or so I thought.

I had been in that position twice before – once in 2006, once in 2008 – and both times, it happened because I dropped my grip on the pole during the jump. It ended with me falling backwards off the mattress and sliding down into that box. Both those times, the pole hit my knee when it straightened after release and it was painful – it cracked a bone once.

This time, however, I was fine.

It was just a few scratches, but as I lay there I realised the audience in Doha probably thought I was hurt. I had to show them I wasn’t, so I got to my feet and gave them a wave. It took a few moments to realise what had actually happened during the jump.

I’ve been pole vaulting since I was a child and in all those years, I had only broken a pole once. That happened in training from a very short approach and I landed in the mattress.

It had never happened in competition – but there’s a first time for everything.  

Angelica Bengtsson ()

The pole must have been broken. That’s the only explanation I could think of because it was a stiff pole, the kind I couldn’t break just by force. That can happen in our event. It’s easy to get a little scratch on the pole if it’s dropped on a stone, or maybe I stepped on in by accident with my spikes at some point.

Either way, it gave out at the wrong time – during the most important jump of the year.

I went into that final hoping for a medal. I jumped 4.81m indoors so I felt I had 4.80m in me and normally that’s enough to get on the podium at the World Championships. I only cleared 4.70m on my third attempt that night but the way I cleared it made me think the next height was achievable.

I really, really wanted to get over 4.80m but that made me try too hard, which destroyed my technique. During those jumps I almost accepted it: this is not going to happen.

We decided to switch to a stiffer pole, one I had used only once before – when I cleared 4.81m indoors.

But before that third attempt, I noticed something: the pole I had cleared 4.70m with was gone. It didn’t matter at the time, but moments later it would.

In field events, the rule is that you’re always allowed another attempt, if the equipment breaks and that was something the judge reminded me of when I climbed out of the box. My competition wasn’t over.

But that’s when the stress started.

The judge told me I had to jump right away. To be honest, I wouldn’t blame them if they had put on the timer but they actually gave me a minute to get my pole. I was thankful for that because I needed it.

Angelica Bengtsson ()

When I got back, I couldn’t find it anywhere. There was one spare pole on the ground that everybody kept pointing to, but that had another girl’s name on it.

Eventually I spoke to the French girl, Ninon Guillon-Romarin, whose name was on the pole on the ground. She was shocked it was hers – she also thought it was mine – and said that must mean she had one of my poles. She went to check her bag and there it was.

She handed it to me and I hurried back to the runway – one last try at 4.80m.

If I’m honest, at that point I had accepted the competition was over. I thought the judges would tell me I had taken too much time, that my fourth attempt wouldn’t count.

This pole was smaller and softer than the one that broke and I knew if I went into it with all my force, it would be too soft to get me over. In those moments before the jump, I was aware the adrenaline was high, so I took a step back mentally and told myself I don’t have to make a big effort here.

“Just relax, let nature do its thing and make the most beautiful jump I can ever do.”

Angelica Bengtsson ()

I took off down the runway and instead of pushing forward with all my force, I took time to get high with my running and go through all the movements properly.

I had already accepted I was out, so I just wanted to show how beautifully I can jump.

But I made it over, breaking the Swedish outdoor record. The feeling in that moment was quite extraordinary, and very surreal.

As it turned out, it wasn’t enough for a medal on the day – that needed at least 4.85m. But the way things played out, it was a good lesson about what’s still possible, even during those times when your mind tells you it’s not.