Isobel Pooley, Britain’s former high-jump record-holder who missed the Rio Olympic Games because of injury, talks in depth to sports writer Paul McNamara about how she plans to resurrect her career – and break the two-metre barrier. During the course of a no-holds-barred interview she admits she threw herself into her sport to the detriment of a normal personal life
Isobel Pooley touched her physical limits as she strove to compete in this summer’s Olympic Games. She lapsed into self-denial, unwilling to accept what her body was telling her. Because Isobel Pooley defined herself by her profession. A Commonwealth Games silver medal-winning high-jumper two years ago, the woman who toppled one of the longest standing records in British athletics when she leapt 1.96 metres in 2014, Pooley had plotted her course to Rio. It was one designed to end with her returning home with a gold medal to validate a decade’s worth of dedication and sheer hard graft. Instead, Pooley would experience a Brazilian adventure far-removed from the one she had planned. And her summer reaped something far more precious than an Olympic medal.
On July 6 this year Isobel Pooley limped through the high-jump qualifying competition at the European Championships. It was 43 days before her event was timetabled in Rio. A stress fracture of her ankle, diagnosed following her participation in the Prefontaine Classic Diamond League meeting in Oregon in late May, had prevented Pooley from competing in June’s British Championships.
But she couldn’t allow her Rio dream to slip away, not without going to the European competition in Holland to try and qualify for the Olympics. “I had been having discomfort, but I didn’t realise what the implications would be further down the line,” Pooley recalls of her injury’s onset. “We did everything we could to qualify for Rio, including competing in the European Championships – which, in itself, was a great experience, although marred significantly by being so anxious about my physical ability to compete.”
Pooley jumped only 1.85 metres on what would be her last competitive outing of the summer, and in what was an ultimately futile pursuit of the 1.93 metres required to become an Olympian. “Initially when you feel pain as an athlete, you want to resist it,” she says. “You want to fight it. That leads to denial in many cases. And ultimately that’s not constructive, because your physios and your coach need to know exactly how you’re feeling in order to help you.
“At the European Championships I was totally honest with everybody. But I had to be honest with myself, primarily, and say, ‘If I can’t do it then that’s a reality I will have to face up to … and there can be no avoiding it anymore. If I’m going to have to make this painful decision I’d rather get it over with’. So when I came back to the UK, a week before Olympic selection, I knew I wasn’t going to be in the picture. I actually made an effort to remove myself from the process before the announcement came out so nobody was looking for my name on the list. I knew it wasn’t going to be there.”
Pooley became spellbound by the high jump ten years ago as a 13-year-old. On clearing a bar in a PE lesson she discovered a sport that fitted both her imposing frame and her single-minded personality. “At school I always wanted to do sport – but I was 6ft tall by about 13,” she says. “I was so hopelessly uncoordinated that I was a liability, rather than an asset, to any sport team. I was OK at cross-country running, but high jump was the first time it really all clicked. Having that individual element, after the bad experience of being picked last for every team, I thought, ‘I’ll just go this alone and nurture this talent that I’ve really stumbled across’. From there it was a case of somebody explaining to me that if I wanted to progress I’d need to join an athletics club and do high jump more often, which sounded incredible to me.”
Two nights’ training each week quickly became four. Her choice of university was influenced by its proximity to Loughborough, home to British Athletics’ high performance centre. It is where she would meet two individuals who inspire her to this day – coach Fuzz Caan (formerly Ahmed) and London 2012 bronze medal-winning high-jumper Robbie Grabarz.
“I went to Nottingham University, realising that was very close to Loughborough,” says Pooley. “I was driving there to train five days a week, at least. I quickly established myself in a group of high-jumpers, which is where I met Robbie. Then it became based in Birmingham as well, so there was a lot of driving; a few incidences of feeling a bit too sleepy on the dual carriageway and having to have a little nap in the lay-by. It’s ridiculous that I did it. And, looking back, I don’t know how I did it. Especially with my first year of uni going on, and still getting OK grades.”
Those “OK grades” turned into a first-class degree in Animal Sciences. But, all the while, Pooley was being drawn further into her new world, and at the expense of the archetypal student lifestyle. “I think I just recognised I had a massive opportunity to train with Olympic athletes and undoubtedly the best coach in the country,” says Pooley. “I was probably completely overawed by the two personalities I’d met, in Fuzz and Robbie. And just so fascinated by this world I’d discovered of performance sport. I realised then it was going to be really important to my life going forward.
“I ended up just having a professional relationship with my lecturers, as opposed to (any relationship) with the other students, so I think I grew a bit old before my years. I’ve grown up in some ways and I am very immature in others ways. It’s an interesting mix, but it’s not unique to me. I think a lot of athletes are like that! It is fascinating to see what other young people are doing with their lives, because I’m living a very blinkered existence.
“That scares me a little bit sometimes – especially in light of recent events – that I’ve put all my eggs in one basket. Although I am developing other skills around sport I don’t want to become too specific, because at some point I’ll be spat out the other side. I want to be able to have a productive life in different ways after that.”
Her Olympic hopes derailed, Pooley says: “Once it became clear I wasn’t going to be able to go to Rio as a competitor, I was determined to put a positive spin on it. That was easier than it could have been, as my parents had already offered me the chance to go out there with them and to make use of their accommodation, so I could have what was essentially a holiday. But it also meant I could gain a far broader perspective of the Olympic Games, rather than viewing it through the tunnel vision that athletes have. I think it was a brave thing to do. But for me it was the only option. I couldn’t have sat at home and missed out. I would have been robbing myself of an opportunity.
“The 12 days in Rio were some of the most intense experiences of my life. I think it was a combination of the place itself – the landscape, the culture, the people – but also the Games themselves. The spectacle of the sport, the spirt, which is just infectious. Everything was so energised because of that Olympic spirit, which permeated the place.”
Before her crossroads moment at the European Championships, Pooley had defined herself purely by her performance in a sporting environment, to the detriment of family relationships and friendships. She sacrificed a wider sense of joie de vivre in the name of sporting success. “Life has revolved around sport,” admits Pooley. “Being a full-time athlete is a fantastic privilege. But somehow I’d come to the conclusion that if I was doing anything outside of the track I would be being a bad athlete. Ultimately, that could have been my downfall. If this hadn’t happened I would have continued to be totally single-minded about my sport and actually neglected other areas of my life – which I will need at some point.
“I have friends around me, but they’re predominantly friends from my training group and friends I know through athletics. I’d like to think if we’d met outside of sport we’d still be friends, but that’s not the way it’s happened. I’m very close with my mum (Jill) and dad (David) and younger sister (Alice).
“You realise we’re not all lean, strong, ambitious sportspeople. There are people out there with limitations, who need a simple bit of cheering up. I’ve been bouncing along, having my fantastic, privileged life and there are people out there with a lot less than I have. So I can’t really feel that down in the dumps about having an injured ankle, because the rest of me is still world class.
“I totally defined myself as a high-jumper. I was happy when that was going well. And when it wasn’t going well, I then felt awful. I lost all of my self-worth. That was very upsetting. But it was quite a wake-up call, to think I’d bundled up all of my self-esteem with sport. That is a very foolish move. And it wasn’t one I’d consciously made. But over the years I’d let other things fall away and then I realised I was feeling like I was just a high-jumper.
“Coming back to the fundamentals of being a daughter and a sister – I feel like I missed out on my sister growing up. I left home when she was 13. I came home and she’s 18, she’s going to university and she’s a woman. And I’m thinking, ‘When did this happen?’ I’m getting to know her and I’m so impressed. And I feel like I should have been there the whole time. But I wasn’t.
“I know it wasn’t a bad thing I was doing in those years. But you can really miss out … you just miss things. So I’m glad to be able to catch up with her. And having cherished memories of family holidays. Going to Rio with my family was the best thing I could have done. They were the only ones really who could support me – and not in a sporting way.”
So acute was Pooley’s determination to revise her mindset this summer, she entirely distanced herself from her profession. A little more than 12 months after being crowned British champion for a second time, and subsequently representing Team GB at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, Pooley shed her high-jumper tag. It was a move that yielded the most valuable, poignant revelation. “I needed to move away from being identified as a sportsperson,” says Pooley. “I stopped telling people I did high jump. They couldn’t believe it when I said I didn’t do any sport, but I kept that one going for a while out in Rio.
“It was really nice that people wanted to be my friend anyway. That was really revealing. I realised I’d made the excuse that people only liked me because I was a high-jumper. Because I was successful.” Pooley thinks over her previous few sentences. “That’s horrible isn’t it? So I’m better than I was before, inside – even if the outside is still healing. I think it (the break from sport) needed to happen. I would never have chosen it, but I’m glad it’s worked out the way it has, if I had to be injured.”
To meet Isobel Pooley is to encounter an individual with a palpable zest for life. You imagine a clear hour in her diary would be cause for fresh plans to be made, for fear of missing out on something, anything. When she was 12 years old, Isobel’s older sister died. She has previously spoken of her sister’s 14-year life being a “miracle to treasure”, given she was born profoundly handicapped. Certainly, the loss shapes Isobel to this day.
“There is a richness to life if you want to experience it,” she says. “You will be sad sometimes and it’s going to hurt. But then you will be really happy at other times. If you shut yourself off from that you will miss out. Going through sport will never compare to losing something so fundamental to you as a person. I think I have sport in perspective – and I want to keep it there. I don’t want it to become my whole life, because it can be taken away – and it will be, ultimately. I need to maintain that perspective. I won’t say I have a great perspective, because I love sport a bit too much. But it’s just here for part of my life – and it is only that, just a part.”
For all she has placed high jump into a healthier context, Pooley is a competitor. She is ambitious. And she trusts implicitly in her coach as the man to tease every ounce of talent from her 6ft 3.5in frame. Fuzz Caan is a technician, a mentor and a confidante. “He’s very passionate as a person,” says Pooley. “He’s extremely passionate about high jump and he has a better understanding of it than anybody else I’ve met.”
Pooley is bright, insightful and plainly a deep-thinker. Those particular attributes, however, if channelled wrongly, can contribute to the downfall of individuals operating at the sharp end of sport. A complex, busy and inquisitive mind has the power to play tricks, leading to self-doubt and the mislaying of a honed technique, at the most inopportune moment. Pooley’s method for guarding against this phenomenon is to use neuro-linguistic programming, a technique she works on with Caan’s wife, Julie Crane, a psychologist and 2006 Commonwealth Games high-jump silver medallist.
“It’s all about the language you use and the influence that has on your mindset, your internal dialogue,” says Pooley. “You see people have tics before they jump. Muttering words to themselves, running their hands through their hair or adjusting their vest. Those things all link you into an internal place, where hopefully you will be able to produce your best performance – and to access the physical ability you have, which might otherwise evade you.
“You have those limited jumps. You want to be able to showcase your best and there’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to do that. So I’ll implement any measures I need to, to try to access that best of myself. You have to delve into some pretty deep parts of your psyche and be prepared to work through anything that comes to the surface. But I’ve always been a fairly open person and I’m very happy to lay my soul bare if it will help me jump higher, because that’s what I want to achieve more than anything.
“Going back to 2012, I was a very immature athlete. I’d been with my coach for less than a year so he hadn’t had the opportunity to influence my mental approach to any extent. It was quite a superficial benefit I’d had. I could jump high, but not consistently. That’s the point I’m glad to have reached across the past few years. Last year was my most consistent year by a mile.”
Pooley’s reference to 2012 recalls a time when she fell two centimetres short of the 1.92 metres required to qualify for the London Games. She remembers her fixation on the bar’s height stripping her of her capacity to clear it. At that stage she had been English Schools champion in 2009 and 2010, before adding more national age group titles in 2010, 2011 and 2013. But the bar was raised, literally, with that Commonwealth silver and subsequent British record of 1.96 metres. And further still when she added another centimetre to her and her country’s highest ever jump in 2015 on the way to retaining her British crown.
Pooley is sure she was pushed to greater heights by Katarina Johnson-Thompson, whose 1.98-metre high jump when finishing sixth in the heptathlon at the Rio Games wrested the British record from Pooley’s grasp. “It’s a wonderful time for British high-jumping, especially on the female side,” says Pooley. “Katarina and I have been competing together since school age. At my first English schools she won and jumped a good 15 centimetres higher than me. I just couldn’t believe her then.
“And she’s continued to show that she’s a phenomenal athlete across several events, something I’m in total awe of – because I’m a one-trick pony and quite proud to be so. As long as my trick is good enough I don’t really mind. But she’s super-world class at several events, which is amazing. But she has inspired me to a certain extent – and shown me what’s possible.”
Pooley is convinced a high-quality domestic rivalry will serve the Brits well when the world come to London next August. “The chance to compete at a World Championships in front of a home crowd is second only to one thing, which is to compete at a home Olympic Games – which our generation has already had,” she says. “A home crowd does crazy things to you. Glasgow (where Pooley won her Commonwealth Games silver medal) was mad enough. And the chances I’ve had to compete in Britain in Diamond League meetings, I love the energy I get from the crowd in general.
“I think there’s a lot I can do now, at a time of year when a lot of athletes are just doing conditioning. Everyone’s on holiday, so I’m ahead of the game, because I’m doing some rehab. So I don’t feel like I’m behind at the moment. I feel like I’m ahead. I’ve been thinking about London 2017 while everyone else was in Rio. I had that in the back of my mind as the next thing I’m ramping up for.”
It certainly wasn’t lost on Pooley that the medal winners in Brazil all matched her 1.97-metre personal best. She was further encouraged by seeing two athletes in the autumn of the respective careers on the podium: Spain’s Ruth Beitia, who took gold aged 37, and bronze medallist Blanca Vlasic, the 32-year-old two-time world champion. Sandwiched in the silver-medal position was another of the sport’s rising stars, Mirela Demireva, the 26-year-old Bulgarian.
When she returns from her enforced break, Isobel Pooley’s stated aim is to breach the magical two-metre mark. That is by no means the extent of her ambition, though. “Two metres is a landmark, but I’d never say it’s the ultimate goal,” she says. “Because the moment you set any limit you will get there and stop. Or you might fall just short and stop. Two metres will be great, as and when I achieve it. But to go beyond is what it will take to win an Olympic medal. I think in the future the event will revivify and then next time it’ll be tougher. I want to be one of those making it tough for everyone else.”
As Pooley talks, a warm, autumnal sun holds her in its glare. She is back in Fleet, her home town and a bucolic, quintessentially English setting for the 23-year-old to contemplate, with the maturity of somebody far beyond her tender years, a summer that she says has been “a life-shaping experience”. It has, she believes, “given me a lot of food for thought, moving forward – how I want to move forward in my career … and as a person”.
Pooley’s epiphanic 2016 helps her accept her immediate sporting progress will be steady rather than speedy. She says: “I would love to jump straight back into heavy training and that would be the easiest thing to do. But that would be to not have learnt anything from this experience. I think I need to go back with a more balanced and moderated approach to it, realising it’s not a case of more is better. And definitely not in my sport, because it’s such a fine balance between getting hurt and being world class. We do promote a try-hard attitude, which is great until it goes too far. And then you realise that, actually, you just need to do the right training. Smart training rather than just lay it on with a shovel.”
Her temporary return to Fleet has allowed Pooley to rediscover her identity. She has a clarity of mind and a sense of purpose. She is happy in her own skin. “I’ve gained a load of motivation from this experience,” she says. ”Not least because I now know who my friends are. I know who is in it for the long-term and the supporters I have who really, really want to see me in that stadium in London. And if not there, in future Olympics, future World Championships.
“I think I needed to find myself a little bit and not rely on the life-support system I have at the high-performance centre. It is fantastic for its purpose, but as much as it might feel like a family it’s not. It won’t be there forever. It’s only there for me because I’m a high-jumper. I need to move away from that identity.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul McNamara is a sports writer with the Daily Echo in Bournemouth, and has worked previously for Mail Online and at News Associates in Wimbledon. Paul’s latest articles.