Conquering the world at 64

Late entrant Sue Yeomans has taken the world of pole vaulting by storm and holds multiple titles and record in the Masters age categories. She has also coped with being diagnosed with breast cancer, as she tells The Mixed Zone’s Katie Smith

“I was forty-seven when I began. Not the ideal age really,” chuckles Sue Yeomans, voicing the wry reflection of many a Masters athlete before her. Despite her late induction into the weird and wonderful world of pole vaulting, she has become indomitable in the event. Yeomans is the current British, European and world champion in the 60-65 age category, as well as the British and European record holder. Now aged sixty-four, and getting ready to move up an age category next year, Yeomans is able to reflect upon some distressing news that had threatened her future in Masters athletics.

At the start of 2016, and only ten months before the World Masters Athletics Championships in Australia, Yeomans was diagnosed with breast cancer. Having already booked her flights she began a determined battle against the disease. And if one thing remained certain in the mind of Sue Yeomans, it was her unfaltering intention of making it to the competition.

“My surgeon was wonderful,” Yeomans says. “She tried every way to get me there. She said we couldn’t do it the normal way. They normally put implants under the chest wall which would stop me ever vaulting again.” So the pair got creative and the operation went ahead a mere six weeks before the championships. Yeomans not only made it there, but jumped a personal best 2.75 metres to clinch the gold medal.

Initially, it was her son Paul who was lured into the difficult and technical sport of pole vaulting. One evening, as Yeomans accompanied her two sporty sons for a running session with St. Alban’s Athletics Club, Paul pointed across the track at a boy and asked his mother what he was doing. “He was pole vaulting. He was just a young lad with his mum so we went over and had a chat and it all went from there.”

Determined to help her son take on a new challenge, Yeomans describes the lengthy drives up and down the country trying out any and every pole vaulting workshop they could find. The family struggled to find a permanent coach until fortune led to a meeting with Peter Ferguson, who began to coach Paul. “Then we were at a venue one day,” Yeomans recalls, “and he [Ferguson] said to me, ‘Haven’t you ever thought about having a go at this?’ And I said, ‘Well, I have actually, but I was just waiting for someone to say why don’t you come and give it a go’. So one weekend when my sons were away bouldering with Scouts I had a go and that was it. I just fell in love with it.”

As any teenager would, Paul refused to carry on vaulting once his mum became involved. To be shown up by his own mother was simply not an option. But as she began to excel at the sport, taking most of the Masters records with her, he was forced to reconsider. “I think he eventually came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t bad at it,” Yeomans says. “I think he even thought maybe it was quite cool.”

Now mother and 31-year-old son compete together in the Southern Athletics League. To complete the family affair, Sue’s husband manages the team. “Paul has said to me because my competitions take me all over the world, I’ve got to keep going until he’s 35 so we can compete against each other in Masters events.”

With the majority of Masters prizes already in the bag, Yeomans is still pursuing the world record. “I’ve got another eleven centimetres to get, but my coach still thinks it’s there.” She is driven by the constant incremental technical changes that can make the difference. “I like the fact that you can get better by just changing and working on one little bit, as my coach gets me to do. There’s a real challenge there. You can get everything right in one jump and then in the next one you can’t repeat it.”

She describes that magical moment when everything “comes together” and the perfect jump emerges. Then just as quickly, the technical elements fail to bind together, the puzzle pieces move apart and the jump cannot be repeated. It is perpetual frustration coupled with an addictive pursuit for perfection. “In the spur of the moment you can pull things out of the bag,” she says. “On the day, if you can get everything right, then it can just happen. That’s what I love.”

Yeomans’s humble approach to her sporting achievement is echoed in her attitude towards all aspects of life: treat everything as a challenge and enjoy the process of overcoming it. She credits her surgeon entirely for her quick comeback from a single mastectomy, but the pole vaulter’s own mental strength has played a huge part in her success.

“As an athlete, you’re always facing challenges and you’re challenging yourself,” she explains. “The bar I vault over is a challenge. I think you become better able to cope with things because you’re always putting challenges in front of you. And so cancer becomes just another challenge really.” A challenge she was always determined to overcome.

“It was obviously a bit of a shock at first, but then you just think, ‘Right, let’s get on with it’. I think most sports people probably have that kind of attitude. We’re mentally adjusted for challenges.”

Yeomans acknowledges that her own longevity on the athletics field comes from listening to her body. “It’s always a battle to find the fine line in sport, not to do too much and overcook yourself and get injured. Then you’re nowhere. I’ve got a really wonderful sports massage therapist and every fortnight I have an hour’s session with him from top to toe. I swear that keeps me going and stops me getting so many injuries.”

Since her operations last year, training is still interrupted by the demands of rest and recovery. From the need to adapt to her altered body and new “huge” breast implant, to the frustrating consequences of having to discard training schedules when she requires a month off training. Regardless, Sue Yeomans’s unwavering passion for pole vaulting, for competing and for striving to improve, carry her through the darker times. Indeed, recovery and reward can only come to she who dares.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Katie Smith. Katie’s latest articles.

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