You’re either born with a talent for pole vaulting, or you’re not.
To be a world-class pole vaulter, you need be fast and physically very well coordinated. You also need to a natural risk-taker – and start training by the age of twelve.
Pole vaulting, as I see it, and my career as a foreman of route control in Tentekskaya mine are like yin and yang. For me, these seemingly opposite activities are complementary, interconnected, and interdependent, each giving rise to the other.
At work, I go into an enclosed space that’s up to 500 meters deep, with few routes in and out, to fulfil a crucial role in a workplace with unique and extreme challenges. My job is to monitor the safety of the mine’s roadways, as well as its gas levels and ventilation system.
There are two reasons my job is critical: firstly, because safety is the company’s top priority, and secondly, because methane is released as a direct result of the physical process of coal extraction. As layers of the coal face are removed, the coal releases methane previously trapped within the coal seam into the air inside the mine, thus creating a potential safety hazard.
It’s my job to manage this risk, often in utter darkness, save for the light from the lamp attached to my helmet and without a wristwatch or mobile phone, just some of the measures taken across the board to reduce the risk of electrical spark, which we must avoid because methane is highly combustible. Thanks to the extra methane detectors the company has installed, I can more accurately monitor the gas levels in the air and pump in the right amount of fresh air from the surface, together with some chalk dust – a natural neutralizer. In problem areas, we carry out additional drilling to release the methane gas.
I have a huge responsibility to myself and my colleagues to make sure everyone is safe. Shouldering this responsibility every day builds in me a resilience set in courage and strength.
In my pole vaulting, I draw on those attributes to fly.
Since my university days at Karaganda State Technical University, my life’s ambition has been twofold: to represent Kazakhstan at the Olympic Games and to follow in my father and grandfather’s footsteps to be a miner. What I didn’t plan on was doing both at the same time.
Securing the sponsorship necessary to concentrate on my sport proved extremely difficult, so to support myself I joined ArcelorMittal earlier than I’d planned, in 2016. I worked full time and spent virtually all the rest of my time at the gym. My personal life was virtually non-existent and I was only getting four or five hours of sleep a night. This schedule was very hard on me and on my family.
For instance, in April, I missed the birth of my daughter because I was at training camp in Turkey preparing for the Asian Championship in Doha the following week. (Elizaveta was two weeks old before I could get home to meet her, but since then, I’ve never been happier.) I finished a respectable 9th place in that competition, but to secure myself a trip to Tokyo next year, I’m aiming higher.
To support me in achieving my ambition to make the Kazakh Olympic team in 2020, ArcelorMittal has generously given me a year off to train while paying my wages and guaranteeing my job for me on my return. Since June I have been focusing on my pole vaulting so I can maximise my chances of qualifying.
Between this August and next September, I have 15 competitions; 15 chances to show my best result. To get to Tokyo, one of those attempts must be “golden.” For me as a pole vaulter, that means conquering heights of at least 5.8 meters. That is my objective for the year.
I’m so grateful to the company for giving me this opportunity to do my favourite thing in the world. Now everything is different: I have two training sessions a day rather than one and have time to rest properly in between. I also get a full night’s sleep every night and have weekends off to spend with my family. I think only about training and competitions, so am fully focused on achieving my goal and I feel the support of my family.
People often ask me how I got involved in the pole vault and what it is like to experience.
I tell them it was a happy accident. Growing up I had no idea I’d end up in athletics. My interest in sport began in earnest when I was 12-years-old, when I began wrestling and boxing, the sports which are most developed in my hometown of Karaganda, Kazakhstan’s fourth-largest city. I soon found I preferred boxing to wrestling, and I stuck with that until I was 15. Then one day, during a training session I realised how much I enjoyed running and decided I wanted to do more of it.
Seeing in me a potential for athletics, my coach gave me the option to focus on that, an opportunity I grabbed. I chose the decathlon as my event. Because decathlon involves the pole vault, high jump, long jump, javelin, shot put, discus, 110-meter hurdles, 100-meter dash, 400-meter run, and a 1500-meter run, I trained in them all, combining strength training, jumping and running.
Of the 10 events I was training for, the pole vault stood out for me. I found this high-difficulty, high-risk sport brought a great deal of pleasure to an adrenaline-junkie like me. And, although it’s a technically difficult sport that takes speed, balance, agility, strength and an incredible amount of focus and calculation to make a successful jump, when I tried it, I found I had a talent for it. So, I decided to specialise in it and have been doing it for 12 years now.
It takes nerves of steel to run with and launch yourself from a pole that can be up to 5.3 metres long. And although the pole only weighs a few pounds, when held from the end, it effectively weighs 20 pounds or more, so all in all, it’s a sport that’s not only a physical feat, but also a mental and emotional one.
Before a jump, I concentrate, visualise each step in my mind’s eye as if I’m watching my own jump from the side. If it’s an important one, I say a prayer and think about my loved ones. Then I go fly.
I love the courage I feel in the run-in. When I push into the pole, it throws me so high it takes my breath away. I land on the mat, stand up and repeat. I enjoy flying so much I just want to keep doing it.
Whatever happens with my Olympic ambitions in 2020, I will go back to the important job I do at ArcelorMittal, because I enjoy it and because I will always be grateful for the support they have given me in achieving my dreams. I will also keep competing. Who knows, I may even make it to the next Olympics in Paris come 2024! In any case, I want to set an example for my daughter, for her to reach for her dreams, as I have done. Even if she doesn’t follow me into the mines, I do hope she follows me into sport!