I spoke to 21-year-old GB athlete, Jess Robinson, all about Pole Vaulting. It’s a particular discipline of Athletics that we all watch once every 4 years, but perhaps know little about outside of that. Jess shares what drew her to the fairly dangerous sport in the first place as well as how she is aiming for that goal of Olympic Gold. We also touch upon wider themes and struggles she has faced as a young athlete; including both race and gender discrimination as well as body image pressures.
Tell me a bit about sport in your childhood, before you found Athletics.
I’ve been doing sport my whole life. Like a lot of young girls and boys, I did Gymnastics between the ages of 4 and 12. At school I did all sports, but I was always so excited by the time Athletics came around in the Summer.
When I was young, I often went to the track with my mum and between 8-13, I did multi-eventing. My mum is from the Czech Republic and competed for them in High Jump; she only stopped when she had kids. My dad is a sprinter, and both compete as Masters in their individual sports.
Because of my mum’s background in Athletics, she introduced me to pole vaulting when I was 13. It’s not something you try at school because it’s too dangerous, and if it hadn’t been for my mum knowing what she was doing, I would have never even tried it.
From a young age, all I ever wanted to be was an athlete. As soon as found out what the Olympics were, I wanted to do it and be there. For me, this moment came at the 2012 Olympics, which I went to watch with my family.
When you got older, into your teenage years, how difficult was it to stay focused on your Olympic dream? Especially when it was a sport that presumably none of your friends were doing or knew much about.
It sounds extreme, but having already competed for a few years and had success when I started Secondary School, I knew I had to choose what kind of life I wanted, if I was to follow my dream. Ultimately, I chose sport and I competed for GB for the first time in 2016.
The year after that, I was going to university, but I injured left foot. I then had a year where I couldn’t compete. This year turned into a whole year of going out at university. In some ways, I knew I needed that, just to experience it. But it also showed me that that wasn’t the life I wanted.
I came back from that injury, refreshed, and having changed coaches. However, in my second year of university, I then broke my left foot, so this meant another year out. In my head, I thought ‘why am I continuing to do this sport?’ Even after I’d recovered from my injury, I had a 2-month break from it. I’d never dealt well with exam stress, and having been injured on top of that, without having training as a release, I realised I had to step back a bit. This time, university acted as a good distraction. I’d lost interest in going out, but my university work kept me going and eventually I was ready to literally ‘jump’ back into the sport again.
I knew I had to stay on the right track despite being injured, because with technical and individual sports, it is all down to you. Perhaps in a team sport, you can come back from injury or some time out and gradually work your way back into the team. But with my sport, I knew I had to be back at my best as soon as possible.
What negative effect did this attitude and focus have on you outside of your sport?
I would go so far to say that at one stage I had a real diet obsession because that was something I could control throughout my injury troubles. This is heightened in an individual sport I think, where there isn’t the same accountability. Coming from a gymnastics background, I’d been raised to think that if I eat badly it’ll offset me. I’ve gone through a whole journey with my body image as I’ve transitioned between different sports. When I was doing gymnastics or cross-country, I was so skinny, but you contextualise it in a different way because it seems normal for your sport.
When I started pole vaulting, I was going through puberty and just generally had to be more cautious of what I ate. Naturally, I started getting musclier, which I didn’t think much of at first. But towards the end of secondary school, people would make comments in a ‘nice’ way, like ‘you have big arms, strong shoulders’. When I watched movies or saw models on Instagram, they were all skinny, so you begin to question why you don’t look like them.
There was a time when I wouldn’t want to push myself in the gym because I wouldn’t want to look even bigger, even though I knew it’d help my sport. At university I went through a rough time towards the end and I would say I had eating issues. I wouldn’t define it as anorexia, just in the sense that I did still look like me. But I would eat and then feel guilty for eating so then I wouldn’t eat for a long duration. I went to counselling about it and it was only then that I realised what I was doing to my body. Since I’ve come home it has helped. Over the past year, I keep writing my goals down and what I want to achieve. One of them is to be strong and that’s helped me treat my body with more kindness.
For athletes dealing with eating problems, it’s hard because whatever sport you’re in, your body does need to be a certain way. I personally do a sport which requires you to be a mesomorph type body. But then there’s sports like rugby where you need to have more strength and weight. Trying to achieve this ‘body ideal’ can be quite dangerous if you don’t do it the right way, and that’s where the right coaching and support is so essential.
Even to this day, I do still get an obsessive voice. In reality, I’ve realised it won’t do me any harm to eat junk food, but I still am aware that I just can’t have ‘time out’ in my individual sport. I do a lot of mindfulness and mental training, but I’ve also become aware that a lot of societal standards are very inaccurate.
What was it about pole vaulting that was particularly attractive to you?
The main factor was that my mum did it, but people do say you’ve got to be crazy to do pole vault! The biggest thing for me was that it was fun, and I think that element is what has kept me in it. There are days where I hate it and the technical side is so difficult. But when it’s good and everything goes to plan, it is the best feeling ever. Even though it’s a repetitive action and skill, I’ve never been bored in the sport.
If you practice you can do it safely. But this must be with the right coach and making sure you are committing to every jump. It’s quite an inaccessible sport simply because it can be so dangerous and there aren’t a lot of coaches out there. You can’t just pick up a pole and have a go. Everyone needs a coach to be able to pole vault and everyone needs their own pole also. I guess I was lucky to find it early and find a good coach.
Do you think Athletics generally is quite an equal sport in terms of gender?
It is equal, in the sense that at competitions, there’s no gender discrimination in terms of competition entries or anything. But where gender discrimination is marked, is in pay difference. It’s difficult because most athletes and disciplines are lottery funded. This funding comes in 3 different tiers and only those in the top tier can do the sport as a living. Ultimately, those few individuals like Dina Asher-Smith are raking it in, but those who come in 4th, 5th place behind her are not. The extra money comes from sponsorships and deals, but this is where the gender difference is the most apparent.
Another difference, I suppose, is that male athletes are often completely idolised as almost ‘superhuman’. The main focus when observing them seems to be how good they are technically. However, with female athletes, even in the days of 2021, I feel we’re still very sexualised. It’s almost as though because of what we wear and how we put our bodies out there physically, it seems to invite people commenting on our appearance rather than our skill or technique.
Tell me a bit about the competitive element of Pole Vaulting, besides just the Olympics!
There’s both a Winter and a Summer season. There are big competitions during the Winter, mostly indoors, but it’s all about trying using this time to get to peak performance later. With consideration that it’s the start of the year, there aren’t the highest expectations. When it goes to outdoor during the Summer, that is when you’re competing at your peak and trying to do your absolute best.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected Pole Vaulting and you personally?
Obviously last year, pretty much all the competitions were cancelled. Tracks were open so sprinters could run, but as pole vaulters, we don’t have own facilities. Lots of elite athletes initially went abroad, but people like me didn’t have the means to do that. I am in a fortunate position because I have weights at home, whereas a lot of athletes don’t. Especially during the first lockdown, a lot of people missed out on their weights work which is the foundation of all events. Obviously, I couldn’t do jump training, which is most of my sport but mentally, being able to train in cardio and weights was good.
Why do you think young women drop out of Athletics?
It’s a mixture of things. The two biggest things are funding and body image. As I spoke about before, with body image for me personally, ever since I was young, I always found it easy to put on muscle. However, once I hit puberty, I began to consume so much via social media where there’s an ideal look. I didn’t fit that ideal look because my arms were too big and my legs too muscly. I’ve been fortunate enough to come to learn that being strong and fit is a good thing, and it helps me succeed in my sport. But for others, body image inevitably does play a big part in them stopping sport. Perhaps they don’t train as hard in the gym because they don’t want their legs to be too big. I still have an element of that, and I’d love to not care what people think.
The other difficult is funding. For me, being at university was a big financial burden. You can’t pay for little things like petrol, equipment, or training. All the money that I did earn went into my sport. But then those with full-time jobs have no time to train. Funding in Athletics isn’t great, and you definitely have to want to do the sport. Not everyone can manage this, and it leads to so many people dropping out of the sport.
How does your menstrual cycle affect your performance?
Over the past few years, I’ve come to be aware of this more. When I’m on my period, I’m quite tired. But most championships I’ve won, I was always on. I’ve tried to build this knowledge into my training. I try to set up my sessions so I know I can complete them, so tracking periods is essential. The week before my period, I tend to be able to lift heavier, but I do feel more tired, so I do less cardio. I think it’s about finding what works for you. It takes time and everyone is different. I can’t speak for every female athlete, but I know with my male coaches, they didn’t take that much notice of it because it’s just naturally not at the forefront of their mind. I think for women, it’s meant we’ve had to take a hands-on approach and figure it out ourselves. We know what we’re capable of doing as a woman at different times in our cycle.
Have you ever faced discrimination in your sport?
I don’t think I have personally experienced discrimination. But at school, I used to get a lot of ‘you must be fast because you are mixed race.’ I think because I’ve always had sport that I’m good at, I haven’t experienced much general negativity. But I think a lot of people who are either black or mixed race have had comments like ‘you should be better’. On the other hand, I know people of Asian descent can experience a whole different kind of racism because they’re conditioned to believe they can’t do Athletics due to their race. Black people are told you shouldn’t be beaten by a white guy. Whether you’ve considered it before or not, it is racist to believe that because of someone’s race, they will either be more or less suited to a certain sport.
Do you think Athletics needs to be more diverse?
About 5 or 6 years ago, someone made comment to me that there was only one other girl who was mixed race at a high level doing my sport. My mum is white, my stepdad is white and at school, everyone is white. To me, I’d never thought of myself as an exception, but that comment made me realise I really am different compared to people and that has made me want to do better. I can count on one hand the number of people of colour who pole vault. When you’re younger, you naturally identify to people similar to you or who look like you, so I’d love to act as a role model, encouraging people of my race to try different things that they didn’t think were ‘for them’.
It is difficult to get people of all backgrounds or races into the sport. Other disciplines are quite diverse, like long jump. But a pole can cost between £500-700. You need a specific pole vault coach, and they are expensive and in high demand. That means it perhaps only attracts a certain type of people. That being said, if you are someone who is willing and able to pay for a sport, you don’t automatically think of pole vaulting anyway!
In terms of diversity in Athletics generally, it is great how everything is progressing but for me, it just shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place. However, in a way there’s no point focusing on what things should have been like and instead, we should all use our platforms and power to make everything as equal as we can. I try to spread the message of equality based on gender, race, and sexuality because I want to help normalise what already should be normal. Plus, on a practical level, my sport would be better if it were more diverse!
What’s your goal going forward?
To get Olympic Gold. I am aiming for GB representation in 2021. Tokyo is the aim because it’s so near but at the same time Paris 2024 is one I can say ‘I’ll be there’. Because of everything, they haven’t released the new Olympic standards yet for Tokyo. In the British Trials, I’ll need to come top 2 there and jump standard at that competition. Getting Olympic Gold has been my dream ever since I knew what the Olympics even were, so I hope, despite personal and current global (!) setbacks, I can achieve that.