David Epstein
Monday August 18th, 2008

BEIJING -- Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva had gotten up from what looked like a cat nap to find out that she just won the gold medal in the pole vault.

For most of this humid Monday night in the Bird's Nest, Isinbayeva lay on her back on the infield, a Russia hat pulled snug over her eyes, passing on height after height as most of the world's best vaulters were confounded and eliminated. On just her second attempt of the night, Isinbayeva cleared 15'11". Then she waited.

With cameras in her face, and only America's Jenn Stuczynski left to compete for gold, Isinbayeva retreated under a blanket she'd brought from the Olympic Village for this very thing -- the down time when someone tried to challenge her. While Stuczynski took three unsuccessful attempts at 16'1", Isinbayeva would, now and again, lift the corner of her blanket to unveil one eye and find out what those 90,000 people outside were getting so worked up about.

When Stuczynski missed on her third try, Isinbayeva became the gold medalist. She smiled, she waved, she blew a ridiculous number of kisses. And then she got ready to compete. Off came the nylon pants, the jacket, the hat and the blanket. On went the turquoise shoes Adidas custom designed with a dolphin -- her favorite animal -- on the heel.

As usual, it was Yelena vs. Yelena's world record. And, as usual, the crowd stood at rapt attention, the collective emotions in the Bird's Nest swaying with the champ's every move.

On this particular night, Isinbayeva, who is one of the most popular athletes in Europe, had a little extra motivation beyond Olympic gold (been there, in Athens) and a new world record (done that, 13 times indoors and 10 times outdoors). In anticipation of the Olympics, Stuczynski, a pole vault neophyte -- she started in 2004 -- got rightfully excited at the U.S. Trials, where she set an American record of 16'1¾" and subsequently told reporters she was ready to go to China and "kick some Russian butt." Bad idea. Bad as in, as Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto put it, waking a sleeping giant and filling her with a terrible resolve.

On her third attempt at 16'6¾," Isinbayeva set the 24th world record of her career. As she plummeted through the air toward the mat, her face exploded in ecstasy. Her arms flew outward in triumph. "I felt I had the whole stadium to myself," she said later, "like I was an actress on stage." She punctuated the crowd's deafening roar with an impromptu front flip. Another gold, another record, and a serious message to her closest rival -- who isn't even close.

"It wasn't nice," said the usually bubbly Isinbayeva of Stuczynski's "Russian butt" remark. "First of all, she must respect me. And she must know her position." Pause. "Now she knows it."

And for now, that position is about five inches below the most dominant athlete in the world. With Isinbayeva's rivals so far in the rear view mirror, a more interesting question than who can challenge her, at the moment, is: How did she get so high?

She's strong: She weighs around 140 pounds and can bench press at least 155. But there are other strong pole vaulters. She's fairly tall: she hovers around 5-foot-9. But other vaulters are taller, like Stuczynski, who is 6 feet. She's relatively fast, but there are vaulters just as swift. So how is it that, since '04, she has won all seven major championships -- three indoor and two outdoor World Championships, and the gold medal at the Athens and Beijing Olympics -- and has vaulted nearly half a foot higher than any other woman ever has?

When asked, Isinbayeva's coach, Vitaly Petrov, who also coached Soviet pole vault legend Sergey Bubka, starts by staring at the ground. He's trying to find a satisfactory answer that will translate in his amiable but limited English. After about a minute, Petrov settles on a single word and raises his head to deliver. "Harmony," he says.

There is no one particularly superhuman quality that sets Isinbayeva apart. Rather, it is the fluidity with which she executes a vault from start to finish, a coordination born from the gymnastics she practiced back in her hometown of Volgograd, before she got too tall at 15 and her coach shuffled her off to pole vault, an activity she knew nothing about, but has since defined.

Isinbayeva's plant, her take off, her body swing, her push off the pole, the jackknifing of her torso as it contorts to avoid the bar like a hot oven -- they occur in such harmonic succession that one can imagine that she's being lifted by a passing ocean swell and deposited over the bar. And right now, she is utterly peerless in her execution.

As women's pole vaulting develops, though -- it only became widespread in the mid-1990s -- more gifted athletes will join in, drawn by what has become one of the bigger money events in women's track and field. More competitors like Stuczynski, who is tall and strong and fearless and set the school basketball scoring record at NAIA Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, N.Y. But without that vaulting harmony, Isinbayeva will continue to inform them of their positions.

So the only question the event leaves is: How high can Isinbayeva go? "Vitaly thinks [16'11" or 17']," Isinbayeva says. "And I trust him completely."

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