Wednesday evening saw the busiest public transport hub in Switzerland transformed, as six men, including Australia’s Kurtis Marschall cleared 5.81m – a competitive feat which has occurred four times in men’s vaulting history.
Marschall thrived in one of the highest quality vaulting events in global history, clearing a personal best of 5.81m following two attempts, his second attempt proved successful again at 5.86m, good for third overall, behind Shawn Barber (CAN, 5.86m) and Timur Morgunov (ANA, 5.91m).
The prodigious vault moves Marschall to a standalone fifth on the Australian all-time list, an achievement not lost on the young student of the sport, remarking to Athletics Australia correspondent Matt Lynch.
“Everything sort of came together, it was fantastic having that block in Europe, because we learnt the patterns, the processes that all work for me. As soon as you’re consistently jumping 5.80m, you’re attempting 5.85m, 5.86m or 5.90m, and eventually one day, you’re going to clear it!”Marschall said.
With two competitions remaining in Marschall’s season - the Brussels Diamond League Final and Continental Cup (Ostrava) are further opportunities to move up the Australian all-time list and vie for the $50,000 Diamond League event prize.
In high spirits, Marschall was jovial whilst discussing approaching the heights of Australian vaulting greats, honestly assessing his three attempts at 5.91m yesterday evening,
“I didn’t even believe I was going to go close to 5.91m! My hips were over it, I just didn’t believe I was going to clear it, so I didn’t manage to get my body out of the way in time. Now I’ve had a look! I’m channelling my inner Brandon Starc.”
Athletics Australia were fortunate enough to speak with Kurtis from his Australian training base in Perth, as he enjoyed three weeks at home prior to returning to the current European circuit. An open conversationalist, Marschall offered insights to his coaching change, and the competitive mindset of one of the world’s brightest young talents.
An overcast March afternoon in Birmingham proved a pivotal point in Kurtis Marschall’s young career, as four clearances placed him in unknown territory at the 2018 IAAF World Indoor Championships. Vaulting over an equal personal best of 5.80m on his first attempt, it dawned on Marschall, as one of the six competitors remaining, that he was in the midst of a world championship medal hunt.
Recalling the moment fondly, Marschall exclaimed “It was just… just stupid. I hit 5.80m on my first attempt, and in the last 12 years 5.80m has won a medal – I found myself in a situation where I realised woah, I’ve got to get myself together here”.
The 2018 IAAF Indoor World Championships marked a significant mental shift, “Being in a potential medal spot in a major competition shook me, I realised “this is what I’m here for!” – I wasn’t just making up the numbers anymore. The rest of the field now noticed that I was one of ‘the guys’, and earning that respect was a massive confidence booster, now I know I can mix it with the top dogs if I need to.”
A Commonwealth Games champion at 20-years of age, laughter perpetuates a 30-minute phone interview with the Perth resident.
Following major championship success, athletes tend to habitually continue with a system that appears to be working but Marschall viewed the Commonwealth Games as an opportunity to critically assess his goals, training environment, and professionalism.
A process that ultimately forged a 2,700km move west, sincerely thankful for everything Adelaide had offered, remaining driven by a deep internal desire for perfection, in a discipline overflowing with technical critique.
Recounting the reasoning and thought processes behind his move, Marschall is exacting and emphasises his appreciation for each member of his support team, pausing to think how to best summarise his initial meetings with famed pole vault coach Alex Parnov.
“When I moved, knowing that I had this European season coming up, we really made the effort not to change too much.”
Marschall admits he had elements of his vault that Parnov was eager to alter, both were aware of the upcoming season. With the inherent risk associated with major technical changes, Parnov encouraged a more gradual timeline.
“We knew there were a few major technical changes we needed to make in my jump, but at the same time we knew (those changes) would come over a long period of time – and we didn’t really have a long period of time leading into this European season”.
The new pairing of coach and athlete embraced the European season as a learning experience, without the pressure of a major global championship to constrict either coach or athlete to a performance timeline.
Marschall has found the experience exciting, citing Parnov’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the event as a daily motivator, “We went over with the intention of just learning as much as we could, jumping as consistently as possible, e, that’s why I think it was a seamless transition, we moulded what I had in Adelaide and just refined the model a little”.
Barring a 5.45m error at the Rabat Diamond League on July 13th, a competition complicated by an errant bag of poles forcing Marschall to jump on borrowed poles, Parnov’s approach has brought European season success.
The World Under-20 silver medallist has compiled a series of 5.80m vaults, alongside four top-six finishes on the Diamond League circuit, highlighted by an equal third place 5.77m finish in Lausanne (SUI), tied with reigning World Champion and Olympic bronze medallist Sam Kendricks (USA), a 13-time Diamond League meet winner in his own right.
Consistent finishes amongst the world’s pole-vaulting elite has proven invaluable, but Marschall remains humble when discussing his technical advancements, referencing his own margin of an error in a vault compared to the likes of Renaud Lavillenie (FRA, 6.16m) or Armand Duplantis (SWE, 6.05m).
“100%, I’m not as consistent as those guys just yet. They’ve had years and years of training on me. I’m looking to build on being able to clear bars that might not have necessarily been in reach before.”
Marschall points to the importance of working towards excellence in the fundamentals of his competition environment.
“Even though they’re not huge bars, say the bar is at 5.60m and I have a pretty scrappy jump, we’re still taking an approach that it’s still vital to clear that bar even if you don’t feel the jump is perfect.
“You might be a few centimetres too close, instead of pulling out of the jump, you make sure you go through with the jump and try to clear it.”
Preferring to take a wholistic approach, Marschall cites his in-competition approach, “Every single jump is important, every bar is important, if you can clear everything first attempt, you’re going to put yourself in a better position as early as possible.”
Quick to assess previous faults, Marschall views himself as physically fortunate whilst developing in technical expertise, “I used to just be this perfect technician, where I’d only really ever jump high if everything was ‘perfect’… I need to get my body to a point where it can withstand a larger margin of error in the vaulting process on the day – where even if you’re feeling a bit off, you can still a good 5.80 bar, without having to feel 100% every single day of the week.”
Marschall was frank with Parnov regarding his goal-setting, as both agreed it irresponsible to limit the youngster.
“We decided next season isn’t about ‘just’ jumping 5.90m, or eventually 6.00m – we’re going to progress, and never stop until there’s literally nothing left – if that means Worlds, Olympics, jumping 6.20m or 6.30m, whatever it is”.
A bold set of targets, Marschall admits the Commonwealth Games win was a brilliant confidence boost, but also helped in raising the profile of pole vaulting, consequently assisting Marschall in broadening his support team through increased interest in the event.
Looking toward the remainder of the European season, the seventh ranked Diamond League vaulter will compete in the Diamond League final in Brussels, followed by the Continental Cup (Ostrava).
Both are competitive environments that previously intimidated Marschall, a mindset since discarded, “It is really good to go into those meets knowing there’s a world class level of competition available, but not reacting with “Wow, this is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me”, I don’t really get that anymore, I still know it’s big, and it’s a great opportunity to jump something huge“.
Following his Gold Coast victory, Marschall returned to a Diamond League circuit that viewed him in a new light.
“After I won the Commonwealth Games, I flew to Shanghai to compete a month later, and all the boys immediately said “Oh congratulations! You’re the Commonwealth champion!” – and I just stepped back for a second and thought “Phwoar… they followed it!?” – and I didn’t really expect that, it was almost comforting being recognised internationally for something like that”.
The second-half of 2018 has brought international success for Australia’s latest vaulting phenom, achievements Marschall credits to his competitive mentality, “It might sound dumb, but in some of those competitions I’ve realised - “well, this is your situation now, just deal with it”.
Pole vault is an event of simplification, describes Marschall, a process he’s matured in “I used to suck at it! I’d find myself in a major event and think “Pfft, this is crazy, I’m way out of my depth”, but now that I’ve had a few major experiences under my belt, now that I’ve had Birmingham, I’m now able to think “Look, you are here for a reason, you can jump these bars if you need to, you’ve just got to stick to your processes, don’t get overawed by it all”.
Sean Whipp for Athletics Australia