Holly Bradshaw is one of the finest women pole vaulters in the world. Holly is an Olympic bronze medalist, which is a rarefied status. Not many people win Olympic medals and even fewer win Olympic pole vault medals. 

This is the first of two parts from Stuart Weir, our senior writer in Oxford, England., on Holly Bradshaw. This is a very different piece from Holly, and we thank her for her honesty. 

Holly Bradshaw “I don’t know who I am. When I retire, who am I going to be?”

I wouldn’t say I know Holly Bradshaw well.  I have followed her career closely.  I have been in the stadium as she competed in three Olympics, five World Championships, etc.  I was in the stadium when she jumped 4.90 for a new GB record.  I have spoken to her on many occasions.  She is an engaging athlete, one who never gives bland answers.  She is a million miles from the “I am very happy that I won” all too common post-competition flash quote.  Following her studies in Psychology, she published an academic paper on “post-Olympic blues” – more on that later.

Holly Bradshaw, photo by Martin Bateman

At the delayed Tokyo Olympics, she reached the pinnacle of her career with a bronze medal, a few weeks after that 4.90. She entered 2022 with a realistic chance of medals at The World and European Championships as well as the Commonwealth Games.  In Oregon, disaster struck when a pole snapped on a practice jump, effectively ending her season. In 2023, she was battling hamstring injuries – possibly caused by trying to compensate for the 2022 injury.  4:61 was the best her body could manage in 2023.

Then, in late 2023, she split from her long-term coach, Scott Simpson, and relocated to the North of England, where she grew up. She is now overseeing her own program.  Holly has not made any public comment about the change of coaching arrangements.

Holly Bradshaw, 2022 Commonwealth Games, photo by English Athletics

In an interview with AW, published in December 2023, she addressed the dichotomy that she felt between Holly, the person, and Holly, the elite athlete.  She asks pertinent questions: “The sport has shaped me. Throughout those years, you learn a lot about yourself. You learn who you are and what you want to be. I think because athletics has told me what I need to be to win a medal, that shaped me as a person. I was really ditzy, really all over the show. Just happy-go-lucky, and that’s not me now. I write everything down and every training session.  I analyze everything. And I don’t go out. I don’t drink. I don’t eat bad food. That’s not to say I haven’t had any joy, but I’ve done so many things that have constrained me for so many years. I would describe it as living unhealthy behaviors for so long. 

“I say to my husband, I don’t know who I am. When I retire, who am I going to be? And that worries me a bit. I even said to him you’ve only known me as Holly, the athlete. What if I’m a completely different person?”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – JUNE 26: Holly Bradshaw of Blackburn celebrates after setting the new national record during the Women’s Pole Vault Final on Day Two of the Muller British Athletics Championships at Manchester Regional Arena on June 26, 2021, in Manchester, England. (Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images)

Her career has been successful but at a cost: “If someone says to me you are an Olympic bronze medalist, it brings the most joy. That’s because, intrinsically, it means a lot to me. But that doesn’t negate all the other trauma that’s come from trying to win it. I look at it, and for 10 seconds, I’m so proud I did that, and I do not regret winning it. But then you think about the damage that it’s done. As it makes me question: was that the right thing to do? I’m a good athlete. But the way in which I won my Olympic medal was by being so meticulous, so organized, and so on it in every single element of my life for 10 years.  That involved collecting sleep data, analyzing my heart rate variability, weighing my food, and weighing myself every morning. ‘OK, I’m too heavy. I need to starve myself for three months. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, but I’d have to neck a glass of water because I was so hungry because I was trying to drop weight.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – JUNE 26: Holly Bradshaw of Blackburn competes during the Women’s Pole Vault Final on Day Two of the Muller British Athletics Championships at Manchester Regional Arena on June 26, 2021, in Manchester, England. (Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images)

“I think winning the Olympic bronze medal has damaged me physically and mentally. I just worry: have I damaged myself too much that I can’t get back from that? And then I almost questioned, is it really worth it if I damaged myself for the rest of my life?”

She worries too if her body will recover from the regime of the elite athlete if she has pushed herself to the point of no return. She wonders, after retirement from pole vault if she might not even be able to play recreational sports.  Will the knees and hamstrings that she has pushed so hard be painful for life? “Have I pushed myself too hard? Have I done too much damage?”  

Holly Bradshaw, 2021 Tokyo,
photo by Stuart Weir

She almost feels like the hamster on the wheel – afraid to get off because what else would she do? “There have been so many times when I thought, why am I doing this and the only reason I’m doing it is because it’s what I do. I’m Holly. I’m a pole vaulter. I get up, I go on the train, I go and pole vault. I’m not doing it because I love it. I’m just doing it because it’s what I do, and that’s not a good reason”. 

She is determined to enjoy Paris and to end her career there on a high, and to be able to look back on her amazing career.  Yet there is always in the back of her mind the thought: “I hate the sport. It’s made me a horrible person”.  

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – JUNE 26: Holly Bradshaw of Blackburn celebrates after setting the new national record during the Women’s Pole Vault Final on Day Two of the Muller British Athletics Championships at Manchester Regional Arena on June 26, 2021, in Manchester, England. (Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images)

This is an important article. Holly articulates it so well, but one wonders how many other athletes would identify with what she expresses in terms of the cost of full commitment to the sport.

In the second article, I will draw on my 2022 interview with her about post-Olympic blues.

All quotes from Holly in this article are from AW Monthly, December 2023

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