British pole vaulter Harry Coppell flying high – in more ways than one

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Given the choice of superpower, many would opt for the ability to fly. But for Harry Coppell, he probably feels he already can.

As a British record holder for pole vault, Coppell, from Billinge in Merseyside, spends most of his time in the air.

If that wasn’t enough to get his adrenaline going, he is also learning to become a pilot. Although, at £200 a lesson, he hasn’t yet had chance to commit as much time to that.

With his pole vault, though, he’s well accomplished having spent over a decade in the sport, and it’s fair to say the 24-year-old has no problems with heights.

He said: “From people looking outside in, there’s two different thoughts. It either looks terrifying and they don’t know how you do it, or the other one is, ‘it looks easy and I can do it,’ which is actually surprisingly a common answer. 

“My cousin actually still believes that he could vault higher than me if he tried it. It’s surprising how many people think that they could just do it, but when you actually go and try it, I think it’s more like the excitement of jumping high, not actually the fear of it.”

Despite what his cousin may think, it’s taken a lot of training for Harry to get where he is today, and that’s the British Athletics base in Loughborough.

He’d previously tended to stay close to home, going to nearby schools and studying Sports Coaching down the road at Liverpool John Moores University, but the Loughborough move from his family home in 2019 allowed him to join up with new coach Scott Simpson.

Many technical athletes struggled to train during the first Covid-19 lockdown, while Coppell became one of the lucky few to have access to the necessary facilities towards the end of restrictions. 

That practice proved invaluable as it ultimately helped him to retain the national title and set a new British record of 5.85m in September 2020, beating the previous outdoor record of 5.82m – for comparison, the world record is currently 6.18m, set by Sweden’s Armand Duplantis in February 2020.

Harry and coach Simpson had originally headed into the British Championships with a “safe plan” after a disrupted year, but following a good warm-up and a comfortable first jump, he quickly skipped through the heights.

He started feeling better and better with his vault and, when he cleared 5.72m, he decided to push the boundaries and go for a height never achieved before by a Brit. 

“I don’t know what happened between landing on the bed and me then sitting down like 10 minutes later for a drink – I do not know what happened,” laughed Harry.

“I just sort of let everything take over; I think it was the timing more than anything. Me and my coach sat down after the first lockdown and we were like, okay, what are our realistic goals for the season? 

“And we were saying, if this was a normal year, and we’d had a full season of training going into outdoors, and everything’s going well, he was like, ‘I have no doubt you would probably break the British record,’ but the fact is, we hadn’t had that.” 

That proved insignificant, though, as Harry accomplished a goal which he has always viewed as achievable.

He said: “It sounds really cocky and not right to say, but I felt like I had the potential to jump the British record five or six years ago. I knew I could do it eventually. 

“It’s sort of knowing that that keeps you in it and keeps you wanting to train and to get better. Like even now I’ve jumped 5.85m, I’m trying to look towards how to jump six metres. 

“It’s just how to always go on the next step. It’s interesting, because it may happen one day, but I have not yet hit the point where I feel like I can’t do more.”

Those British Championships were one of the few events which managed to go ahead during a disjointed calendar, but the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are still to come, having been moved to 2021.

It’ll mark the first major competition which Harry will compete in, after having to pull out of the 2019 Doha World Championships, and it’s something he’s certainly looking forward to.

He smiled: “I know it’s quite a childish thing to think about but I really want the Olympic rings tattoo as a mark of being an Olympian as it’s the highest sort of honour in our sport.

“The fact that we should have done that already is a bit strange, but I’m really excited for the opportunity.

“I now have a lot better chance of getting a result that I would be happy with rather than just going for the experience.”

Competing at the Olympic Games is the pinnacle of any athlete’s career and it’s not something that he would have envisaged reaching from a young age.

Harry, who represents Wigan & District, went along to a running club in primary school with his mates, but described sprinting in a straight line as “boring”.

He soon started to experiment with different events and got into high jump before realising that pole vaulters were flying higher – and he just had to have a taste.

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Training with John Mitchell from his teen years, his technical ability came on leaps and bounds, and in 2013, he earned his just rewards as he became World Youth Champion.

He said: “I went into it to win; I didn’t go for a medal. I didn’t go to do the best I could, I went into it thinking ‘I’m going to leave here with a gold medal.’

“It’s that sort of mindset that sort of drove me through it, but then actually finishing the competition and knowing that I’d won was just an indescribable feeling. Even the performances I’ve done since I’ve never quite got that feeling. 

“At that time, there was nobody else of my age in the world who was better than me and that’s a pretty crazy feeling.”

Most people around the world, sports fans or not, tend to tune in for the Olympics and to cheer on their country’s athletes, but it’s mainstream events such as the sprints which gain the most publicity.

While admitting bias, Harry believes more people should give his event a go.

“A good pole vault competition with all the drama and everything that goes along with it is, in my opinion, so much better to watch [than sprints],” he added.

Whether or not people back home are watching, Harry will be doing what he does best – flying high.