As you might expect, competing at the Rio Olympics was a pretty big deal for Australia’s then 19-year-old pole vaulter Kurtis Marschall – especially as he only qualified three days short of the deadline. But the post-Games reaction he encountered back home had a similar impact upon him.
For Marschall - who built upon that Olympic experience this year finishing seventh in the IAAF World Championships final with 5.65m before raising his personal best to 5.73m - the interest and expectations raised by his participation were something of a shock.
On the eve of last month’s IAAF Athletics Awards 2017, he told a group of 24 teenaged students from Monaco’s College Charles III:
“I thought the Olympics would be this amazing, incredible experience that would finish at the end - you competed and then it was over.
“But when I came home there was so much more surrounding the Olympic Games than I expected. TV interviewers were waiting for us in Sydney when we all arrived. So the plane flew in, landed in this hangar, in this big shed, and there was TV, media, newspapers, everything.
“My family and friends all flew in to Sydney as well, to see me after just competing, just doing pole vault. It was surreal. And I didn’t think that side would come with it.
“I thought – ‘I’ll just go back to normal living, to normal, everyday living and I thought it would be easy.’
“And as soon as you go to the Olympic Games everyone thinks – ‘Oh, you’re a really good public speaker. You can stand in front of huge crowds.’ And I was like ‘No! I’m not good at this!’
“They asked me to be on TV shows, they asked me several times to be interviewed by newspapers, things like that. And with practice you get better at it.
“But I still get nerves like now, talking to you guys. But, yeah, coming back from the Olympic Games was a big shock…”
Practice has clearly worked for this most likeable young athlete, who is already an accomplished communicator.
At several points during the student visit he very consciously segued out of his own comments by cueing in one of the other three athletes sitting alongside him - Olympic pole vault champion Ekaterini Stefanidi, Italy’s 19-year-old sprinter Filipo Tortu and world marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe.
Each athlete in turn was invited to speak over footage of some of their finest moments. As the attention turned to Marschall’s silver medal-winning performance at the 2016 IAAF World Under 20 Championships in Bydgoszcz, he advised the room with a grin:
“Don’t watch this jump – it’s bad!” adding:
“At that time my best was 5.70 and I only managed 5.55, so I wasn’t that happy. But I got to represent my country, on the other side of the planet, and I did the best I could. You can’t really ask for more.
“I really thought there was a little bit more to come. I wanted to get the gold, but I didn’t. So I went to the Olympic Games...”
Marschall’s 24-hour rule
A World U20 silver medal hardly qualifies as a bad day’s work. Nor does vaulting 5.60 at the Olympics, and only missing making the final by three places. But Marschall said he is now able to deal with bad days if and when they arose.
Acknowledging that he used to be “terrible” at dealing with discouraging performances, he cited the Rule promoted by a famous Aussie Rules coach: “Win or lose, you have 24 hours to celebrate or cry as much as you like, but then that’s it. After 24 hours, move on.
“So if I have a poor competition, 24 hours later I move on. Get back into training, improve from that competition, absorb it and then move on…
“That’s the Rule I use.”
Asked about his start in the sport, Marschall – who is studying Human Movement at the University of South Australia - responded: “I started pole vaulting when I was 13.
“In the last seven years I have been to the World Juniors twice, and the Olympics, and the World Championships this year. So it’s all been pretty smooth sailing.
“But there are some times, like in the middle of winter when there’s no competition and you are just training hard, and you’ve got really hard sessions day after day after day, and then you come back from training and your parents are like ‘You’re so lazy! You’re sleeping all the time! You’re not doing your homework like you’re supposed to!’
“Pole vault training is quite demanding, especially on the brain.
“And then I have to try and impress the other people in my life who don’t think much of sport - they think it’s just playtime.
“But I treat it like my job. I love it.
“Pole vault is an event where you have to put in the hours, you have to get really good at the technique before you get better. It’s not like sprinting, where you are sort of born with it. Even though there’s a lot of hours to be put into sprinting on the technique and stuff, if you’re born with it, you’re going to be good at it. But in pole vault you have to develop the technique.
“I decided I wanted to be an athlete when I was 16. I had been doing pole vault for three years, and I decided to go to this Athletics Australia camp in Canberra where all the coaches and all the good athletes of my age went.
“There were information sessions about nutrition, training and that sort of stuff. And that was what kick-started me. I was like ‘I want to pursue this. It looks like an awesome career. I get to travel the world if I’m any good – so why not give it a crack?’”
Hooker, the ultimate inspiration
If Marschall should ever falter, he will turn to the example of the athlete whom he cites, instantly, as his inspiration – fellow Australian pole vaulter Steve Hooker.
Hooker’s record of golds at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin speaks of a perfect career record.
But as Marschall points out, there was “a big speed bump halfway along.”
“Steve Hooker. He is my inspiration. He was Olympic and world champion. But there’s another main reason why. Because, after he won the 2006 Commonwealth Games on his home soil, he moved coaches and came back into training – but then he didn’t take off for 18 months. He couldn’t do it, even off one step.
“He went through the toughest 18 months I’ve ever heard of in a whole career. It wasn’t an injury. It was his head just saying ‘You can’t do it. ‘ He ended up going to a hypnotist and they just told him that he could do it.
“And then eventually he came back and won the Olympic title in 2008, and won the World Championships in 2009.”
It is an example that strengthens his resolve… but his resolve sounds in good shape anyway.
“I have only a certain amount of energy, and I use most of it on pole vault training, but I have to use that last little bit of it to keep ticking away at life,” he said. “Get good sleep, get good recovery, and then it’s the next day and you go again…
“Then you have that ultimate goal, whether it’s the World Championships, or an Olympics Games, that you are always striving for. Then you know you’re always going to get up the next morning and try and improve yourself, no matter how dark the day is….”
Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF