Coach Scott Simpson on how Sky Scholar Holly Bradshaw has evolved into GB's pole vaulting queen

By Mark Ashenden

Last Updated: 24/03/2017, 11:05 GMT

Holly Bradshaw and Scott Simpson
Holly Bradshaw and Scott Simpson have formed a close partnership since 2012

"She was a little wild – did crazy things. I remember her competing in France after a foot injury and she was limping on the runway, but determined to compete.

"When she first came to Cardiff, I discovered she was even more competitive than my original perception. She was also shy and quiet...that has all changed over the last four years!"

The words of Scott Simpson, the coach who has been taming, nurturing, calming, patching up, firing up, and ultimately supporting GB's pole vaulting queen Holly Bradshaw.

Part of the job is listening to her gripes when travelling together. Bradshaw describes her coach's penchant for gangster rap music as "bad taste". Does he mind such stinging criticism from his star pupil?

"It's a constant source of ridicule for me. But I don't care. I like what I like and if other people can't get on board with that, then they suffer on long car journeys!"

This is a relationship that will survive its musical feuds. Their bonding has developed since the 25-year-old Sky Academy Sports Scholar got fed up with commuting between the UK and USA after the 2012 London Olympics and settled in Cardiff to work with her new coach.

It's a brutally honest, analytical, open partnership that has overcome debilitating injuries, fall-outs in the heat of major competitions in China and is now moving swiftly on from mild irritation at not making the Rio podium to planning on ruling the world with a mixture of graft and giggles.

"Before she came to Cardiff, she was a young, talented vaulter on a super-fast development curve. Raw talent, very competitive, a gifted natural vaulter," says Simpson, also the Head of Coaching and Performance for Welsh Athletics.

"She has grown in many ways. She is much more professional in her approach to her career - she sees it as her profession now rather than something that was just 'fun to do and that she was good at'. 

"This is shown off the track, like her lifestyle parameters, as opposed to during training. She is also far more open with her communications and listens to her body more. Her decision making is constantly improving and she is becoming a well-rounded world class athlete."

Bradshaw's journey includes a sixth finish at London 2012, gold at the 2013 European Indoor Championships and back surgery knocking her out for 18 months. She hit back with seventh at last year's World Championships in Beijing, got injured again in January and arrived at the Rio Games with only two months of preparation.

Physically tip-top, but lacking vaulting practice, Holly just failed at 4.80m in the Olympic final and missed out on a medal.

"It's been a tough four years," Simpson adds. "We've spent more months 'rehabbing' than we've trained and prepared to compete. Neither of us have enjoyed that. We've made mistakes - too many - but I hope we've both learned from them. 

"I am generally pretty optimistic, but realistic, and I've never thought 'we can't get through this'. I've worried about Holly at times, because she's taken a lot of blows and set-backs and everyone has a breaking point. It's testimony to her determination that she's stuck with it.

"Three months before Rio, Holly hadn't picked up a pole in six months. At that stage I don't think either of us knew where it was going to end up - but we both remained optimistic - as always. There was an array of emotions along the journey, but in general, things went from strength to strength.

"At the holding camp in Brazil, Holly worked hard and I thought for the first time in 12 months since Beijing, that she could win a medal. I think Holly felt the same. The warm-up in qualification was a bit of shambles, but we weren't shaken and she qualified with ease. 

"She was great in the final. The emotion for us both when she missed at 4.80 was obvious - disappointment and a feeling of 'what if?' She was definitely capable of a 4.80/4.85 that day. It would have been a dream to have won an Olympic medal, but fifth after the journey we had - it was hard to remain disappointed."

Simpson says Holly being crowned European indoor champion was one of his favourite memories having just been handed the full coaching reins from Dan Pfaff, and describes being invited to her wedding in 2014 as a "privilege".

There was one dark cloud in their relationship that quickly blew away in Beijing last summer. He says: "Our 'disagreement' after the World Championships will also stay with me for a long time. It was funny how in a moment where we should have been celebrating that we could clash so strongly on something."

Simpson says their success is down to a fine balance - focused yet "friendly and supportive" on the track, while off it their friendship is "growing" where he is "very comfortable in Holly's company". 

"We don't agree on everything and we have different views in some areas of life, but that is fine," Simpson admits. "We are learning more about each other every year and learning where the boundaries start and finish.

"I'm not a slave driver and I'm not a dictator. I believe in creating a conducive learning environment. This is different for everyone. Holly is receptive to learning and development when she is relaxed. To create this environment, I do what I need to do. 

"You don't get to a World Class level without working, but I don't make it harder than it needs to be. There are times to build an athlete's resilience but there are ways to do that without setting stupid workouts, or acting like an idiot."

Next year's World Championships on home soil is fast approaching, followed by a Commonwealth Games in Australia in 2018 and the Japanese Olympics in 2020. What's on the Bradshaw-Simpson radar with winter kicking in?

"All our focus currently is on the Worlds," Simpson says. "Plans are laid out to get us there in the best way possible. If we can travel that journey without too many detours, then I could see her doing very well in London. Beyond that, let's wait and see, but I know Holly is totally committed to winning a medal in Tokyo. 

"Because of the difficulties she's encountered, she's realised that enjoying the good times is a critical part of the journey. It's not always going to go to plan and that is part of the experience.

"But the moments when it all comes together - that's what makes it all worth it.  My hope is that this happens at a major outdoor Championship next summer."


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