The Greek standout stayed calm and collected as she outpaced two fellow pole vaulters to take home top honors Saturday in the second edition of the Ultimate Garden Clash staged at their own training facilities.
With the temperature hovering around 39 degrees Celsius (102 Fahrenheit) in Athens, Stefanidi cleared a height of 4 meters (13 feet, 1 ½ inches) a total of 34 times over a 30-minute span in a rare track and field competition held during the coronavirus pandemic. Two-time U.S. indoor winner Katie Nageotte cleared the bar 30 times from her training facility in Marietta, Georgia. Commonwealth Games champion Alysha Newman of Canada had 21 clearances in Bolton, Ontario, during their head-to-head-to-head showdown.
“I very much enjoyed it,” Stefanidi said. Stefanidi was cruising along before things got a little tighter near the end. An exhausted Stefanidi struggled to get the bar back on the holder after a miss with about three minutes to go. It kept twisting out of her hands. She had a big enough lead, though.
“I feel it was the bar, not me — the bar’s fault,” cracked Stefanidi, who won Olympic gold at the 2016 Rio Games. “I didn’t expect my upper body to get this tired. I could not keep my hands steady.” Those hands were steady enough all afternoon and she nearly matched the men's total from a competition staged in their respective backyards on May 3. Mondo Duplantis and Renaud Lavillenie shared the victory when each had 36 clearances over a bar set at 5 meters (16-4 3/4), while Sam Kendricks finished with 26.
Retired two-time Olympic champion decathlete Ashton Eaton suggested on social media the next competition feature a jump-off between Duplantis and Lavillenie, along with Stefanidi. She’s game. One condition: She needs some time to recover.
“Give me three weeks and I’ll do it,” said Stefanidi, who cooled down immediately after the event by eating a banana. Combined, the women had 85 successful jumps. Their male counterparts had 98 in their competition.
Unlike the men’s version, the women didn’t have the same sort of setups in their backyards. Instead, they were connected by video link from their local nearby training facilities. The conditions weren't exactly the same for all three. The competition boiled down to heat versus humidity versus headwind.
Stefanidi had the heat (“I kept sweating and had to respray my grip,” she explained) and Nageotte the humidity; she frequently walked back to the start with someone holding an umbrella over her. Meanwhile, Newman dealt with wind and cooler conditions in Canada. She wore a long-sleeved shirt for the competition that featured two 15-minute periods between a brief break.
“I had to keep thinking to myself, ‘Tall knees. Tall toes, tall at take-off,'" Newman said. “I felt so tired and heavy in the second half. But it’s the happiest third-place I’ve ever had. It’s a great accomplishment for me and really helped push me on to another level.”
The men’s pole vault competition provided a game plan for the women: keep a steady pace. “It definitely helps,” Nageotte said of studying the men's event. “But for me, it wasn’t as much as watching the guys as knowing what my body is capable of and knowing what my endurance is like, and knowing I need to take advantage of some sort of rest to just keep going. If you give me just a little bit of rest, I can go for a very long period of time."
The Ultimate Garden Clash event has been popular on World Athletics social media channels and could serve as a model for future track competitions. The outbreak of COVID-19 has led to the Tokyo Olympics being moved to 2021 and the Diamond League circuit of track announcing a new, shorter schedule.
The women's competition had viewers tuning in from places such as Australia, Indonesia and Jamaica, according to World Athletics. “It was a terrific competition and not under the best conditions for any of them, but yet again resilience and skill won the day," World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said. “In my eyes they are all winners and I am so proud of them.”