July 30th 2005 is a moment in the history of Blackburn Harriers, that few who were there at the time, ever imagined would lead to the Olympic Podium. It was a Wednesday night. It was raining. It was, as it turned out, the first step in a 16 year long road, culminating in this new 13yr old young athlete, becoming the first British woman to win an Olympic Pole Vault Medal. July 30th 2005 was the date that Holly Bradshaw joined Blackburn Harriers.
In her first competitive year – 2006 – as an U15 she competed in hurdles, high jump, shot putt, discus and javelin for the Club at fixtures including those organised by the Mid Lancs Track & Field League and the then UKA Young Athletes League. In 2007 as an U17 her levels of competition involvement increased hugely and was the first season in which she competed in Pole Vault. Blackburn Harriers had put on a six week taster session under the old ‘flying coach’ system where qualified Coaches would come into a club for six weeks with the intention of imparting knowledge to existing and new coaches as well as providing an opportunity for athletes to get involved for the first time or indeed improve upon already existing experience in their event. Holly was in the Club’s Hurdles squad at the time and her then Coach – Bob Groves – suggested that he “thought she would do well in it” and to give it a go.
At the end of those six weeks, it seemed that the die was cast. Pole Vault it seemed would be the way she would go in her athletic career. In 2008, still an U17 Holly won the Lancashire Combined Events Championships at Blackpool with a points total of 3835 before going on to post a total of 3998 points in the North West Schools Combined Events Championships in 3rd place. This was followed by finishing 14th with a total of 3961 points at the English Schools Combined Events Championships in Birmingham. During the year, her performances led her to establish U17 Women’s Blackburn Harriers Club Records for the Heptathlon (3998 points), the Pole Vault (2.80m), the 100m Hurdles (15.3), the 4kg Shot Putt (9.80m) and the Javelin (new) with a distance of 32.93m.
Moving up as an U20 in 2009 Holly started to concentrate on almost exclusively the Pole Vault, competing 18 times – winning 11 of them – including the Northern Indoor Championships, Lancashire County Championships, the Regional Junior Championships in Portugal, Lancashire Schools Championships and the Northern U20 Championships. In 2010, still an U20, she competed in the Pole Vault on 20 occasions, finishing the season with a personal best of 4.35m, set at the British Championships held in Birmingham where she finished in the Silver Medal position behind Sale Harrier Kate Dennison. That year Holly won the Loughborough International, finished 2nd in the U20/U23 England & World Championship Trials, won the Loughborough Open, the Loughborough University Open before going on to win Bronze in the IAAF World U20/Junior Championships held in Canada.
Then came the London Olympics a year which saw Holly clear a height of 4.87m indoors in France, won the British Championships which included the Olympic Trials after winning the European Indoor Trials and British Championships, going on to take Bronze in the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Turkey. The great competiton of the year – the 2012 London Olympics – saw Holly make her first appearance in the biggest and most significant athletic competition of them all, on the Olympic stage, where she finished 6th in the Final. In 2016 she went one better placing 5th in the Rio Olympics after competing in just eight events in the whole year, one of which was the Zurich Diamond League which she won. The World Championships in 2017 saw Holly place 6th – followed in 2018 by the Bronze Medal at the European Championships and 4th spot at the Commonwealth Games. In 2019 she came 4th at the World Championships in Doha after winning the Silver Medal at the European Indoor Championships.
She is currently, and has been for some years now the British record holder with multiple British titles and has continued to compete on the highest athletic stage with all of the top world’s women pole vaulters. Any one looking at this fabulous record would be forgiven if they thought that this catalogue of victories, titles and records was seamless – it has not been so. She has had to endure serious injuries and setbacks. There have been trials and tribulations, self-doubt as there are for many athletes, but it takes a particular kind of personality, a certain strength of character and a focused mentality to cope with all of this and still manage to keep yourself on the path you have chosen. With support from her husband Paul, her family, her Coach and close friends, she has fought through those times with courage, determination and the absolute desire to succeed. None of it has come easy.
Holly’s success in vaulting 4.85m to win an Olympic Bronze Medal on a momentous day in August in Tokyo, is one of those moments where you jump up and shot ‘fabulous Holly, you have become an Olympic medalist’. It makes your heart pound as she runs down the runway, plants the pole and you try to work out whether she is going to make it as she soars upwards towards the bar and hopefully over it and you let out a spontaneous holler of ‘yes, yes, she’s done it’.
But behind all of that, the expectation, the adrenalin of the contest, the images of the world stage that she is on, there is the knowledge that this one moment in time, this one vault, this one photo, this one memory, this one fabulous achievement, has all been realised as a result of 15 years of dedicated work, of sacrifice, of good and bad training sessions, of moments when you feel that it will never go right, of moments when you fly. They are all part of the journey in athletics. When young athletes look at Holly they should feel inspired. They should be enthused to start that journey that she started out on in 2005. But they also need to remember, that when you do not produce a personal best at an event when your 15, it isn’t the end of the world. The journey is not about just being a good young athlete, it is about the evolution from a child to an adult athlete, learning and understanding your event, living with the successes and coping with the failures.
When you travel that path, there is a chance that you finish up as Holly has done, with an Olympic Medal around your neck. There is also a chance that you will finish up like Holly – an inspirational human being, grounded, confident and someone most definitely to admire.