Bedford and County AC’s 18 year-old Pole-Vaulting sensation, Frankie Johnson, is 6 ft 2 inches tall. “I’ve never been the smallest kid, or the slimmest, and everyone’s always said, ‘you should be a rugby player, you should be a thrower.’” Proving them wrong has helped to motivate Frankie to become a record-breaking pole vaulter. Four years ago, Frankie shot to the top of the UK all-time under 15 list with a jump of 4 metres, 32 centimetres. An indoor Under 17 record of 4.92 followed two years later. This season Frankie’s highest vault of 5.15 topped the country’s Under 20 rankings, and put him in ninth place overall in the UK. He was the youngest member of the senior top ten.
That vault of 5.15 was one of the highlights of Frankie’s season. It came at Bedford’s International Athletics Stadium in April. It was a Southern Athletics League record (Olympic champion, Greg Rutherford, holds the men’s Long Jump record, so Frankie is in good company!), and it helped Bedford and County to win the match.
The club, and his family, have been key factors in Frankie’s success. His Dad, Barry Johnson, has brought on several successful high jumpers, and assists Frankie with his plyometric training routines (plyometrics is fitness training that aims to boost muscle power by focusing on bounding and jumping). And Frankie singles out the role played by his coach Simon Eastwood as being critical to his development. “I wouldn’t be where I am without him,” Frankie says. “The most important thing in an athlete’s life is the relationship with his coach. It doesn’t matter what the standard is, what level he is, it’s always about the relationship that the athlete and coach have.” Frankie is now one of the top pole vaulters in the country, and – unsurprisingly - his level of performance is beyond that of anybody else in the club. And yet, speaking to him, it is clear that he values the support of Bedford’s vaulting community: Coach Simon’s wife, Jemma Eastwood, shares mentoring duties, and was the British Master’s pole-vaulting champion this year; Bob Kingman is another successful master, whilst other seniors such as Spaniard Javier Ferrer Ferrando help to keep Frankie on his toes in training.
One of the most critical factors in a pole-vaulter’s life, though, is the pole itself. Take a pole, add Frankie’s strength, speed, determination, courage, skill and years of training, and you have the rare ability to vault over five metres. That’s about a metre higher than the tallest elephant that ever walked the Earth. No burgeoning vaulter can make much progress without a pole. But they are expensive. Frankie needs three new ones for next season, which will set him back over £2000. So he still feels grateful to former Bedford and County chairman Steve Janes, and the club’s committee, who financed his first full-sized set several years ago. It’s that sort of support that can make a difference.
Poles help Frankie to win championships and break records. But they can also let him down, and even put him in danger. Wet conditions are a problem. Frankie explains that vaulting in the rain is hard – your hands struggle to grip the pole. Competing during a heavy downpour at the British Senior Championships in Birmingham on 24th August, Frankie’s hands slipped. His pole snapped in half. He came down on his neck at the front of the landing bed. It took some courage to get up and vault again, but that is what Frankie did. He managed to finish seventh, clearing 5.05.
And extreme heat also generates problems. Warming up in temperatures of over 40° C at the Mannheim Junior International in Germany back in June, Frankie overloaded his pole: it snapped into 3 pieces. Having travelled to the continent two days early, he was unable to compete.
All athletes will be familiar with the highs and lows that Frankie describes. Things don’t always go to plan, and when they don’t you have to pick yourself up and go again. Pole vaulters need strength and speed. A strong trunk is vital. But Pole vaulting success is also a question of mental attitude. “It’s just me and the bar,” says Frankie. “It has been for the last nine years. I’d rather take a PB over a win any day of the week.”
It is that positive attitude that Frankie has been trying to pass on to Bedford’s school children. As a youth ambassador for Bedford and County, Frankie has been visiting local primary schools, taking assemblies (he brings his poles in to show the youngsters), and extolling the importance of health and fitness. This is part of UK Athletics Game Changers programme, which aims to make children more active, and involved in athletics. For example, Frankie launched the ‘Daily Mile’ at Cauldwell Lower School – pupils and teachers commit to running a mile every day. And whenever Frankie visits a school he is sure to tell the pupils about Bedford and County’s Beagles programme, which is for young people of all abilities in school years 4, 5 and 6. The Beagles meet every Saturday morning during term time at Bedford International Athletics Stadium, where they enjoy fun athletics-based activities. This is part of the England Athletics Young Athlete Development Pathway. Looking at Frankie’s pictures, it is clear that the kids Frankie meets in his school visits look up to him in more ways than one!
The outdoor season is over now, and you can find Frankie in the gym working on strength and stamina. He is preparing himself, both physically and mentally, to do battle against Britain’s best next year. It is of course impossible to know for sure exactly what the future will hold for him, but like all athletes, Frankie sets himself targets. July 2020 will see the International Amateur Athletics Federation’s Under 20 World Championships, which will take place in Nairobi, Kenya, and Frankie wants to be there. The qualification standards for the British team are not out yet, but he has a realistic chance of making the team. Can he win a medal? He wants to. Frankie’s eyes light up as he thinks about it. “To get a medal on a world stage would be amazing. I’ve just got to jump a bit higher.” Perhaps 5.50 – which is around an elephant and a half. “Quite a big jump from where I am at the minute,” says Frankie. But Frankie Johnson is good at vaulting over obstacles.