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Patience, perseverance and belief propels Murto to new heights

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In her moment of victory, when defending European champion Aikaterini Stefanidi’s failure to clear 4.80m at the last attempt revealed her as the women’s pole vault gold medallist, Wilma Murto appeared not to have noticed. 

While Stefanidi began celebrations with the bronze medallist, Tina Sutej from Slovenia, the 24-year-old Finn went about her business as impassively as if she were in training. 

Walking over to her coach, Jarno Koivunen, she exchanged a few words before marching resolutely back to her mark and requesting the bar, which she had cleared at 4.80m first time for her third Finnish record of the evening, be moved up to 4.85m – thus equalling the championship record set by her Greek rival four years earlier in Berlin. 

The transformation as she cleared it was profound – her descending face was joyful, and she sank briefly onto her knees on the landing bed, head in hands, before bounding away in search of the Finnish flag. 

Asked about her demeanour in the final stages of the competition, she laughed and responded: “That’s something me and my coach have always done – the competition isn’t over until it’s over. I felt that 4.85m in me still, and I still had that flow, and I didn’t want to let the emotions out of me at the European Championships.  

“My coach had already said ‘No, no more, 4.80m is good. We have the gold medal now.’ And I was like ‘I’ll go one more time.’  

“I felt I had one more jump height left, I had it with me, and I wanted to go for it one more time and I knew if I felt off I would just run through it and that would be fine, but I wanted to go, and I felt great, and I cleared it and I felt even greater!” 

From the outside, Murto’s progress to becoming European champion appeared curiously inverted – the higher the bar, the easier it became. 

She seemed out of the medal hunt in the early stages, requiring two attempts to clear 4.55m and 4.65m and passing after one failure at 4.70m. But then came first-time successes at 4.75m and 4.80m before her final flourish at 4.85m. 

 How to explain this phenomenon? She obliged.

“When the bar was for 4.65m or under I felt like I was holding back a little bit, I was trying to be safe with the jumps, and that doesn’t work with pole vault. 

“When the medal was sure I felt like my senses just opened and that was the flow moment – it started from there. Now I have nothing to lose, I have what I wanted – and I want more now! 

“I wanted to give everything. Kelsey-Lee Barber [Australia’s double world javelin champion] just said that when you do a technical event the less you think the better. And that kind of flow brings the best jumps out of the athlete. 

“I felt I handled my nerves quite well – and also it felt quite effortless by the end. 

“I jumped with three different poles throughout the competition. The last pole I jumped with I had only used once before, at the World Championships in Eugene last month. 

“And I missed the bar at 4.70m twice with that pole, but I knew that pole had a lot of power in it and that would take me up to that kind of height. So I didn’t have to change any kind of settings after 4.70m. I jumped everything the same from then on.” 

For Murto this was, literally and metaphorically, a return to the heights after a junior career of huge promise and achievement.  

On 31 January 2016, aged 17, she set a world U20 record of 4.71m which stood until her own clearance of 4.75 in the Munich Olympic Stadium, and later that year she won world U20 bronze before adding European U20 bronze in 2017. 

There was an Olympic Games appearance in Rio 2016 and at the last European Athletics Championships in Berlin four years ago, where she finished 17th in qualifying.  

She also didn’t make it through qualifying at the World Athletics  Championships in Doha before the pandemic curtailed her and every other athlete’s activities.  

Sixth place at last year’s European Athletics Indoor Championships was followed by a highly creditable fifth place at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games but it was her performance at last month’s World Athletics Championships in Eugene, where she finished equal sixth, was the biggest indicator of what she might achieve in Munich. 

“Eugene was very important, a great experience,” she said. “I had a bad injury in January and we were counting the days if we had enough time to be competing there. I broke my foot – I landed badly in January in a French meet and I injured the side of my foot. I had a cast on for two months. It was a big setback.  

“But we had enough time, and in Eugene I felt like I had the jumps in me. And I felt very calm knowing that it’s in me already; I just have to let it happen.” 

Asked to reflect upon the course her career has so far taken, she responded: “It’s a lot of perseverance. It’s a lot of belief in the ability to go back to that level where I was. My team has had faith in me for all that time even though when I have questioned whether I can do this or not there has always been someone there to tell me and remind me of the potential I have. 

“I am based in Turku, in southwestern Finland, where we have a sports academy. We have, I think, the best training track in Finland, and I also study in Turku - my school is just 200 metres away from the track and I live only a kilometre away. I study media - journalism and communications.” 

Asked if her latest achievement has caused her to think of still higher accomplishments, she responded.

“It’s enough for now. Although I heard that on the 4.85m there was air between me and the bar so there is something there! But getting this kind of pressure and this kind of environment is not every day, so we’ll see. We’ll have to let the dust settle and we’ll set new goals. 

“This season I still have three competitions so we’ll reassess after that and see where our eyes are at.”

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