Athletics 16.7.2017 06:18 pm

Breyton Poole: The ‘tiny boy’ who’s conquered the high jump

17-year-old Breyton Poole defies conventional wisdom when it comes to the high jump. Photo: Stephen Pond/Getty Images for IAAF.

17-year-old Breyton Poole defies conventional wisdom when it comes to the high jump. Photo: Stephen Pond/Getty Images for IAAF.

The 17-year-old Capetonian has the athletics world abuzz after he cleared a massive 2.24m to win gold at the IAAF U-18 World Champs.

On the surface, it shouldn’t make sense.

The high jump, we have long been taught, is an event where height is not just an asset but an essential ingredient.

Every so often, though, an athlete comes along who defies convention.

Step forward Breyton Poole, the 17-year-old South African who at the weekend claimed high jump gold at the IAAF World U18 Championships Nairobi 2017.

It was an astonishing leap, arcing his 1.72m body up and over a bar set to 2.24m.

In that moment, both Poole and his coach Bennie Schlechder knew they had finally shredded any doubts that he was too small for his event.

It’s something he had heard since the age of 10, when Poole first dabbled in the high jump at his athletics club in Cape Town.

“They thought I wouldn’t be able to adapt to it because I was so short,” he said.

“I proved them wrong.”

If Poole is small now then he was positively micro back then.

Nonetheless, he adapted well to the event, combining it with his first love, rugby, a sport in which he would go on to play as a scrum-half at national level.

At the age of 13, he teamed up with coach Bennie Schlechder, a retired teacher from Namibia who has been living in South Africa since 2004.

“When we started working together Breyton had a semi-circle run-up that he used from primary school but I changed it. We tried to shorten and shorten it and people ask us: ‘what are you doing?’ But it’s speed jumping,” said Schlechder.

Throughout his teens Poole continued to play rugby alongside athletics, but coming into 2017 Schlechder put the foot down: “I stopped him. I said: ‘no way with a world championships coming up in Nairobi.’”

Despite rugby being put on ice, Schlechder didn’t ramp up Poole’s training, and even now his weekly load is less than most of his peers.

“He trains for one hour a day, four days a week, sometimes only three days a week,” he said.

Poole’s coach was trackside on Saturday morning as he took his first tentative steps in the boys’ high jump final, and offered some stern words after his protege had a first-time failure at just 2.02m.

“I was messing up in the start and he told me which way to go,” said Poole.

“I felt under pressure, I put myself under pressure, but Bennie said to enjoy the crowd. Luckily I got myself together.”

That’s an understatement.

Over the ensuing minutes he cleared 2.07m, 2.11m and 2.14m all at the first attempt. He then soared over 2.16m to secure gold, but his work wasn’t done.

He moved the bar up to 2.20m, which he cleared at the second for a Personal Best.

Still he went higher, hoisting himself over 2.22m at the first attempt, and then incredibly over 2.24m at the third time of asking.

The fans lapped it up, clapping and cheering and celebrating every one of his clearances.

“He’s a crowd-pleaser,” said Schlechder. “He likes the crowd, the camera, the media, and he thrives on that. He’s mentally very strong.”

Hang around the mixed zone long enough at events like this and you get to see why some succeed in underage championships.

Most winners are at an advanced stage of physical maturity relative to their peers, but Poole, once again, is the exception.

“He’s a child, a boy, so there’s lots of potential to go further,” said Schlechder.

“He’s the total package: dedicated, a performer and he has his feet on the ground.”

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