Being a champion is not enough to set an example to young people
I wasn’t predestined to become a pole-vaulter. I could even have missed out on athletics altogether. I began playing sport very early in life, around 5 years old, and I started with gymnastics. I practiced it for 10 years until getting to Masters level. At 15, I was steered towards pole-vaulting and after 6 months’ training I won the Youth Games in Moscow, then I competed in the World Junior Championships. It all happened very quickly. However, athletics wasn’t my first choice. I sort of stumbled on it by accident.
At the outset, my knowledge of athletics was close to zero. When I started, my coach very calmly explained that if I worked hard and listened to his advice I could become the new Bubka. I remember looking hard at him and asking: “But who is she?” I’d never heard of Sergueï Bubka!
With such a track record, it was difficult for me to look to role-models for inspiration and growth. I didn’t have any. But later, I realized the importance of showing young people from my own country and the whole world over the importance of a good self-image, both as an athlete and as a person. Being a champion is not enough to inspire youth. You also have to incarnate certain values. I’ve met great athletes who tuned out to be people you’d rather not spend time with.
Sport has literally given me everything. I owe it the life I lead today. I owe it the opportunity to have travelled all over the world, met people from all walks of life, and enjoyed incredible experiences. Without sport my existence would have been so different. Today, with my athletic career behind me, the time has come to pass on to young people all that sport has given me. In a certain way, I want to give back. It’s now for me to explain all that sport can help you achieve, but only if you work very hard and believe in yourself.
I try to achieve this in two ways: The first is through the foundation that I set up in my name. I started it in 2013, in my hometown of Volgograd and it is a very high priority for me. Since the outset, my Foundation has aimed to help orphaned children through sport. I give to them social and financial support, a place they are welcome, and reasons to believe in the future. We offer sports activities, focusing more and more on urban sports such as parkour, because you can do it without money, equipment or material. We organize a sports festival and I also make use of my own network to invite Olympic champions to speak to young boys and girls in disadvantaged situations.
I also show my engagement through my role as a Champion for Peace for Peace and Sport, a neutral and independent organization. I see this role as an immense honour and a great responsibility. There are only one hundred Champions for Peace from forty countries. For me, it’s a privilege to be part of it. With Peace and Sport, I can go further than mere words, to really act on the ground by supporting field projects. For a long time now, I’ve believed in the role that sport can play to bring people closer together. As a Champion for Peace I can make this conviction tangible and give it a more universal dimension.