Belfast Telegraph

Brown still aiming higher and Higher

But expectation is greater than ever as our top pole vaulter prepares for her fourth Commonwealth Games

By Jonathan Bradley

When Zoe Brown travelled to the Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games as a precocious young gymnast in 1998, she could hardly have imagined that some 16 years later she would be preparing for the Glasgow edition of the event as a pole-vaulter.

The daughter of Barry and Denise Brown, an Irish League footballer and international squash player respectively, sporting prowess seemed almost pre-determined but it wasn't until after her first appearance at the Games that she tried her hand at the sport in which she has now made her name.

"I'm hoping it will be third time lucky for the pole-vault this summer but it will be my fourth time at the Games," explains the Bangor native.

"Sport is something that has always been a huge part of my life, as I was massively inspired by both of my parents, but for me it was gymnastics originally."

Having displayed a boundless enthusiasm from an early age, the Northern Ireland pole-vault record holder jokes: "My mother was tired of running around after me and decided it would be a good idea to get someone else to do it. That's how I got started when I was four years old."

There began the journey that took the teenage Brown to the 1998 Games in the Malaysian capital but, if not for a chance meeting with coach Jim Alexander a year later, the then-15-year-old's sporting career could have been set for a premature conclusion.

"I went to the '98 games as a very young girl, and certainly not the most talented gymnast ever, but I was always very stubborn and managed to achieve some quite good results," continues the Raheny Shamrock's athlete.

"I won a few British medals but, in terms of longevity, I was always a lot taller than everyone else and was probably going to be much better suited to another sport.

"Jim Alexander came to the gym I was at with his boy pole-vaulter Neil Young, who also went to the Commonwealth Games in '98, and it was only then that I made my first try.

"I was the tall, gobby one with loads to say so he just told me to give it a try. You need to have a bit of gumption and be a bit out-there for pole-vault and I think that's what Jim saw in me.

"15 years later and we're still working together; I don't know how he has managed to stick me out but he's a great coach and mentor."

From such inauspicious beginnings, a stellar athletics career has been forged with Brown stretching her own Northern Irish pole-vault record to 4.31m at the Irish Indoor Championships back in February of this year.

And having missed the Delhi Games four years ago, the wholehearted 30-year-old can barely contain her excitement at the prospect of the upcoming event in Glasgow.

She enthuses: "As outright Northern Ireland, we only get to compete for our country once every four years and that is something that is very special to me. I'm so proud and honoured to be part of that team. That's the only way to describe it."

While a Commonwealth Games is always a cause for great anticipation, the location further heightens the expectancy for Brown as the cream of Northern Ireland's athletics' crop get set to make the short journey to Scotland's second city.

"This is as close to a home Games as we're ever going to get so hopefully all the friends and families are able to come over and make sure that team Northern Ireland has a strong contingent there.

"We're used to the disadvantageous conditions so it plays into our hands a little bit. We're used to the rain and the bad weather so hopefully we can make that work for us.

The Games come at a good time for Brown who performed strongly throughout the indoor season during the early part of this year and is just three months removed from the finest jump of her career.

Such potential could easily have gone unfulfilled, however, if not for both her own determination and the training facilities offered by the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland at Jordanstown.

"I have chronic Achilles problems in both feet and that means I can do only a minimal amount of loaded exercise. With pole-vault being a jumping and power event obviously that does hold you back but there is more than one way to skin a cat," said the Loughborough University graduate.

"If you're a lateral thinker and a problem-solver, then you just work around it. If one week you have a niggle and the next another type of niggle you just have to learn how to troubleshoot and juggle constantly.

"Between my coach and the team at SINI, everything has been done to combat the problems. We have on-site physio and physical therapy that I wouldn't be able to do without and it's a credit to everyone involved.

"We've created a programme that's tailored to me and, because of the injuries in the past, we focus on what we can do rather than what we can't."

Such training requires immense dedication on Brown's part – the kind of resolve that saw her return from a recent warm weather training camp in Italy without sampling any of the local cuisine. But she is fulsome in her praise of the SINI facilities – a partnership between Sport Northern Ireland and the University of Ulster – to which she returned two years ago after a stint living and training in Dublin.

"I started here when we began this cycle of preparation for the Games and the consistency has allowed me to focus everything on what we want to achieve.

"We're very methodical in what we do and this isn't something that's been a six- month investment, we've been preparing for the last two years to the point where all that's left is the fine-tuning."

With such an intensive regime, Brown admits her job is a consuming endevour that does not allow for many relaxing moments and is unusually forthright about the challenges that such a lifestyle can pose.

"It sounds so boring but I spend much of my time doing self-therapy, rolling and stretching to help the injuries.

"It's quite intense and being so driven can be emotionally expensive.

"Not being part of a group environment can make it quite a lonely sport but I suppose it has developed me into a strong individual.

"I like doing normal things but it's difficult to have any down-time. After my career I'm looking forward to being able to be more interactive but that's all for the future."

For now, focus remains firmly on this summer and the trip to Glasgow.

Belfast Telegraph

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