21 June, 2019

Forged in Fire: Yarisley Silva

“She’s back in the big time, and she knows it.”

That was the cry of commentators as Yarisley Silva speared over 4.84m at the Muller Birmingham Grand Prix three years ago.

Somewhat aptly, the Cuban’s career has been full of ups and downs but a tactile approach to competition has seen her wear heart on sleeve throughout. In short, she is never dull to watch.

With the IAAF World Championships less than 100 days away and the Birmingham Grand Prix ever-closer, we look at the career of an athlete forged in the fire of Diamond League competition.

Silva service

Pinar del Rio is a province on the western end of the island of Cuba: punctuated by steep limestone hills, buttressed by its tobacco trade and stalked by infamous jinteros, who haggle like no-one else.

Silva was born there in 1987 into an athletics family – her mother was a javelin thrower – but she dreamt of dancing and the front covers of magazines rather than life as a field athlete.

But from the moment she picked up a pole and instantly jumped 2.50m, something was afoot. A young Silva remembers: “I saw it as a game.”

At 12, she began to compete in pole vault; at 17, she cleared four metres for the first time and at the age of 21 became an Olympian, registering 4.15 in qualifying in Beijing.

Oceans apart in 11

2011 was the year that Silva truly arrived – breaking her personal best five times, making a World Championship debut and emerging alongside Lázaro Borges as Cuba’s first-ever elite vaulters.

She really upturned the apple cart at the Pan American Games, beating world champion Fabiana Murer with a then-competition record effort of 4.75m.

Still the biggest high of her career, silver at the London 2012 Olympics, joining eventual gold medal winner Jennifer Suhr at 4.75m, changed Silva’s life and whole approach to her livelihood.

“It proved I could be a contender with the world’s best,” she reflected on becoming the first Latin American to reach the rostrum in the event.

“I was no longer an unknown athlete so there was more pressure to perform, but it was also a great motivation to train harder and smarter and set new goals. That’s what really propelled my career.”

Birmingham bow

Silva returned to the UK in 2013 and opened with victory in the second city, nailing 4.63 and 4.73 on first attempt to earn what she described as a ‘surprising’ triumph in a field featuring Murer and Suhr.

After a moderate 2014, her rise gathered pace once again in 2015 and culminated in World Championship glory, clearing 4.90m in stunning style to cement her place in the pantheon.

Peaking for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games was the plan and on the evidence of the Birmingham Grand Prix that year, the Cuban would be nigh-on impossible to stop.

At the third attempt, where Katerina Stefanidi and Nichole Buchler had failed, Silva comfortably cleared 4.84m, letting out a scream of delight, crashing onto the pit and punching the air.

It was a crying shame, then, that she settled for sixth place in the Rio final, a result that forced a period of introspection and at one stage threatened to define the latter part of her career.

Rightly revered

Since Rio, Silva has twice been back to Birmingham and one of the only athletes to threaten the grip of US and European athletes on pole vault is as determined as ever to grab gold in Tokyo.

Silva is held in high regard by fellow athletes and despite her limited English language capabilities, her innate spirit makes her friends wherever she competes. 

Stefanidi, the finest jumper of her generation, said: “I massively admire Yarisley. 

“We have a lot of similarities in the way we jump, but she has more athletic ability than me. She is a lot more explosive and poppier than me.

“I think the way she jumps is very efficient and she’s the woman pole vaulter who pushes the most. That’s the sign of a great vaulter.”

Tickets for the Muller Grand Prix Birmingham are now on sale at britishathletics.org.uk.