Leila brings help from above - Daily Nation

Leila brings help from above

Sunday October 2 2011

Leila Ben-Youssef scales the heights of pole vault. Photos/Zachary Kaufman & Will Austin

Leila Ben-Youssef scales the heights of pole vault. Photos/Zachary Kaufman & Will Austin 

By AYUMBA AYODI [email protected]

The headline “Tough luck for field athletes” in the Daily Nation online edition seems to have touched her in a special way.

Kenya had performed poorly, managing only three medals from field events despite hosting the 2010 African Championships in Athletics.

The best performer in the championships held in Nairobi was Priscilla Isiao, who won silver in the women’s shot put, while Julius Yego and Cherotich Koech claimed bronze in javelin and high jump, respectively.

But what really touched 2008 Africa pole vault champion Leila Ben-Youssef was the performance by Caroline Cherotich.

Cherotich set a new national record of 3.000 metres as she finished fifth in women’s pole vault final despite difficulties in shifting from a wooden pole that was used during the 1987 All Africa Games to a modern, fibre one.

15 years of experience

Leila, a medical student at the University of Washington, believes that her 15 years of experience in pole vault will benefit Kenyan athletes for the time she will be in the country.

She is in the country for one year courtesy of the Fogarty International Clinical Research Scholars and Fellows Programme.

The 29-year-old, who won gold at the 2007 All Africa Games and Pan-Arab Games, respectively, is stationed at Kenyatta National Hospital, doing research on HIV and Aids.

“I was really moved by the story and since I am in the country I would like to volunteer my services and perhaps work with local secondary schools to engage young athletes and share my passion for the sport,” said Leila, who represented Tunisia at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games where she improved her personal best to 4.25m before falling sick.

Athletics Kenya (AK) secretary-general David Okeyo said they are ready to engage Leila.

Okeyo added that her vast experience is vital now that AK has a deliberate plan to develop athletes in field events.

“We shall identify the pole vaulters and local coaches that Leila will work with, but that is after clearance by the board,” said Okeyo.

Leila embraced pole vault at the age of 14 at Sidney High School in Montana where she went on to win the United States Junior National title in 1996.

That saw her secure a sports scholarship at Stanford University where she majored in Human Biology.

Born to a Tunisian father, Lotfi Ben Youssef, and a French mother, Marie Therese Ben-Youssef, in 1981, Leila tore her left ankle ligament after jumping 3.95m in 2000.

However, it was to take her seven years upon recovery to scale 4.10m in 2006, which saw her ranked among the top 15 pole vaulters in the US.

Tunisia would take note of her performance and swiftly draft her to their national team for the 2007 Pan-Arab Games and All Africa Games where she did not disappoint, winning gold in both events in 3.80m and 3.85m, respectively.

Under coach Scott Slover, whom she engaged in 2005, Leila was to bag gold at the Africa Senior Championship in Addis Ababa in April 2008.

‘Most exciting event’

“The Addis Ababa championship is the most exciting event I have ever witnessed. I have never seen that either in Europe or USA,” recalls Leila.

“The stadium ambience, the sporting spirit and cheering crowds that remained on their feet, especially when the Ethiopians were on track.”

After Addis, Leila headed back to the US where, at the Los Gatos Meet in California in July, she jumped a personal best of 4.30m to qualify for the games as the only African athlete in the pole vault in both the women’s and men’s competition and set an African record.

It would inspire her ahead of the Olympic Games the following month in Beijing where she scaled 4.25m.

Sadly, Leila was unable to continue after she fell sick and was diagnosed with a tumor in her abdomen.

She went through a successful surgery and resumed training to scale 4.20m.