Kurtis Marschall knows the moment his pole-vaulting career hit rock bottom.

It was 2021, and the South Australian was inside the Japan National Stadium with a third ‘x’ next to his name on the scoreboard. He had just recorded a ‘no heighter’ — the failure to clear any bar — in the pole vault final of the Tokyo Olympic Games.

“It was pretty traumatic,” Marschall recalls.

“It took a while after that to get over the demons of the no-height at the Olympic Games, because that’s basically the lowest of lows in this sport.”

Marschall is launching himself into another Olympic Games and plans to make up for events in Tokyo.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

Marschall is sitting in the stands of the WA Athletics Stadium, waiting to begin a training session as he ramps up his preparations for the Paris Olympics, which will be his third Olympic appearance by the age of 27.

He’s candid about what this Games means for him.

Marschall says he reached the “lowest of lows” at the last Games.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

“Considering how last time went for me, I’m going out for some redemption this time,” he said.

“People will say ‘you made the Olympics, that’s amazing’.

“I still cherish that experience, for the rest of my life it will be amazing. But knowing that I went into that competition in a better space than I thought I was and then it all just falling apart …

“I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know what the decision was from there moving forward. It was all just so emotional.”

The road back

A lot of time has passed since the Tokyo Games, something that has allowed Marschall to move on. In 2022 he won a second Commonwealth Games gold medal, and in 2023 he won bronze at the World Championships.

Marschall vaulted to gold at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022.(Getty Images: Michael Steele)

His efforts at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest in 2023 put him back on the podium.(Getty Images: Mattia Ozbot)

He credits some hard conversations following Paris for elevating his performances, as well as spending time with Australian sprinter Rohan Browning, who had the opposite Tokyo experience to Marschall.

“He had just an amazing Olympic experience back then, when he ran 10.01 seconds in the heat and made the semi,” he said.

“He was opening doors for himself whereas I was closing doors.

“With him being positive about everything, and me being negative about everything, it kind of made me realise that this isn’t the end, you’re still young, you’re still fresh, you’ve got so many years ahead of you.”

Marschall is trying to keep a positive mindset in his quest to go higher.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

He’s confident he’s over the “demons” of Tokyo.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

Things have fallen into place for the Australian in the run-up to Paris.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

He returned to Perth following some European competitions and sat down with his team, where they planned out the next few years.

The Tokyo backstory

While Marschall’s Tokyo appearance will always be remembered for the no-height recorded in the final, that result was the culmination of several years of issues.

Marschall says his technique was compromised in 2019 after a shoulder injury.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

He believes it all started in 2018 at a Diamond League final.

“I came into a competition fatigued, in Brussels, and missed the mat on my first attempt,” Marschall said.

“I landed on my feet and broke both of my heels.”

He rushed back from injury, trying to be fit for the World Championships the next year and knowing the 2020 Olympics were looming.

Marschall’s pole vault poles bear the marks of his hard work.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

That resulted in a shoulder injury in early 2019, which compromised his technique and made his back vulnerable.

“That led to maybe six weeks of poor vaulting, and the six weeks of poor vaulting led to a back stress fracture,” he said.

“2019 was basically written off after that.”

Marschall says he wasn’t mentally prepared for the last Games and how COVID affected everything.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

‘A big learning experience’

Marschall healed and went into 2020 in good shape, but the COVID pandemic shut down the world.

“We basically just got locked out of the competition scene around the world for that whole year. So I didn’t have that international competition exposure which I was used to previously,” he said.

When the Olympics came around in 2021, Marschall was competing against athletes he hadn’t seen in a long time, in an empty stadium. He wasn’t mentally prepared for it.

His ‘no-height’ result in Japan sent Marschall into freefall, but he has learned from the failure.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

“I lost my focus. I was doing things out there on the field which I wouldn’t usually do, like lie down with my feet up,” he said.

“My coach was trying to give me information about how I can clear the bar and it wasn’t really sinking in.

“It was quite daunting out there not having a crowd, because usually the crowd out there, like adds to the energy and distracts you a little bit.”

Marschall had also been deemed a close contact of another athlete, resulting in him, his coach, and fellow pole vaulter Nina Kennedy being removed from the Olympic village.

Fellow Australian pole vaulter Nina Kennedy and Marschall are aiming for a smoother time in Paris.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

“Having that focus at the time switch to things that I couldn’t control absolutely killed it for me,” he said.

“I think it was a big learning experience for sure.”

Sights set on an exclusive club

Marschall has a personal best of 5.95 metres, and will need to clear 5.82 at the Australian Athletics Championships in Adelaide for automatic qualification to Paris.

But he has ambitions beyond those heights.

Marschall is looking to join the short list of pole vaulters who have cleared 6 metres.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

He wants to join an exclusive club.

Just 28 jumpers in history have cleared 6 metres, including Marschall’s coach Paul Burgess and his inspiration Steve Hooker.

“I like to compare it to the 100-metre sprinting. It’s like breaking that 10-second barrier,” he explained.

“If you can do that in 100-metre sprinting, you are someone and you’re an amazing athlete in that sport.”

Marschall has been hard at work during training at the WA Athletics Stadium in Perth.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

Lured to a ‘crazy, weird sport’

Hooker’s 6.06-metre jump in 2008 was a seminal moment in luring Marschall to the sport as a child.

“Everyone thinks it’s such a crazy, weird sport, and that’s what I loved at the start,” he said.

“Look at Steve Hooker in 2008 jumping 6 metres with a pole, like that’s ridiculous, mind-blowing stuff.”

Marschall wasn’t able to try vaulting until he was 12, when he attended a come-and-try day in Adelaide.

“I think I cleared my head height on the first day and the coach there in Adelaide was like, if you can clear your head height first day, you need to keep coming back,” he said.

“I kept coming back out, stuck at it, stuck at it, stuck at it and experienced a fair bit of success along the way, because you progress pretty quick.

Marschall was lured to the sport as a youngster and soon showed promising signs.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

“At the age of about 16 I had to call off footy and specialise in pole vault.”

Marschall made a national team and went to the World Junior Championships in 2014, and knew from there he wanted to be a professional pole vaulter.

“This is what it’s like, you get to travel the world doing this. I love the idea of that,” he said.

Chasing the greatest ever

Marschall is competing at a time when the sport is incredibly strong. The greatest vaulter in history, Armand Duplantis, keeps taking the sport to new heights, and Marschall wants to go with him.

“A lot of people think it might be daunting competing against him or it might be demoralising,” Marschall said of being in the same field as the Swede, who has a world record of 6.23 metres.

Armand Duplantis is setting a high bar for everyone else to follow in pole vault.(Getty Images: Patrick Smith)

“But to be honest, I’m just soaking up the experience of being in this era of pole vault, like it’s honestly one of the craziest times in men’s pole [vault] that’s ever been.

“Mondo [Duplantis] is pushing world records like every season, he’s attempting world records, basically every competition, and to be a part of that is just phenomenal.

“If I’m just up there pushing the guy to make sure that he has to jump 6 metres clean, to make sure that he has to win that competition, and I’m up there at 5.9, 6 metres, then that’s my job done.”

Marschall is full-steam ahead for Paris and determined to challenge Duplantis.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

Duplantis will be waiting in Paris, and Marschall wants to share the podium again following his bronze at last year’s World Championships.

Maybe he can even snatch victory.

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