LIEVIN, France — With the tip of her baseball cap pulled down low, so low it was nearly touching her nose, Yelena Isinbayeva was almost unrecognizable, just like she wanted.
Still, for the Russian pole vaulter, there's no escape from the past. People in the warmup hall of a winter meet in northern France turned and spoke in awed whispers about what she once was, and did.
Isinbayeva dominated her event the way Tiger Woods owned the golf world. Then things changed over the past four years. The vaulter's sense of invincibility, gone. Her world titles, indoor and outdoor, too. Even her European titles.
Yet the most precious medal is still hers to defend — Olympic gold. She will be going for her third straight title in London, an unprecedented feat. No woman in track and field has managed to win three individual Olympic titles in three successive games.
"This is my goal," Isinbayeva said.
Last week in France, she already had a quiet confidence — a sense that she was somehow surging back to her former best — but she happily embraced the cloak of relative anonymity. Years of being the star of her sport have wearied her.
And she didn't mind that Jenny Suhr had the world leading mark of 4.88 meters (16 feet). Or that 20-year-old Holly Bleasdale jumped 4.87 to become a home crowd favorite at the London Olympics.
"I am confident. I don't want to show it to my rivals," she said after winning in Lievin with an average 4.81. "I don't want to take big steps now."
Sometimes, though, talent is so great it can't even be contained — even by those who possess it.
Isinbayeva broke her indoor world record, clearing 5.01 meters at the XL Galan meet in Stockholm on Thursday to beat the old mark by 1 centimeter.
It was the kind of performance that Isinbayeva had not produced for years. Instead of a crazy celebration of joy, tears and disbelief, she looked up, produced a confident grin and displayed No. 1 fingers on both hands.
As she said days before in France, she felt no pressure because, "the last two years were terrible for me."
"I have been in a big hole and I was completely, how can you say, down, down," she said.
Down and nearly out.
If ever a sports star was trying to lift herself out of a mid-career crisis, it was Isinbayeva. Even though the causes and circumstances are completely different, her travails had shades of Woods' troubles on the golf course.
A precocious talent, she quickly displayed an overwhelming dominance that was perceived as bordering on arrogance.
She would strike a regal pose and rest, even seemingly sleep, until many of her competitors had failed, and then join in when many others were already tired from lower heights. Having a full stadium at her beck and call, she would combine grace, speed and power like no one else and scale one world record height after another. She has held more than two dozen outdoor and indoor records, including a new one on Thursday.
In a sense, for years she didn't need competition to inspire awe, much like Woods. And even now, those days bring a smile to her face.
"Remember in 2004, 2005, I jumped a world record every week," she said with only a slight exaggeration after winning the Lievin meet.
Then suddenly, that magic was inexplicably gone, for all to see at the 70,000-seat Olympic Stadium in Berlin in 2009. After a five-year stranglehold on the pole vault, she failed to clear any height at the world championships. Trying to bounce back at the world indoor championships the next year, she failed to medal. She put in a break from competition, yet at last year's world outdoor championships in South Korea, ditto.
By then, it was a slump of Woodsian proportions.
But Isinbayeva was not brought down by scandal, just by the pressure of being herself.
"In my mind it was: 'I am tired to be the one. I am tired to be the best, tired to wait two hours for my first attempt. I am tired from pressure' — all that everyone expects from me: world record, world record," Isinbayeva said. "First place didn't matter for them anymore. So from that, I was tired."
At 29, she had to rekindle the enthusiasm and hunger for victory she had earlier in her career, and there was only one way to do it — go back to the source. And that was Yevgeny Trofimov, her old coach with whom she had parted less than amicably a half dozen years ago.
The eve of the world indoor championships next month (March 9-11) in Istanbul, Turkey, will mark one year since their reconciliation. It was the turning point in her comeback.
"He just reminded me when I was a 15-year-old girl, when I just came into the indoor hall and how we started," she said. "And all those feelings again, it all came to mind and again I feel like my first competition."
All those little skills and tricks that turn good jumps into world records can be lost in the heady surge of success and adulation. They had to come back, and Trofimov still had them in training books from half a lifetime ago, full of wisdom and revelatory anecdotes.Comment on this story
"He helped me to recover from all those troubled things of the past. He taught me the skills of the trade again," she said.
So it comes as little surprise that Trofimov came first in her world record acceptance speech on Thursday. "I want to say thanks a lot to my coach and to my dear fans and the crowd," Isinbayeva said.
And now, any pressure for immediate results off.
Isinbayeva has again proved she is the best in the world. Now she just has to do it again in London.