“So whatever made you decide that you wanted to pole vault?”
In the spring of my freshman year of high school, I had no intentions of joining a sports team. I’d played volleyball that past fall, and was considering managing the boy’s team that spring, but nothing else. I didn’t play soccer, and there was no way I would join the track team. I mean, I hated running, so why would I do it for fun?
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Halfway through that spring sport’s season, one of my friends, who had joined track, urged me to go with her to the next practice. After re-explaining how much I loathed running, she informed me she didn’t run; she pole vaulted. Pole vaulting. Who in their right mind thought that the sport of pole vaulting was safe? I thought it was dangerous, difficult, odd, and pretty dang cool after she showed me a YouTube video. From that moment, I texted my mother and informed her I would be staying after school for track practice...to pole vault.
Despite my mom’s confused and fearful response, I approached the head coach after school and asked him if I could join. I’ll never forget the way he looked at me, like he was analyzing any athletic potential before giving me an answer. Instead, he inquired a question, “What exactly were you wanting to do?” I kind of laughed but replied, “Just pole vaulting.” He nodded slightly and asked, “Are you fast?” My eyes grew wide, “Not really.” He continued, “Can you jump?” I wrinkled my nose, “I mean kind of.” He nodded his head affirmatively and concluded, “Welcome to the team.”
When my track career began, many other students were already halfway through. Everyone was so focused, so poised, so fast. On the other hand, everyday I asked myself what I was doing there, something kept me coming back. I was a gymnast in the past, and other track members had informed me that pole vaulting would be a good fit for me since I had (some) upper body strength—that some motions and movement of the muscles were similar. Meanwhile, I had to be taught how to run in a non awkward fashion down a runway at a certain speed, put my pole in a small square in the ground at the right time, and then throw myself over a crossbar without knocking it off or hurting myself. Simple, right?
As time went on, the foreign hand positions and runback numbers started to make sense. Unfortunately, as soon as I began to comprehend this complicated sport, our head coach made the decision to throw me into long jump and hurdles as well. I was petrified. My first few attempts at hurdles weren’t entirely atrocious, until my foot ever so slightly clipped the hurdle and sent me rolling onto the rubberized track. I got up shaking my head, concluding to the coach that “I can’t do that.” I didn’t get out of long jump as easily though. I continued to switch back and forth with vaulting and jumps everyday at practice, until I got shin splints: a common pain in runners that occur when the nerves and muscles of the legs “take on too much too soon” as described by runnersworld.com. So I then began my practices at the trainers, getting taped up. The injury angered me more than anything, and I blamed doing jumps as the reason. Pole vaulting was all I wanted to do.
Fast forward to the end of the season, my injury was healing, and I was participating in Varsity meets. I had absolutely no idea how, but it was happening. I ended up actually placing at one of the meets with a jump of 7’6”, but the meet after, Districts, I sprained my ankle on my second warm-up jump. But, to my surprise, my head coach told me he predicted that I’d break the school record of 9’6” by my junior year. I was stunned; that was quite a bit higher, but it was obtained in my mind as a long-term “goal.”
Sophomore year, I was excited to start the same time as everyone else. However, not only was I looking forward to vaulting, but spending time with my teammates. Something wonderful I discovered about pole vaulting was that the vaulters are a small, tight-knit group. My freshman year I was influenced by two very talented athletes—one of which broke our boy’s school record with a jump of 14’1”—they were so encouraging, helpful, and friendly. I was still only a sophomore, and continued to learn best I could to improve myself as a vaulter, but I also learned about my teammates.
As the season went on, I started making stronger connections with my teammates of all grade levels. I still to this day have no idea what caused such a strong bond between all of us, but it was something special. Often times you’d hear the rest of our team refer to us as something like “those strange pole vaulters.” What set us apart was how serious we took our friendships, as well as our vaulting. Our event was slower than most track events. Each person got a turn on the runway, one at a time, and then received critiques. While that one person vaulted, the rest of us were chatting, sitting on our make-shift couch created out of extra mat, doing handstands, or eating snacks. All activities you’d expect the average track athlete to participate in during practice. Practice had become social, but not in a distracting way. My teammates pushed me to do better, and I achieved a new personal record that year of 8’6”.
Junior year, pole vaulting became my life. I looked up to the only senior vaulter that year; a girl who was the best teammate I’ve ever had. Physically, we were built the same, as for our vaulting abilities, totally opposite. We always joked with our coach saying that if we were physically combined, we would be one of the best vaulters around. However, our differences didn’t cause us to repel or dislike one another—it bonded us in a way I’ll never forget. From talking in between classes about how many days were left until our season began, to being each other’s coaches when we were nervous at meets, we became the ultimate dou, and encouraged each other to improve just as much as ourselves. During that season, I tied the school record of 9’6”, like she had the year before. Both of our names were displayed in our school’s gymnasium along with some girl named Mallory who set the record years ago and was our inspiration to beat.
I was lucky enough to advance to compete in the State meet during the summer, right after school was let out. It was an experience unlike any other—the overcrowded stadium, loud yells from coaches and parents as the start gun fired, the clicks of spikes as they walked through the underground concrete tunnel—there was so much commotion it was hard to focus. I was separated from my coach as well: it was all me. Walking out from the hushed locker room, I walked onto the runway and took in my surroundings. I was nervous, but not because I was at a state meet; I was missing something. I had difficulty warming up and stretching. I was forced to do it all alone, and honestly I can say competing without my biggest cheerleader and teammate at my side was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
After the season was over, I decided to take vaulting seriously. My goal for my senior year was to break our school record. I spent the off-season training and participating in club meets. Club vaulting was one of the best experiences of my vaulting career, and in addition to improving my vaults, I met people from other schools and states who were as crazy as I was to have fallen in love with this sport.
Vaulting, in my opinion and most others, is just as much of a mental sport as it is physical. When I over thought my vault, I’d mess up, freak out, and not be able to continue that day since I was too in my head. In times like that, I found my teammates by my side making me laugh or telling me to snap out of it and just jump. Not only over the years had my teammates become some of my best friends, we hung out all the time off-season, but they had become a second family to me. We’d created our own traditions together, shared so many emotional moments of tears, anger, joy, and pain. We all stuck together at meets like a pack of wolves through thick and thin no matter the weather.
Off season, I had achieved a new personal record of 10’ at a camp, but it didn’t count until performed in season. So, on April 4th, 2016, I jumped 10’, and then 10’3”. Moments after the vault, and I had realized that the crossbar hadn’t fell, I was in awe. All those years of injuries, friendships, trials, anger, and accomplishments had led up to this. I was in disbelief. A sport I didn’t even know existed four years ago, and there I was surrounded by my best friends, having succeeded in what was once just an unrealistic “goal.”
My senior year I didn’t get the chance to advance to state, but ultimately I have been given something even better: friends I will have by my side for the rest of my life, a sport that will always have my heart, memories that won’t ever fade, and the strength and determination I earned each and every time I stepped foot onto that runway.