“I started doing track and field when I was in high school (in California). I hurdled, I did the long jump, the high jump. I did the relays. I played volleyball in high school. I did three years of cross-country skiing, and then a year of downhill; I wanted to go fast. But I think more importantly, I grew up on a small ranch. I put hay in the barn. I had project steers for the fair, so I was toting around 2,000-pound animals. So I was doing a lot of physical things as a young person. I started that at age 9, all the way up to my senior year. So I had pretty good strength going into my high school career as an athlete.”
“I went on to junior college (Yuba Community College in California) and I continued to play volleyball and run track. But from there I got a scholarship to go to Idaho State. And obviously that’s when the focus then became more track. I was sad to leave volleyball because it was such a fun, team sport. But I knew that I probably had more talent for track and field, so that became my focus. And about six months into my first year there, that’s when my coach (Dave Nielsen) came to me and the heptathletes to see if we wanted to try the pole vault. And we thought, ‘What? Women don’t pole vault.’ Because back then no one was pole vaulting that I knew of. But he had done some research on the computer and saw that the Germans and the Chinese had been vaulting. And his wife owns a gym, and him kind of being a gym rat growing up, he knew that the women had the upper-body strength to do this. But for so long we were denied. Maybe the men in the sport just didn’t think we had the upper-body strength, or that it’s such a violent event that the women couldn’t withstand it. Much like the marathon, we were told for a long time that women couldn’t do that and put their body through that kind of strain. But I think my coach was one of those visionaries and he came to us one day and said that ‘Hey, let’s pull out some poles and learn how to do some grass vaults.’ So we thought, ‘What?’ But we did, we followed through and we were having fun (even though they were) clumsy and uncoordinated.”
What was your first thought when your coach asked you to try the pole vault?
“I was just like, ‘Why?’ Right before that, we were looking at our workout, and we’re heptathletes, so we had one of these monster workouts. We were going to be there for three hours just grinding it out. And I said, ‘How are we going to fit this in, coach? We’ve already got three hours of work to do?’ And he goes, ‘How about this? I’ll make a deal. If you come out and do the pole vault and learn to do this, I’ll cut that workout in half?’ So that was a done deal for us.”
What made you become a full-time pole vaulter?
“My coach just kept encouraging us, and for some crazy reason I was the only one out of that group to really stick with it. I was progressing – slowly, but I was progressing. And I was seeing some headway and connecting some drills, and it was kind of fun. It was very different from any of the other events that I had done. Obviously, there’s an attack phase where you come into takeoff, much like the hurdles and the long jump. But I didn’t really associate that at the beginning. But I liked it because it was really challenging for me, especially once you leave the ground and you’re starting to swing – I was terrified, but I kind of wanted to overcome that fear. And my coach was there every step of the way to help me overcome that. So it was a fun coming together between me and my coach and this relationship that we had as a coach and athlete, for 14 years into the future. So it was a really fun time to be able to master something, or work at something really hard and keep seeing progress. And then eventually it became an Olympic event, (and) I never, ever thought that I would ever be (an Olympian). So to be in kind of the infancy of something, kind of being what they say is a pioneer of an event, it was pretty fun to be that person.”
Were you thinking about being a pioneer for women as your career progressed?
“I didn’t really think of it. I know people always say that, or, that things in the history book are going to be this and that. But I think as an athlete you’re in that moment of always trying to perfect that next jump and looking at the plan that your coach has set out for you. And so I thought, ‘I just want to accomplish what I can, and then maybe one day I’ll sit down with my kids and reflect on what things I have accomplished.’ But (during her active career) it’s about putting the work in and being the athlete. So I tried not to think about it too much. I did know that people were watching me and that I needed to be a good advocate for it, and an inspiration for that next generation. Because I knew if this did go well it could really open the doors for some women. And it really did. It gave us another event for scholarship athletes. And it helped the men, actually. We saved the event, is what everybody says. I didn’t think we were doing that at the time, but now looking back, it’s pretty powerful to think that you’re a part of something, a movement like that.”
What were the advantages or disadvantages of doing other events and not beginning the pole vault until later in your athletic life?
“It’s a double-edged sword. It was kind of fun being that first person, and really not having a role model. We had to look to the men for technical models. But then I look back 10 years later, and a lot of these women basically learned from my mistakes on how to be better. And so it was kind of like, ‘Well, gosh, do I want to be that first person of really treading new territory?’ Or would it have been fun to have had models to look at and say, ‘OK, these are the things we really need to work on.’ And could I have been better? I don’t know. But I had fun with what I was doing. And I have no regrets.”
Because you grew up as athlete by performing different events, such as the heptathlon, do you use any of that in your coaching today?
“Absolutely. I think it’s great for kids to be a little bit more balanced. I think kids are too focused on one event and they just don’t have that athleticism any more. They’re just so streamlined, that I think having a little bit of a wide variety of events kind of thrown at them just makes them a better athlete. So I always encourage my kids, when they come to me – we’re learning the long jump, we’re learning the hurdles. We’ll go play the high jump. Some of my kids wanted to learn the shot put. And I know they’re not shot-putters, but they wanted to try it and I said, ‘Let’s go do it.’ Because it’s something that they’ve seen from afar, being on the track and seeing this big ball being thrown, I think it just gives them an appreciation for what the throwers do. So we use mostly the long jump and the hurdles a lot in my training, for my kids.”
Read more about the pole vault:
Introduction to the Pole Vault
Beginner's Track and Field: Learning the Pole Vault
Olympic Pole Vault Rules
A Comprehensive Look at Olympic Pole Vault
Greatest Moments In Olympic Pole Vault