2021 HS Girls Athlete Of The Year — Paige Sommers

Says AOY Paige Sommers, “Just getting that national record was the cherry on top for all the work I put in all through high school.” (JOHN SOMMERS)

“I DON’T THINK I COULD ask for a better senior season,” says Paige Sommers (Westlake, Westlake Village, California). “I accomplished all the goals I set out for, so that was just a memorable thing.” Sommers capitalized on her heroics in the pole vault to be named T&FN High School Girls AOY (see chart).

In early April she cleared 14-8½ for the highest outdoor prep leap ever, topping the 14-8¼ set by New Yorker Leah Pasqualetti last year. But an indoor 14-9 by Chloe Cunliffe in ’19 still loomed higher on the all-time list.

At the end of May, in warming up at her league championship at her home track, Sommers couldn’t help but notice… well, she felt great:

“My legs felt fresher than normal. We weren’t trying to peak for this meet, so it was kind of a surprise. When I get on the runway and take my first warmup, that’s when I can tell, my legs feel good today or my legs are heavy, that kind of thing.

“It’s pretty easy to tell from the start if you feel like you can jump high or not.” That day, Sommers knew she was on, and she cleared a 14-9 of her own, another prep outdoor best, this time equaling Cunliffe’s indoor mark for a share of the absolute best.

“Just getting that national record was the cherry on top for all the work I put in all through high school,” she says. “Doing that was a dream of mine since freshman year.”

In all, Sommers went over 14-feet in a half-dozen competitions, winning the unofficial California State title and qualifying for the Olympic Trials. Not a bad way to wrap up a high school career, especially one where she dealt with six sprained ankles.

“Junior and senior year were definitely struggles in general because of COVID and the restrictions,” she says. “Not having places to jump and meets getting canceled, that was the biggest thing. Then the injuries that were occurring.”

She admits, “I’m hard on myself,” when it comes to being disappointed with the occasional bad result.

Yet she doesn’t hesitate when asked if she’s having fun. Ever since she started the process in middle school, guided by her father, former UCLA vault All-America John Sommers, she has had a blast.

“Vaulting is a sport where it can never get old because there’s always so much you can improve on,” she explains. “You’ll never have a perfect vault. That’s what draws me in every time is I always have something I can work on and fix.

“The mentality I have is, ‘I can name so many things that are wrong with my jump and once I fix one of those, it’s just going to help my vault look so much better.’ I have so much fun with it, just learning new things and playing around.”

Now Sommers has made a big move across the country to compete for Duke and train with Blue Devil coach Shawn Wilbourn. A top-notch student, she did her homework before deciding that Durham, North Carolina, would be the place to be.

She says, “I actually reached out to [2-time NCAA runner-up] Megan Clark and asked her questions about Duke and Coach Wilbourn, just to get an idea. And she wrote me back, which I didn’t really expect. That was a big deciding factor for me, seeing how much she trusted the program and how she saw it as super beneficial. She showed me if I have her work ethic, this program will work for me and I can jump as high as she did.”

The transition from being coached by her father to the college level has, she says, “definitely been a change, but it’s kind of an easy progression. He keeps asking me, ‘What would your dad do to teach this?’ or, “What kind of drills did you do?’

“He’s trying to learn me as a vaulter so he can tailor his coaching specifically to me. He’s been willing to understand how to communicate with me as a vaulter. He wants to build up that trust in the bond so that I can trust whatever he says.”

The work has already begun. For the first time in her career, Sommers is incorporating gymnastics and weightlifting into her training. “Working on speed and strength has been a major focus for me,” she says. “I’m starting to learn the new ways I have to get better at pole vaulting. We have a great program here that focuses on that.”

Wilbourn was at the Trials, where Sommers was unable to clear a bar. “He watched me there and mentioned some things he saw that we could correct, meaning my step and my swings. So that’s kind of what we’ve been drilling on.

“These past two weeks we started vaulting. I’m doing a 4-step approach now on a small pole, getting my step out, because I usually take off under, which ruins my jump a little bit. I’m getting my step out, then I’m swinging as fast as I can, not stalling or hanging on the pole. Those are the two main cues we’ve been working on.”

Then there’s the coming challenge of indoor vaulting, a bit of a learning curve for a Californian but an essential part of the action at the collegiate level. “I did one indoor meet in Virginia last year and it was a different experience. Having the ceiling, having the track be smaller, it feels more enclosed. And there were so many lights to light up the track. It will honestly be a cool experience just because it’s something that I’m not used to.”

Sommers is hoping she sees the sunny side of 15-feet in her first season for the Blue Devils, as well as have an impact at the ACC, NCAA and USATF meets. “We’ll see how it goes, but I’m definitely looking to have a great season and get some marks.”

In talking about the challenges of balancing rigorous academics with a topflight passion for vaulting, Sommers says, “It’s definitely an adjustment from high school, but I feel like I manage it pretty well. I’m a planner, so I write out everything in lists and that kind of thing. I’ve been able to make it work.”

One senses that both on the runway and off, Paige Sommers is going to make it all work.