Focus On The U.S. Women’s Pole Vault Scene

Early in the last Olympic campaign, Jenn Suhr (r) & Sandi Morris earned gold & silver at the World Indoor. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

IN THE EVENT where competitors rocket themselves over crossbars off long sticks, the U.S. women’s picture from the head of the metaphorical runway to the Tokyo Olympics looks something like a tale of three stately trees in the forest.

There’s Jenn Suhr, the ageless sequoia; Sandi Morris, the sturdiest American oak in the woods of late; and Katie Nageotte, the — any foresters reading this? Let’s go with hybrid poplar, which the Arbor Day Foundation reports grows at 5 to 8 feet per year.

All three are familiar names. Suhr’s an Olympic gold medalist, twice a medalist, now 38. Morris is the world indoor titlist and silver medalist at the last 3 outdoor majors: Rio ’16, London ’17, Doha ’19. Nageotte, with her 15-5 (4.70) clearance for =7th in Doha in ’19 is the highest American flyer ever at a Worlds or Olympics save Morris and Suhr.

They, not that coincidentally, are the top 3 Americans on the all-time world list in spots 2, 3 & 6, and the only U.S. vaulters so far over 16-0 (4.88) as well as the metric 4.90 barrier.

Any other vaulter seeking to join Team USA for the Games will need to outjump at least one of them in the Olympic Trials final.

The fun news — though a pandemic has fogged the lead-up in many respects — is that a deeper corps of challengers than ever before is rising to take their shots. There is evidence aplenty but one simple comparison says a lot. The ’15 season which proceeded the last OT saw 6 Americans at 15-1 (4.60) or higher. By contrast, the would-have-been pre-Olympics season of ’19 saw 8 at that altitude. In fact, 9 if you count Lexi Jacobus, who has since retired. And ’20, dismal competition year though it was, tallied 7.

As of the end of January, the U.S. claims a total of 13 active vaulters (see chart) who at some point in their career have scaled the OT-qualifying height.

A rundown on the field:

The 4.90-Plus Trio

Sandi Morris, 28 years old, 5-8½/143 (1.74/65). No. 3 on the world all-time list at 16-4¾ (5.00). World indoor champion, silver medalist Rio Olympics & World Champs ’17 & ’19. USA champion 2017–19; 2nd 2014–16. Five-time World Ranker 2015–19 (7, 1, 2, 1, 2). 2020 T&FN Podium “gold medalist.” Coach: Bryan Compton.

Jenn Suhr, 38, 5-10¾/141 (1.80/64). No. 2 all-time world at 16-6 (5.03i) from ’16. Olympic champion 2012, silver medalist ’08, 7th in Rio. World Indoor champion ’16. Outdoor Worlds placings: 10th ’07, 4th ’11, 2nd ’13, =4th ’15, dnq ’17, =7th ’19. 17-time USA champ in & out. 9-time No. 1 U.S. Ranker ranked each year 2006–19. 11-time World Ranker 2006–18 (6–’06, 8–’07, 2–’08, 8–’09, 1–’11, 1–’12, 3–’13, 3–’14, 4–’15, 3–’16, 4–’18). Coach: Rick Suhr.

Katie Nageotte, 29, 5-6/135 (1.67/61). No. 6 all-time world at 16-1¾ (4.92) from ’20. 5th World Indoor Champs ’18, =7th World Champs ’19. USA Champs placings: 6th ’13, 4th ’15, 7th ’17, 2nd ’18, 2nd ’19. U.S. Rankings 2014–19: 7, 6, 7, 2, 3, 2. World Rankings 2017–19: 6, 4, 7. Coach: Brad Walker. (Continued below)

The 15-5 And Above Crowd

The bar height of 15-5 — 4.70 metrically – sets a line in the sky vaulters need to be above, or certainly near, to vie realistically for Tokyo berths. That setting is the Olympic qualifying standard and at both the ’16 OT and ’19 USATF Champs getting over it was required to place top 3. Among active American vaulters, these 4 women own PRs at or above it so stand out as possibles to knock one or more of the 4.90 trio off the plane to Tokyo.

Kristen Brown, 28. Nageotte’s training partner and =6th at the ’19 USATF, the San Diego State (and Virginia Tech) alum climbed over 15-5 a few weeks before the ’16 Trials, where she placed 8th at 14-9 (4.50).

“She’s dealt with some injuries, but she’s a 4.70 girl,” says Nageotte, “and I mean, she’s been looking great.”

Olivia Gruver, 23, 5-9/150 (1.75/68). Two-time NCAA champ for Kentucky transferred to Washington in ’19 and at the Stanford Invitational that year cleared 15-6¼ (5.73). With that jump, she surpassed Morris as the highest-ever outdoor collegiate vaulter and moved to No. 8 all-time U.S. At the ’20 USATF Indoor hit 15-5 (4.70) for 3rd. Opened the ’21 season as a guest at her alma mater’s January intrasquad comp with 15-1 (4.60).

“I’m very focused on just jumping high,” Gruver says, “and I think once I can do that and have the chance to do that hopefully something will come.”

Emily Grove, 27. Placed 4th at the ’19 USATF Champs, raising her lifetime best to 15-3 (4.65). The next week she raised that PR to 15-5 (4.70) to hit the Tokyo Olympics standard. Placed 6th at the ’12 World Juniors as a South Dakota frosh, and her =3rd at the ’17 USATF earned the Illinois native a World Champs berth that year. A 4-time U.S. Ranker, her high of No. 4 came in 2019.

“I think 2021 is super-exciting just because of opportunity,” Grove says. “There’s an opportunity for all of us vaulters who’ve been working so hard for so long to kind of show ourselves what we can do. I think girls are gonna jump really high.”

Morgann LeLeux came away from the ’16 Olympic Trials with a frustrating 4th. (RICH GRAESSLE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

Morgann LeLeux, 28, Our HS Girls AOY in ’11, she hit her collegiate stride as a Louisiana–Lafayette senior in ’16, tieing for 2nd at the NCAA and notching a 15-1 (4.60) PR to place 4th at the Olympic Trials.

“When I made my attempt at 4.60, I thought for sure it was going to be my day,” she told the Acadiana Advocate. “I thought I had plenty of height for 4.65 [15-3], but it just did not happen. I had the height [on her third attempt] but went into the bar because I was too deep into the pit.

“It started to hit me how much of a chance I had,” she added. “I really thought it was my time. It was a really good feeling. I’ve definitely come a long way. I’m definitely going to keep working and not give up my dream. I’ll be back in 4 years.”

Make that 5 years due to C19. Certainly in year 4 she looked to be on track, clearing a PR 15-5 indoors in her final ’20 meet before the pandemic shutdown. She tied for 5th at the ’20 USATF Indoor.

Watch Out For These Vaulters

Rachel Baxter, 21. She soared 14-5½ (4.41) as a California prep to win the ’17 Pan-Am Junior title. Now a Virginia Tech junior and the top returning collegiate American vaulter, she PRed last February with 14-10¼(A) (4.53).

Megan Clark, 26. Training partner of Sandi Morris and winner over Nageotte at the first ATL meet this year. Her 15-2¼ (4.63) best dates from 2016. As a Duke senior that season Clark placed 2nd at the NCAA Indoor, 5th at the outdoor NCs and 6th at the OT. Last February she earned 4th at the USATF Indoor.

Bonnie Draxler, 25. Top still-active vaulter from the ’19 NCAA (2nd). Her 14-11½ (4.56) best is from that year’s NCAA Indoor. No meets in ’20 or so far in ’21.

Bridget Guy, 24. A ’19 Virginia grad and 4th at that year’s NCAA, she upped her best to 15-1½ (4.61) indoors in ’20 before the shutdown. Back strong in ’21 with 14-11 (4.55) in January.

Annie Rhodes-Johnigan, 25. The Baylor alum U.S.-Ranked No. 5 in ’19, placed 2nd at the USA Indoor, =6th at outdoor USATF and PRed at 15-3.

Kristen Leland (née Hixson), 28. 4-time U.S. Ranker (high of No. 4 in ’18). Emerged to elite status out of Div. II Grand Valley State in ’14. Flew over 15-3 twice in ’16 and placed 3rd at the USATF Indoor. No meets in ’20, opened ’21 at 14-3¼ (4.35)

Kortney Oates, 28. The former Miss Ross, a San Diego State grad now married to 18-8¼ (5.70) man Tray Oates, lifted off to a PR 15-2¼ (4.63) indoors in ’19, tied for 4th at the undercover nationals and U.S.-Ranked No. 10. Managed 14-19 (4.52) last summer and opened this season at 14-9 (4.50) in January.

Daylis Caballero Vega, 32. A ’12 Olympian for Cuba. In ’19 after 3 years away from vaulting, she opened her first season as a U.S. citizen at 14-9 (4.50), a centimeter below her 8-year-old PR. Then in Des Moines at USATF she improved to 15-1 for 5th. U.S.-Ranked No. 6 in ’19.

Keep in mind also, because they’ve improved so rapidly, the precocious youngsters who in the past two seasons claimed the highest prep vaults indoors and out: Chloe Cunliffe (14-9 in ’19) and Leah Pasqualetti (14-8¼/4.48). Cunliffe is now a Puma pro, Pasqualetti an Akron frosh.

They’ve Hung Up Their Poles

Three prominent names from seasons past have retired. Lexi Jacobus, the third Rio Olympian, and her ’19 NCAA champion sister Tori Hoggard — known during stellar prep careers and through most of their time at Arkansas as the Weeks Twins — have moved on from the sport to pursue careers in pharmacy.

Kylie Hutson, the ’11 USATF titlist and 6-time U.S. Ranker whose 15-7 (5.75) PR from the ’13 USA Indoor still has her equal-No. 5 on the U.S. all-time list, left the sport after 2017. To do what? Well, Hutson’s Instagram handle is @ratherbhiking.

What To Expect?

How’bout what he said. Asking around in a January following a strange year — thanks, COVID-19 — we touched base with former men’s AR holder Jeff Hartwig, now an agent, who got as many looks at the field in ’20 as anyone.

“Definitely an opportunity for someone to step up and try to disrupt the big 3: Sandi, Katie and Jenn,” Hartwig observed. “I think Olivia Gruver can get in the mix and then there will be a slew of women around 4.65, 4.70 possibly, and hard to say who might break through to go higher.”

We see it that way too. Keep your vault vision tuned. Also, Eugene weather — wind and/or rain — has been known to throw a cat among the pigeons during Trials comps. The ’12 edition won by Suhr comes to mind. Yet no one knows how Hayward Field’s new semi-enclosed bowl might alter conditions.

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