HER FLIGHT OVER the Olympic standard back in 2019 has vaulter Emily Grove in high spirits as the postponed Olympic season lifts off, we hope, toward the Trials in June and Games in July.
The 27-year-old South Dakota alum, who ranked No. 4 among Americans in ’19, has moved steadily in the right direction since her time at Pontiac High in Illinois, where she vaulted 13-5 (4.09) as a senior in ’11 and earned T&FN All-America status.
Jumping as a Coyote under the expert eye of ’08 Olympic men’s bronze medalist Derek Miles — her coach to this day — Grove saw her steady elevation accelerate: 14-2 (4.32) as a frosh, a USATF Junior win and 6th at the World Juniors in ’12.
Her junior season saw 14-9½ (4.51) for 6th at the USATF Indoor and then 2nd at the NCAA Indoor. And in Grove’s redshirt senior campaign of ’17 she cleared 15-1 (4.60), placed 3rd at USATF and competed in the World Championships in London.
As a first-year full-time pro in ’18 Grove got her first taste of the Diamond League vaulting in Doha that May and added another half-inch to her PR. Yet as an Olympics approached, hitting the Games standard was paramount.
Grove got close, really close, at the ’19 USATF. She PRed again at 15-3 (4.65) and just missed going over 15-5 (4.70) on one of her vaults at that Tokyo-standard bar. It looked from the stands like a timing issue. Grove had the height, brushed the crosspiece on the way down. Though she’d have needed to go higher still to pass uber-vet Jenn Suhr to make the team, Grove knew she had reached a consequential threshold, for 4.70 is the ante altitude at which World and Olympic finalists play.
Four days later in a street vault in Omaha, Grove joined that club. “Yeah, I was super happy,” she says. “I knew that it was coming. My practices were kind of — I was jumping around that same bar. So every time out I was getting on the bigger end of my series of poles in practice. So I knew if I would just execute what I was doing in practice in a meet with adrenaline and competition I was ready for a PR. So I think at USA’s I was ready for it. You know, I just didn’t quite time up the next pole that I had never been on before. So that was definitely a learning experience. And so when I went to Omaha I had some kinks kind of figured out and went ahead and jumped 70.”
If one is a fan and has never flung oneself 15-feet into the air to coax out inches, vaulters’ translations can illuminate one’s dim bulb, as Grove’s does.
Of her 15-5 attempts at USATF, Grove says, ”Very biggest pole that I had even touched. I had that pole in my series; I had just never had the opportunity to use it. So when we were in Des Moines, at 4.65 [15-3] I kind of — it’s called a ‘blow through.’ The pole was a little bit small, but I kind of snuck over it. So Derek and I were like, ’Well, that pole isn’t going to hold me for 4.70. Let’s kind of try and figure out this new stick here.’ And so we did. It’s like going from third gear to fourth gear.
“So when I shifted to that pole at 4.70, I think a little bit of ‘It’s 4.70, this is a PR, this is the Olympic standard’ was in there. And I just missed the timing at impact at the takeoff, just by a hair, which is why I kind of brushed it on the way down a little bit. I had a lot of throw height, but I didn’t get into the pit as deep as I probably should have. Does that makes sense?” Yes, it does.
”In Des Moines,” Grove continues, “I felt like the pole hit me. I didn’t hit it. So in Omaha, I’m like, ‘I’m going to hit the pole before it hits me on this one.’ I was a little bit quicker on my timing and it made the jump smoother.”
It also smoothed Grove’s way, to the extent that’s been possible for anybody, through pandemic 2020. She had the first key for the door to Tokyo, but no venue for optimal training. And no Olympic Trials until this coming June.
”For the most part, we didn’t have a place to jump” she says. “So some of Derek’s vaulters at USD and I trained at the high school track outside and we just worked on plyometrics, getting a little more explosive off the ground and sprinting mechanics until we could finally later in the summer get back on the pole vault runway.
“I kind of stayed to a little bit of a short run to kind of fix some takeoff timing issues that I have sometimes — a little bit late for the plant and things like that.
“So more technical work, I guess, for lack of better terms, [is what] we worked on in 2020. Derek and I decided we weren’t going to try and push for a meet. We were just going to work on stuff. Since I already have the standard, we were more worried about really just ingraining good technique in my jump to make it more natural.”
If 2020 had a silver lining for Grove, it was this: “In-season, usually you’re just kind of hopping meet to meet, which is super fun. But this past year, we really got to work on just staying in shape and getting better at the things we’re bad at. With plyometrics I was really working on trying to be more explosive off the ground and hopefully that will lead to higher jumps this 2021 season.”
Grove is supplied with poles by UST-ESSX, a manufacturer she calls “awesome. [In 2019] I told you I had some new sticks that they sent me, so I really needed those and it paid off, I think, jumping the standard.”
She has no shoe or apparel contract, though, so Grove works full-time in the South Dakota financial aid office. “I work until 4 o’clock and then I go and train after that every day,” she says.
As she targets the Trials, Grove says, “I think that if I can keep bringing the speed that I have into the takeoff and not slowing down a bit, keep learning and teaching myself to attack the last three steps of the jump and time it up with my hands, I’ll just need the right pole in my hand and I think I can jump something pretty high. So hopefully we‘ll all have the opportunity to do that.”
Each and every vaulter. “You know,” Grove concludes, “the pole vault community is cool because I feel there’s good camaraderie around too. We’re excited to see each other. We haven’t seen each other in over a year, so I think that part will be exciting too.”