Krissy Gear Vaults Into Top USA Steeple Slot

”Obviously my first instinct was, ‘Nobody’s taking on Emma Coburn,’” says Krissy Gear, who did so for the win at the USA World Champs Trials. (KEVIN MORRIS)

THERE’S A MOMENT, when you are moving past a woman who has won 10 U.S. titles, where you naturally wonder if lightning is about to strike you. Is your dream of being the next champion just craziness?

(This article was written before the World Championships.)

Krissy Gear confesses she had that fleeting moment of doubt when she passed Emma Coburn on the final stretch of the USATF steeplechase. “I didn’t want to do it,” is how she describes the thought. “I’m a fan. I love seeing her win.” She also says she wondered, “‘Oh man, should I do it?’”

At the same time, she never wavered. “I’m a competitor, and I try not to make things like that seem too daunting to me. But honestly, as soon as I cleared that last barrier and was right beside her, I felt so calm and at peace. I was like, ‘OK, you got this. All you have to do is run through the line now.’ Once I was there, I wasn’t as scared.”

As surprised as some observers might have been, the victory did not come out of nowhere. “I had a lot of people in my corner who believed in me and told me they thought I could make a team or even possibly have a chance to win it. Obviously, that would require me to be in position 2600 into the race and not way out the back by then.”

Still, she had to overcome her own doubts; she says it has been a challenge to “believe what other people see in me. I feel like I’m very dismissive about it. Obviously my first instinct was, ‘Nobody’s taking on Emma Coburn.’ But I was like, ‘OK, I should trust them. If that’s what they believe I’m capable of, what would it look like if I believed that too?’

“I felt it in the back of my mind. [Winning] wasn’t my ultimate goal, but I wanted to give myself the chance to at least try to do it.”

Now Budapest-bound on her first-ever national Senior team, the 24-year-old Gear (she had a birthday 12 days after the big race) has gone from her beginnings as a Florida prep to Furman to Arkansas, and at each stop she’s had to come to terms with her own potential and the ways that it has surprised her.

Gear started out as a pole vaulter at Fort Myers High, competing at State as a soph and junior. She had a humble best of 10-7 (3.23) and says, “My family kept pressuring me to do running. Not in terms of a negative pressure, but they just thought I’d be really good at it. But I wasn’t really interested in it. I actually won a State medal in the vault before I did in running.”

Eventually she found herself running more and more. Her sophomore year she took 2nd in the 3A 800 and won the 1600. The next year, she won the 1600 and 3200. “My dad was like, ‘If you want to do a sport in college, you’re not going to get a scholarship for pole vaulting. It’s going to be for distance running.” So I ended up giving it up my senior year. That season, she won the triple in 2:10.29, 4:56.04 and 10:40.50.

Next stop was Furman, where any thoughts she had of continuing to run on the flat were set aside. Her new coaches pointed to her vaulting and she recalls them saying, “Oh, you’re athletic. You’d be kind of good at steeple.”

As a frosh she ran 9:52.71 and ended up winning the USATF U20 title. She finished 10th at the World Juniors in Finland. The next season she made it to the NCAA, but got stuck in the heats. After a transfer to Arkansas, she impressed on the flat in her brief pandemic-shortened ’20 indoor season, hitting PRs of 4:37.20 and 9:14.39.

Her junior year for the Razorbacks, Gear finished 2nd to Sage Hurta-Klecker in the NCAA mile after anchoring Arkansas to a runner-up finish in the distance medley. Outdoors she returned to the steeple long enough to win the SEC in a PR 9:38.62, but at Nationals she switched to the 1500, placing 5th.

As a senior, though she ran on the NCAA-winning distance medley, she did not qualify for the indoor nationals individually. Outdoors she barely got a chance to run the steeple. A 10:00.26 at Azusa presaged an SEC 4th. Again she focused more on the 1500, where she had run a 4:09.00 PR the year before. She finished 4th in the NCAA, then got stuck in the heats at the USATF meet.

Gear’s Razorback years produced plenty of success, but she didn’t quite find her niche between the 1500 and the steeple. At times, perhaps frustrated with the running, she mentioned to her coaches that she might want to try the vault again — Arkansas vault mentor Brian Compton has one of the best stick squads going — “I don’t think they took me seriously. They kind of laughed and were like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I was like, ‘No, I’m so serious!’”

After graduation, even with her in box not overflowing with pro offers, Gear wasn’t about to call it quits: “I really wanted a team. I knew if I were to run competitively, I could do it if I had a team. And honestly, the two teams that I was really interested in, they weren’t interested in me. I loved the On group and I loved the [New Balance] Boston group under Mark Coogan, and my agent was like, ‘Umm, they don’t want you.’

“I was like, ‘Fair enough,’” she laughs.

“NAZ presented a team option, so I could take a visit and I really liked it. I would have been really happy here if it were just me and the established team, but it helped when we brought in Adrian [Wildschutt] and Olin [Hacker] and Abby [Nichols]. Those are all people I really feel I get along with.

“I love the place. There have been a lot of little signs that make me feel that Flagstaff is my home and where I was supposed to be. Just the people and the environment… I was like, ‘OK, I like this. I feel like I could do really well here.’”

The pro lifestyle has given Gear more free time than she has been used to, and she hasn’t put that to waste. She volunteers with a blood donation nonprofit, and has also become a court-appointed special advocate for foster children in the county. “It’s a good way for me to get out of the house and remember that there’s more to life than just running.”

Gear, who studied sociology and criminology at Arkansas, explains, “My little sister’s my hero. She’s about to go back to school for her grad degree in social work. She works with the police department and visits high-risk kids to make sure they and their families have access to community resources and get the help they need.”

Coached by Jenna Wrieden now, Gear says the training has changed from what she did in Fayetteville, with more emphasis on strength and endurance. “I feel like I’m a much stronger athlete. It lends itself really well to my steeple training and my success in that event.”

She still feels the occasional tug of the vault, “I’ve joked with my agent about pole vaulting at a meet randomly, but that was at the beginning of the year before USAs. I think he’d be a lot less inclined to agree now.”

Success in Budapest depends on focus, she knows. “Sometimes I’m all over the place and I’m not always mentally present. It’s something I’m really trying to work on. I feel like I got as close to perfect as I could have at USATF.

“When I make a plan, I stick to it. I really want to make the final, and I’d love to go into it being like, ‘You have to be in the top, I don’t know, 5 positions or whatever. My mindset is to try to make sure that I stay there.”

She adds, “I’ve gotten a lot out of this year that I’ve never thought I could get. I have a lot of reframing of my goals and visions of what I think I can achieve; I’ll probably consider that a little more after the season, to plan that out. I feel like I’m still trying to wrap my head around where I’m at now.”

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