AS SOON AS SHE NOTICED the photos, high schooler Paige Sommers (Westlake, Westlake Village, California) conceived a vision that is playing out to this day. Her 14-8½ (4.485) vault as April began made her the highest-flying outdoor vaulter in prep history and carried her to No. 2 on the absolute all-time list (see chart).
The photos in question were shots hung on the wall of her attorney dad’s home office, images from John Sommers’ collegiate vault career in the ’90s. Sommers père had reached the NCAA Indoor and then set a PR 17-9 outdoors as a UCLA senior in ’94. Looking at the photos as an elementary schooler, Paige found herself entranced.
“I mean, there’s just no sport like pole vaulting,” says the talented senior, who is now coached by her dad. “It’s so different. And I think just even seeing an image of someone kind of like flying through the air just kind of sparks something in me that shows how it’s different than others and just made me want to try it.” She was determined to fly too.
That she has done. On April 03 in a meet at the Vault Club facility in Menifee, California — the same site where T&FN’s ’20 HS Girls MVP Leah Pasqualetti soared 14-8¼, heretofore the top outdoor mark in girls’ prep history — Sommers went a quarter-inch higher.
After the five early heights she went through, needing two tries at a pair of them, at 14-4 Sommers went over on her third attempt and after conferring with her dad asked to go next at the outdoor-best height.
One and done. Over she went on first time of asking, barely jiggling the crosspiece on her way down. From the pit she bounded into an exultant bear hug from her dad.
Both athlete and coach were ecstatic she had climbed spectacularly out of a winter slump that included a couple of disappointing meets. At February’s adidas Indoor Nationals she had placed 2nd after topping out at 13-9¼. She won at the outdoor NSAF Meet of Champions a month later but flew home less than thrilled by her 12-11½ best.
“After those two bad meets, I was just kind of determined on making [the Menifee comp] a good meet,” Sommers says. “So I kind of just gave myself that extra confidence before the meet and I was like, ‘This is going to be good.’ I just kept telling myself that. I think from having those two bad meets, it was just a learning experience.
“I kind of figured out that the poles I was on for the heights were just not the ones I was supposed to be on. So I just made those adjustments for this new meet. And just kind of put trust in my training and from figuring everything out, just kind of put it together and it just happened to work.” (Continued below)
Standing 5-11½, Sommers, who will head to Duke for college next fall, is a tall drink of water among women vaulters of any level. She has nearly an inch on Jenn Suhr’s 5-10¾ and as her PRs climb higher finds herself in the early stages of working with some very lengthy poles.
Prior to the crucial height at the Menifee meet Sommers had never before vaulted with the 14-7 (165) pole she used for her big clearance there, and at home in the family garage she has an even stiffer 14-7 (170) stick.
“I think I’ll probably now be bringing the 170 to meets,” she says. “I haven’t ever brought it to meets just because it’s my bigger pole that’s just for the higher heights I’ve been blowing through. I haven’t been able to use it yet, but hopefully in meets where I’m going for PRs again I’ll be able to jump on it.”
The heavy lumber may come in handy for heights like 14-10 — an inch above Chloe Cunliffe’s absolute HSR of 14-9i — where Sommers recorded three misses to close out the Menifee meet.
Of the biggest guns in his daughter’s pole collection, John Sommers says, “We have them in the bag for meets, but you know, we never even get on those in practice because you really need to be in the moment with the bar up there, with the crowd, you know, and have the adrenaline of a meet to even get on these poles.”
While the C19 lockdown closed off spring opportunities just as Sommers had started to roll with a 14-6 in late February of ’20, claiming both the national age-16 and junior-class records, this year she eyes a somewhat fuller local schedule ahead for April, May and June. Planned stops include the Redondo Track Festival (April 30–May 01) and the esteemed Arcadia Invitational (set for May 08 as a California-only affair).
The Olympic Trials and before that achieving its qualifying standard of 15-1 stand as the apogee goals for the year. Sommers’ senior season is — no matter where and how high she ends up vaulting — an extension of the flight of imagination she launched upon seeing dad’s vaulting shots on the wall.
When John got Paige a pole at her urging and took her to an all-comers meet that summer after her 6th-grade year, she won… against high schoolers. Her dad was pleased though not shocked.
“You know, I’ll tell you,” he says. “I mean, I’m not surprised because Paige, I knew from early on that she was just a really special athlete. I mean, she, her whole life, sports she did, she did very well in. She played club soccer, she played club basketball and she excelled at those. You know, we’re a family that does a lot of snow skiing and water skiing, wakeboarding, and all that type of stuff. And she’s just a beautiful snow skier and water skier, very coordinated and just picks things up really easily.”
“I knew she’d be good and I knew she’d have the body type of a pole vaulter so I thought she’d do well. I didn’t think she’d do this well. I mean, you’re never expecting her to jump a national record — especially when she was in 6th grade.
“We were just hoping to do well and use it to get into college and that type of thing, and maybe have a college career pole vaulting and so forth.
“But yeah, she definitely broke me down. And so we started at the end of 6th grade. Obviously with pole vault, you don’t have a pole vault pit in your backyard. So we just waited until the local high schools put their pits out and we actually had to scale fences and we got kicked out of multiple high schools that first year, but it was a lot of fun and that’s kinda how we got started.”
Chasing records, motivating as that is, is not all that keeps Sommers invested. “The thing that I really like about pole vault,” she says, “is that there’s kind of no limit to how high you can go — because you can always increase your speed, get more power, get faster. There’s so many factors that go into it.
“So yeah, there’s always something to work on, which is kind of exciting for me because I like to try to perfect things.”