BUILDING A BACKYARD VAULT FACILITY, training on longer poles and most recently a thankfully mild case of C19 (see update at story’s end) have kept Sandi Morris’s plate heaping full throughout the 11 months since her regular competition schedule screeched to a pandemic halt last winter.
Targeting Tokyo gold, the 28-year-old World Indoor gold medalist, who vaulted to silver in Rio and at the outdoor World Championships of ’17 and ’19, yearns to competition test-drive the strategy she has set in motion to scale higher heights than she ever has before. Keep in mind that only Yelena Isinbaeva and Jenn Suhr have ever jumped higher than her PR 16-4¾ (5.00).
Undefeated during her 4-meet ’20 indoor season and 4 summer outdoor competitions, Morris set the pandemic standard as T&FN’s “podium gold medalist” in a year without formal World Rankings.
Away from competition she was busier yet. Notably on a project she has been inching towards for 3 years. “I’m still trying to get on the next length of poles,” she says, “and I need jumps on them and high-adrenaline situations to really figure out how the timing of those poles is going to work for me when I’ve got adrenaline and I’m running really fast.”
Her schedule after a January encounter with the coronavirus, which infected both her and long jumper husband Tyrone Smith, has Morris covering the high-adrenaline — read in-competition — part of the pole change with meets II through IV of the new American Track League series at her home facility on the Arkansas campus. The could-have-been-but-wasn’t-lazy pandemic spring and summer of ’20 was when she grooved her technique with the new sticks in practice.
As with many things vault-ish, it’s best to let the expert explain. “It’s all pretty complicated,” Morris says. “The main goal, yes, has always been get on 4.60 [15-1] poles, but for a while there, [pole maker] UCS did make me some poles that are made more similarly to 4.45 [14-7¼], which is the current length that I’m on. But this past summer…”
At this juncture Morris weaves into her thesis the other new piece of equipment that forwarded her efforts in 2020. Facilities access in Fayetteville was on hold and so last April her dad Harry, with Sandi adding copious sweat equity of her own, built a full-length pole vault runway in her parents’ South Carolina yard — a field of dreams for an Olympian in a lockdown summer.
Morris hosted the mid-July Acadia Invitational on the facility, replete with its eponymously colored UCS pit, the “Pink Panther.” She flew over 15-9¼ (5.81), her ’20 outdoor best, in the meet, joined by friend and rival Katie Nageotte at that height.
“It helps when you have no bad conditions at all,” says Morris, who used her 4.60 poles for the home meet and an ATL comp in Georgia 5 weeks later. “The venue where we built it, that field is kind of tucked down behind some trees and stuff so there’s no wind. And we did it in the evening. So it was really beautiful. The sun was going down a little bit, so it wasn’t super, super hot. You know, South Carolina summers can be deadly, so it was just perfect conditions, really awesome, fast runway.
“So all those things help and, you know, that contributes to jumping high also; just home field advantage, as they say.”
Where the backyard runway equaled its weight in gold, though, was for practices.
“See, here’s the thing when you’re trying to switch anything or change anything in your technique or work on anything in your jump,” Morris explains. “You need practices at home when you can go from full approach and you are in full-approach jumping form without having to worry about, ‘Oh, I’ve got a meet in one week. I can’t mess around too much.’
“’Cause you do end up going down before you go back up, if that makes sense. So this [unplanned pandemic interruption] has been kind of a blessing in disguise for me because this past summer, all I did was jump on these 4.60 poles to get used to them. And I had no worries about if I did [experience a temporary drop in heights]. It was really what I needed. I feel like it’s just lots of jumps on these poles where I’m not worried about being ready for a Diamond League or something like that.”
The unschooled observer might fancy that going up in poles is perhaps analogous to launching off diving boards as a kid. Those stubby models in motel pools were nothing like the bouncy slammers in some backyards. Yes and no. Pole vaulting is a more demanding skill than executing a cannonball without blasting a gallon of chlorinated water up one’s nose.
“The longer poles, they’re made a little bit differently,” Morris explains. “So the bend feels different. So that’s why it’s taken so long. Even if you grip straight over, right — if you’re gripping the same height, it feels slightly different because the pole is made to be gripped higher. So the bend, the timing, feels different.”
Morris’s conversion took time. “I had a crazy summer, going back and forth between here in Arkansas, where I live and own a house, and then my parents’ house. The first [South Carolina] stint was 7 weeks. I went and stayed with my parents and that’s when we built the pit and the runway. I got some practice sessions on it, but then I hurt my knee and then had to take a couple of weeks off.
“I came back to Arkansas, did some short-approach training for a few weeks and then went back to Mom and Dad’s for another 5 weeks — and that’s when I really got probably 3 or 4 really good full-approach sessions on our brand new runway with the brand new pit and jumping on these new poles. And that’s the first time I’ve really felt like I had enough practices consistently to get a feel for them.
“So we then held one last meet on my runway there in South Carolina and that’s when I jumped really well on them and was like, ‘OK, I think I’ve made this transition. I’m confident on them.’
“This season, my goal is to not even touch my old poles. I’m just switching; I’m making the change.”
Starting on the 31st of January, Morris intends to commit to that resolution in competition. She foresees a transitional period to work through on meet runways.
“It’s funny how your technique sometimes isn’t quite as good during a competition as it is during practice because you’ve got more adrenaline, more speed,” she says. “Especially me. So figuring out how to grip higher can actually be more difficult in a meet situation when I’m high-adrenaline and I’m rushing through the takeoff phase, which is the most important part about the timing of a higher grip.
“You can’t rush the takeoff phase, so what I’m personally working on right now is trying to raise my grip because I do believe that getting on the 4.60 poles and getting my grip up a few inches is going to be my ticket to the World Record.
“All of this time off from competing, I have been really chomping at the bit still behind the scenes working on this part. Because I believe I’ve got more 5-meter jumps in me and I’m trying to figure out how to get them out.”
A Pandemic-Induced Timeout
If the past year has been anything, it’s been a time of shocks and surprises. So it is that days after being interviewed for this story, Sandi Morris and husband Tyrone Smith contracted COVID-19. Morris — since recovered though delaying her originally planned opener by a week to January 31 — went public with the news just as we were about to post this feature. Naturally, we checked in for an update. Morris’s texted response:
“I feel really good! Fortunately I experienced symptoms similar to that of a cold. The most unusual part (and frustrating) was the loss of taste and smell. I had no motivation to eat during those couple of weeks, and of course nutrition is super-important for athletes. I’m really happy it’s now come back so I can be properly nourished now that I’m back to training.
“But I am not experiencing any lethargy or anything, I actually feel pretty great! So I pushed my first competition one week and also I am not going to be going to France for [competitions in] Liévin and Rouen.
“I do hope to still make it to France in late February for [Clermont-Ferrand], and will likely be jumping on poles that belong to Renaud [Lavillenie]. It’s so extraordinarily difficult to get to Europe right now, especially with poles. And he has the sizes I will need to compete.
“So, if everything goes as planned and I return negative tests by mid-February then I will proceed with going over for that meet following doing the ATL meets here.”