TWICE AN NCAA CHAMPION, the highest-flying outdoor collegiate vaulter all-time with her 15-6¼ (4.73) PR, and T&FN’s Indoor Collegiate AOY for ’20, first-year pro Olivia Gruver carries extra motivation into the Olympic season, born of understandable exasperation with the way her collegiate competition at Washington ended last March.
“Well, definitely last year I was on kind of a great roll, a great start in indoor season,” she says. “I had my highest opener ever [15-3½/4.66], and then obviously I did really well at USA Indoors. So I was very excited for NCAAs. And obviously that got canceled.”
Gruver, No. 4 on the U.S. list and 3rd at the NCAA in ’19 after following vault coach Toby Stevenson west from Kentucky the previous fall, soared last year to 3rd at the USATF Indoor behind Sandi Morris and Jenn Suhr. Her first-attempt 15-5 (4.70) clearance lifted her to No. 2 all-time on the collegiate indoor list and she returned to Albuquerque for the NCAA 3 weeks later bullish about what was to be the last meet of her final collegiate season.
The clear favorite going in, Gruver looked forward to adding a third collegiate crown to her collection, this time as a Husky, and she says, “I wanted another chance to break the indoor Collegiate Record [Demi Payne’s 15-7/4.75 from ’15]. I felt that I was really, really close and it was just out of my reach and then, you know, everything happened.”
And happened fast, as it did for every athlete in town for the NCAA when the seriousness of C19 hit home. “We were doing our premeet and then I was heading back to the hotel and I got the call that they were canceling [the meet],” Gruver recalls. “And so they booked us all flights and we went home that day. It was pretty crazy. It was sad. It was hard to get over, but you know, I was pretty ready to go onto my next journey of being a pro athlete. So it definitely hurt, but I was ready.”
Gruver continues to train at Washington, where she is a volunteer assistant coach. In the pandemic’s early months, like so many athletes, she had no facility access due to the lockdown. The Mountain Pacific Indoor Champs at the end of February “was my last time jumping,” she says, “and then everything got shut down here. So there was nowhere for us to jump. I couldn’t get into Dempsey, U-Dub, anything.”
Last July Gruver traveled to Georgia for a couple of meets in the Atlanta area and one in South Carolina on the new runway in Sandi Morris’s parents’ yard. “A week before I left,” she says, “we found a place so I could get a couple of jumps in. When I got to Georgia, I was just by myself for the first time and kind of just trying to put everything together. I just didn’t have enough time when I was there” to shake the rust off. Her highest clearance on the short trip was 14-3¼ (4.35) but she got a taste of mixing it up with the pros in small fields including Morris, Katie Nageotte and Megan Clark — happy to be competing at all.
In Seattle, now 10 months into the pandemic, Gruver says, “You have to follow some rules, but we’re able to practice pretty normally right now. I’m doing what I’ve been doing, jumping, working out, making sure I’m strong and healthy. Yeah, just trying to work around some things, but it’s pretty normal.”
Vaulting found Gruver — who prepped at Franklin High in Reisterstown, Maryland — through a not uncommon path. “I was a gymnast for a very long time,” she says, “and I kind of just got very tall and I kept breaking things and getting stress fractures. So once I got into high school, I was kind of just over with it and I was trying to find something that I was good at.
“I’ve always been an athlete. So I tried basketball, volleyball, and I was like, ‘No, I’ll just go to track.’ I started off with long jump, triple jump, high jump, some sprints. And my friend, Naomi, her brother volunteered or worked at DC Vault, which is a vault club in DC, and he was like, ‘You know what? You look like you could be a great pole vaulter. Why don’t you come down and try?’ So I took the trek from Maryland to DC, like hour and a half drive away, and I tried it and it just kind of clicked with me.
“It was something that I was like, ‘Oh, I think I could be good at this.’ And I just did it throughout high school and kind of just blossomed. It was something that I was good at and it felt natural. So I just stuck with it.”
Gruver won State Indoor titles in ’14 and ’15 plus a Penn Relays title and headed off to Kentucky with a 13-4½ PR from the indoor season of her 11th-grade year. Two years later she won her first NCAA crown as a Wildcat, PRing at 14-9 (4.50) in the process.
The link between gymnastics and pole vaulting? “It’s the body awareness,” she says. “It definitely helps just to know where you are in the air — and obviously the fear aspect. You know, as gymnasts we have to fly out our bodies everywhere. So it kinda just helps with that in vault as well.”
As she gears up for the Olympic Trials this summer, Gruver will certainly remember what it felt like to produce collegiate competition’s highest outdoor vault at the ’19 Stanford Invitational.
“I think I just was ready to jump high that day,” she says. “I mean, I didn’t put any expectations on myself. The week before I had no-heighted so I was like, ‘I just want to jump a bar.’ I just went to jump something to open up my season, and I just went in there and took every bar as it came. Finally, I don’t know what bar I jumped before that, but I was the last person in and I was talking with Toby and he’s like, ‘You just want to put it up to 4.73 and get the [outdoor] Collegiate Record?’ I was like, ‘You know what, might as well.’ So we did it and I cleared it.
“I mean, I think we were all ready for me to jump the Collegiate Record. I just didn’t expect it to be at that meet. But you know what? When you don’t pressure yourself incredible things can happen.”
As for her technical focus in training, Gruver says, “We’re definitely focusing on my plant. I have a tendency to kind of pull in my bottom arm and not kind of push through that last step. So we’ve taken the time to really just hone in on that. And it it’s becoming very natural now, so I’m definitely starting to get the rhythm and everything and put everything together. So I’m excited to kind of open up my season eventually.”
Gruver also chooses to view the nearly lost ’20 season in a positive light. “Last year I felt ready for it,” she says, “but in a sense I was happy that I had another year because I felt like I could work on a lot of things. And I think with this time, and kind of hopefully getting a couple of meets before as a pro that I’ll truly be ready for the Olympic Trials and, you know, have a chance. I’m very excited.”