FLYING HIGHER THAN EVER at age 29, Ohio native Katie Nageotte has, it seems, finally unlocked the key to high heights and consistency. In an early-August meet at her training base at Life University in Marietta, Georgia, Nageotte soared over a lifetime best 16-1¾ (4.92) to become the No. 6 vaulter in world history and strengthen her hold as No. 3 among Americans, behind only Olympic silver medalist Sandi Morris and gold medalist Jenn Suhr.
Nageotte (pronounced Na-ZHOT) says, “We planned it out earlier in the week where we are going to have a really fast, aggressive progression.” That she did. She opened at 15-1 (4.60), clearing on her first try; then to 15-7 (4.75) for another first-attempt clearance.
Then the bar went to 16-1¾—a potential outdoor yearly world leader—that would also top her indoor PR of 16-1¼ (4.91) that she cleared in winning the ’18 USATF Indoor title in Albuquerque’s altitude.
“I knew I was ready to jump it,” she explains. “My coach [Brad Walker] and I kind of had a deal where I couldn’t go off on my off-season until I PRed, so I really wanted this to be my last meet. It was like, ‘Alright, let’s go, let’s make it happen.’ It’s been a weird year. I was ready to take my break.
“I felt confident on the runway. I knew I was fast. I had just run that 100 [11.92 PR 3 days before]. That definitely added a bit of confidence.” (Continued below)
After that make on her third jump of the day, she naturally had the bar moved to an American Outdoor Record 16-4¾ (5.01): “My first two attempts were decent, but nothing that would have stayed. But the third attempt was a really good attempt. I went up a pole and I definitely had the height in me. It was just a little bit sloppier of a job and therefore I didn’t quite get the lift at the end.
“My chest ultimately brought it down, so it wouldn’t have stayed either, but it showed that, ‘OK, the height is there, it’s just a matter of perfecting the jump.’”
All great stuff, even if the meet didn’t start off according to plan: “I had left my house earlier than normal, and I had forgotten to grab my meal as I left, which is just such a rookie mistake. I don’t do that. So I just ate a protein bar in the car on the way there, which is fine but not nearly enough.
“After the warmup, I was feeling really mentally fatigued and I knew part of it was that I hadn’t eaten enough. This girl had a Chick-fil-A sandwich that she offered me, and so I actually ate fried fast food, a premium meal that I would never recommend or condone,” she recounts with a laugh.
The key to Nageotte’s big jumping, however, is apparently not the diet: “This is the first season from full approach with my speed that I’ve been able to tell my body what to do in the last few steps going into the takeoff. Before, it was kind of a blur and I would rush and jump through it. This year I’m able to just see everything clearly coming in those last couple of steps with speed and really execute from a full approach.
“We’ve gotten my steps much closer to being on, which helps immensely. It’s just gotten much more consistent and as a result, because I’m better technically, I’m getting a lot more out of my smaller poles. That [16-1¾] was actually one pole smaller than what I cleared 4.91 [16-1¼] back in 2018. Just because I’m jumping better at the takeoff, the pole is not getting over-bent and it’s not shooting me at the bar, I’m not falling off the pole under the bar. I’m able to jump nicely and then get back and get the most out of these poles.”
The breakthrough—significantly—comes as Nageotte nears the 4-year mark of working with Washington alum Walker, the ’07 world champion. When he decided to move from the Pacific Northwest to Georgia to study at Life to be a chiropractor, Nageotte and her training mates (Kristen Brown, John Prader and Canadian Robin Bone) followed.
The work, says Nageotte, is that important, predicting, “I can definitely jump higher.” Referring to her attempts at the American Record, she explains, “When we clean up the jumble a little more… I have the next couple of poles that I have been on before and I can get on again. Jumping better would only mean getting more height out of them. It’s easier said than done.
“If I’ve learned anything training with Brad, it’s that every preseason and every training stint that we’ve done, it’s helped me exponentially. I definitely think I’m capable of jumping higher. What it is, I don’t know. I don’t want to put a limit on it. I understand I still have a lot of work to do and I have to stay healthy. There are a lot of variables, but I’m excited.”
It has been a long journey to the top of the lists for Nageotte, who came out of Olmsted Falls, Ohio—some 20M southwest of Cleveland—where she topped a best of 13-0 (3.96) as a high schooler, putting her =No. 10 on the ’09 prep list. “I always felt like I was destined to do big things in the sport,” she admits. “That sounds really cheesy, but I was really confident in my ability. I remember clearing 13-feet and that felt unbelievably high.
“What I love about sports, but especially pole vault, is you can’t just want it. You have to put in the work and grind every day, day in, day out. I didn’t quite have that back then. I needed to humble myself. You’ve got to work hard if you want to do things in this sport.”
She spent two years at Dayton, winning the Atlantic 10 title indoors and out her frosh year. Then came a transfer to Div. II’s Ashland, where she flourished as a senior, winning the Div. II national title with a best of 14-6¾ (4.44). That was the moment she realized she had a future as a pro.
“I had gone through a horrible, horrible mental block,” she says of the lead-in to that final collegiate season. “Then I finally got over it enough to where senior year I improved a foot and a half throughout the year. It was like, in that moment, ‘OK, you’ve got something here.’ That was my first glimpse of it. I was just having so much fun and I loved it. I just wanted to keep doing it as long as I could.”
In a pro career that has seen her rank among the top 10 Americans 6 times—and World Rank the last 3 years—Nageotte has won two U.S. Indoor titles and a Pan-Am silver.
It wasn’t always easy, though. She kept going because “of the belief that I really had so much potential that was untapped and I just knew I was doing a lot wrong and I knew that my mind was holding me back.
“I was still jumping, you know, 4.60 (15-1). I was still making Diamond Leagues and placing in the middle of the pack at the time, and I had the Olympic standard. It was like, I can do these things and I truly believe there’s a lot that can be fixed if I just get the right person to do that. Reaching out to Brad, he told me afterwards that he really didn’t want to coach elites yet. But he was like, ‘I knew I would be dumb if I passed you up.’ I was like, ‘OK, I’ll take that.’
“It was the belief that I could be so much better than I was. And I had a family that was supportive. They were so great financially and emotionally. I was never once asked, ‘When are you going to hang up the spikes so you can get a real job?’ I was so grateful for that.”
Calling an end to the ‘20 season while she’s riding a hot streak wasn’t a hard decision. “To train hard without the competitions for much of the season was kind of exhausting,” she explains. “My body was starting to feel a little bit rough toward the end there. I was kind of hanging on by threads in certain respects. And I guess in the last few years, I’ve not been thrilled with how I’ve finished a season. I’ve always felt a little bummed, either not doing as well as I wanted to at the Diamond League Final or Worlds or not making a team.
“This is the first year where I felt like my last competition actually made me super-happy and gave me something to look forward to and motivate me for next year.”
It is a marked contrast from last fall, when she came home from Doha feeling, well, “mopey.” She details, “It was consistently a good year. Every year I’ve been building and getting better. I didn’t set a personal best, so in that respect it was a little bit of a bummer. And the way I finished at World Champs [7th]. I had so much height over 4.80 [15-9] and I had gone up to a pole that I had never cleared a bar on. It was the biggest pole I’d ever been on and I was super-high in the air and barely brushed it on the way down.
“It was hard for me. It was a really good year overall, but I had a few moments of sadness that really pushed me for this year.”
Now, facing a postponed Olympics on the calendar, Nageotte is ready for a redo on the Olympic Trials. In ’16, she tied for 5th at 15-1 (4.60), one bar away from making the team. She looks to be in a stronger position in ’21.
“Obviously, my goal is to have the best day, but that’s not always how that works,” she says. “I just want to work and train so hard and get to a point of consistency in my job that even if I’m a little off that day, I’m still making that team.”