T&FN Interview — Katie Nageotte

After the Olympic qualifying round Katie Nageotte told herself, “I can do this. I can win this.” She was right. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

OLYMPIC POLE VAULT GOLD MEDALIST Katie Nageotte spent much of the fall on a victory tour into which she also squeezed a couple of Florida vacations with her family and boyfriend.

A de rigueur stop on her tour, the fête for Nageotte by her hometown citizens of Olmsted Falls, Ohio, began in a torrential downpour and blew her away: “We had to move it inside and so many people ended up staying I couldn’t believe it. Some people waited several hours just to say hello and I was just so humbled by that, because for me, I mean, it’s just pole vaulting, right? It’s just what I love to do.”

The truth, though, is that Nageotte’s joyous Olympic Trials Record win and her battle back from two misses at the Tokyo opening height of 14-9 (4.50) captivated audiences far beyond the town where she grew up.

“This Is What Joy Looks Like,” was the caption on a Yahoo Sports photo sequence from the Trials.

After she had won in Eugene, no eye in the stadium failed to focus as Nageotte then essayed three attempts at 16-7½ (5.07), a centimeter above Yelena Isinbaeva’s World Record. It’s a height she hopes to revisit. (Continued below)

Nageotte — who had been struck hard emotionally by a way-over-the-bar-but-brushing-on-the-descent third miss as she finished tied for 7th at the ’19 Worlds — nailed the year-delayed Olympic season inspirationally.

However, first she had to work her way back from a December ’20 COVID infection that tested her physically and emotionally throughout the winter as she pushed through with coach Brad Walker — a men’s AR setter with 19-9¾ (6.04) in ’08 — at various training facilities in Georgia.

There also was another setback along the way in May, entirely out of Nageotte’s hands: All her poles were snapped in two in an airline baggage handling mishap.

But Nageotte’s autumn victory lap included events at alma mater Ashland, and a Cleveland Browns game.

She also threw out the first pitch at a Cleveland Indians game. That was topic No. 1, the initial pitch, as it were, in our phone interview:

Nageotte: Oh my gosh, it was really cool. The pitch itself, I’ll be sad about that for the rest of my life, but the experience was amazing.

It went a little too far to the left and the catcher was Slider in the mascot uniform, so his reflexes weren’t great, but if I had thrown it straight, it wouldn’t have mattered.

T&FN: Put you behind on the count, did it? I suppose there’s an analogy there just looking at your season. You had just had COVID when 2021 began, a knock that affected you, as it turned out, until the Drake Relays. A month later you scored your first-ever Diamond League win in Doha.

Nageotte: Yes. I’d won the [’19] street vault in Lausanne, but it wasn’t an official Diamond League event with the points and everything. So it was pretty special winning that one and setting, I think it was a meeting record. But breaking a record in the Diamond League was pretty fantastic.

T&FN: Very cool. And of course, right before that, you lifted your PR 2cm [three-quarters of an inch] in two meets to 16-2½ (4.94). Tell us a little bit about the winter and spring and how you set up what followed.

Nageotte: Well, I think most of the good that came out of this year was from the work last year. When everything shut down, we were able to keep training. Thankfully we just kind of stayed in our little bubble and our training facility was this old abandoned warehouse in the middle of nowhere. So just the few of us would go in and train and I would lift in my garage — just having that time to work on things, just rep it out over and over again without competitions.

You know, sometimes when you’re trying to make changes and you compete, at least in my case I would revert back to old habits and kind of sabotage a lot of what we had been working on. So just having nothing but time to create these new habits, that really set up the foundation for this year.

During winter and early spring, even though I was really struggling with COVID stuff, I think that foundation helped me to come back when I finally did come out of that on the other side.

Nageotte led a happy trio of Olympians (Morgann LeLeux left, Sandi Morris right) at the Olympic Trials. (KEVIN MORRIS)

T&FN: Was the lasting COVID effect a coordination issue or that you just didn’t have the pop?

Nageotte: It was a little bit of both. It was more like a mind-body connection. My reaction time, that sharp impulse, nerves firing as I’m coming down the runway, I couldn’t process what I was seeing quickly enough to then make that fast impulse to jump into the takeoff.

It was just this brain fog and there was this disconnect and almost lag time of telling my body what to do and then my body doing it. You’ve got to react quickly and I couldn’t react. It was like, I couldn’t see the takeoff, and it wasn’t a vision problem. It was just that I couldn’t process what I was seeing quickly enough to then jump.

Normally when I vault, I can see everything very clearly. I can remember the whole jump very clearly. And [last winter] if I took a jump, a lot of times I would just run through because I couldn’t react fast enough to jump into it coming in with more speed.

But when I did jump a lot of times I couldn’t remember what I had seen in the jump into the swing and into clearing the bar. I could remember how it felt, but I couldn’t see it in my brain, if that makes any sense.

It was a very unsettling feeling because it felt like I had a bad mental block, but I had been through a mental block earlier in my career and knew all the things to get out of that. The way I got out of it in the past was just telling my body what to do and as I’m coming in just focusing on my cues. But my brain just wasn’t cooperating. My mind and body were just not in sync — a very, very unsettling feeling.

T&FN: Did you break out of it gradually or did a switch suddenly flip, so to speak?

Nageotte: There wasn’t this click moment. It just took time and it took patience. It was months. I didn’t start to really feel better on the runway until April and I had been sick in December.

I remember I did that [late January] Arkansas meet during the indoor season, and I only jumped from short approach, but as I was coming into the takeoff, I was like screaming at myself in my head to jump like I’ve never had to do before, and sometimes I would stumble out of the back.

That meet was exactly what I needed, though, because I was able to jump in and prove to myself, “OK, it’s still in you somewhere,” but it was just very challenging.

T&FN: How did that affect you emotionally?

Nageotte: Not well. I don’t handle bad practices well. So having just months of that was not fun. And my poor family and my poor boyfriend [Hugo Moon, a rowing coach based in the Sunshine State] just had to listen to me cry.

I talked about, ‘I don’t know if I can do this after this year.’ I knew I wouldn’t quit in an Olympic year; that just wasn’t going to happen. But I was like, “If it continues to feel like this, I can’t keep coming in and leaving feeling this defeated every day, I just can’t do it.”

So, it was a process and Brad was as patient as he could be — because from an outside perspective, my numbers in the weightroom were great, my speed on the runway was good. I was on bigger poles than I had ever been.

So physically, just him looking at it from an outside perspective, it all looked fine. He was trying his best to be patient with it, but he was obviously frustrated with me and for me. He was like, “Just trust it.”

I was like, “It’s not about trusting it. It’s just I can’t.”

So, yeah, it was a really rough few months, to say the least, that I definitely downplayed on social media. I talked about it a bit but I don’t think people realized how bad it was for those few months — so many nights I was just crying myself to sleep because it’s a big year. I just felt like I finally figured it out coming off of 2020, having a personal best [16-2½/4.92] in such a crazy year. It was very frustrating to say the least.

T&FN: At the American Track League meet in Marietta two weeks before the Trials the vault was held indoors. You PRed at 16-2½ [4.94], and then you took three shots at 16-6½ [5.04], which would have broken Jenn Suhr’s American Indoor Record by half an inch and made you the all-time highest-flying U.S. vaulter.

You posted video of one attempt that was very close.

Nageotte: I did. I don’t remember what happened on one of those attempts, but I know two of them were close. One in particular was pretty good. I was over it. I just nicked it on the backside. So I’m very excited for the season this year.

T&FN: When you broke Suhr’s Olympic Trials meet record by an inch that sent a message Tokyo might be a very special meet for you. You marched through to win with no misses at 15-9 [4.80] and got over that OT Record on your second try — on a 100-degree-plus day that was still a scorcher when your evening comp began.

Nageotte: Yeah. I don’t do well in the heat. Everyone, my training partners all know that. So when it’s sunny and really hot like that I don’t do well. I felt honestly pretty nauseous through a lot of it. I just felt kind of out of body for the majority of the meet.

I will say up until that 4.95 [16-2¾] jump, it was not my best technical meet. I felt like the nerves just really were kind of getting to me. But all the work that we had put in and the way that Brad taught me to focus as I’m coming down the runway really did help keep a lot of that out.

But when you have that much adrenaline running through your body, it’s hard for me to execute really well. So, yeah, it was exactly what it needed to be. That jump at 95 was great. I’m thrilled with how the day ended up, but I knew going in that the heat wasn’t going to be in my favor. So my warmups were very short.

I think I was on the runway for all of a half hour and then I sat down and put ice on my neck for the rest of the time and just sat in the shade until I was up. I knew what it was going to be and I tried to prepare as best I could and I’m glad that it went my way that day.

T&FN: You may have felt “out of body” but you were on at the meet record height.

Nageotte: Yeah, I think after I made the team everything at that point was just a cherry on top. I started crying and so I didn’t know what to expect for me at that point. I think I was a little surprised that I was able to clear that, but again, everything that we’ve worked on has just been keep the emotion out of it. As I start down the runway it’s just cue driven and cue focused.

So I felt like I could, but after that, I just crashed so hard — just exhaustion, so my attempts at the World Record weren’t necessarily my best. But I think it was a combination of the heat, the emotion.

It was an interesting day. It was very much just a blur in some respects, but it was really awesome.

T&FN: Having attempted to break the WR must give you a psychological assist going forward.

Nageotte: Right. I think just any time you get to put it up to that and attempt it — I mean, I’ve gotten to do it a couple of times now, and even not clearing it, it’s still a big confidence boost like, “OK, it’s there, I’ve got a shot at it.” The more attempts you take at a personal best, the more likely, you are to clear it.

I am just happy that I’ve gotten several shots at it and hopefully this coming year there’ll be more shots at it. And maybe one of these days it’ll stay.

T&FN: We look forward to watching that. Let’s talk a little bit about the Olympics, again with the pitching analogy, being behind on the count. You needed three tries to get over opening height, 14-9 [4.50]. What was going through your mind?

Nageotte: Yeah, my family will never let me forget that one. All during the warmup, actually, my quad on my takeoff leg was so tight. It just kept grabbing in a way that I don’t normally experience and I just kept stretching it, I kept doing jumps, I kept doing anything to try and get it to loosen up and it just wasn’t.

Coming into that meet, I was so excited. After the prelims, I was like, “I can do this. I can win this. I’m so excited.”

And then it was very humbling getting there and realizing I’m only as good as my body. If my body doesn’t hold up there is nothing that I can do. A lot of the warmups were just spent trying to get it to loosen up so I wasn’t taking good jumps, I wasn’t executing my warmups to have a great competition. I was really just so focused on trying to get it to loosen up that it was taking away a lot of my mental energy as well as my physical energy.

So those first couple of jumps it did end up loosening up, but I think I just would have done those [misses] in the warmups had everything gone normally and had my quad been totally loose and fine.

Thankfully I was able to figure it out, ’cause you only get three shots at it. But even after the third attempt, I still didn’t feel great. When I say I didn’t feel great, the jump itself didn’t feel great.

I was still landing short and I missed my first attempt at 4.70 [15-5] in the same way. And I don’t do that. I know my jump and I know the poles and I’m usually landing pretty deep into the pit. So the fact that that was continuing to happen, I just realized that for whatever reason things weren’t rolling for me the way they normally do.

So I made an adjustment that I wouldn’t normally make. I moved a little bit closer on the runway, which is not something that we practice doing or try to do. Because your hands are at a fixed point, you don’t want to be too close. If you are then it really messes with your posture and the energy flow. You get kind of sucked up and you’re not able to really jump into it as well as you normally could.

But I just realized that for whatever reason that day I kind of needed to run into the pole to make it move like normal.

I didn’t tell Brad I was making that adjustment. I don’t know if I have told him since. I might have, but it was a combination of what he was giving me, but also just knowing myself and my body and what I needed in that moment. Once I did that, everything after that point moved smoothly.

That’s why the warmups are so important because that’s, that’s where you kind of work out the kinks. Then normally when we start the competition, I know exactly what pole to start on and I know exactly at what height. So yeah, it was not exactly what we wanted, but I also wouldn’t change it for anything.

Nageotte made it all the way to the top despite contracting C19 in December of ’20. (ANDREW McCLANAHAN/PHOTO RUN)

T&FN: Thinking of when you got to 16-¾ [4.90] — which turned out to be your winning height — with four still in it, it’s hard to fathom how vaulters hold it together at an Olympic Games.

Nageotte: Honestly, at that point, I was just so excited because I had finally found my jump and I knew that no matter how it finished out, I was at least going to have a good day. I mean, I had a shot.

At the beginning of the meet, the way I was feeling and the way I was missing bars was just unsettling. 4.80 [15-9] was when I really felt like I found my jump. I was so excited when I cleared that bar because it was like, “OK, now I can have a day. I don’t know what that’s going to finish out like but at least I have a chance again.”

So when the bar got to 4.90 [16-¾] I missed my first attempt but it was really close so I wasn’t nervous as much as I was just excited to get down the runway and try it again.

What’s funny about that the clearance is that when I took off from the ground, I really thought I messed it up. It just felt so weird in the invert. You can see me in the video, I kind of come off the side a little bit, like I’m almost just under my armpit. Normally I’m much more squared up, but I was kind of off center, and I just almost held onto the pole a little longer than I normally would. I mean, little things where if you don’t know pole vault, you maybe wouldn’t have noticed.

But that was part of what my reaction was: I was ecstatic that I made it but I was shocked because I had never cleared a bar feeling like that.

It’s funny because when I first started working with Brad he always talked about the importance of finishing every jump and making every jump count — because he said during his American Record attempt that he made it felt bad. He hated that jump; his best jump was earlier in the competition. On that [AR vault], his pole drop got low, he was off balance and he didn’t like that jump, but he fought for it and the bar stayed.

And that was the first thing I said to him: “That felt like what you described your AR jump as,” and he said that I was so far under. I think by that point I was excited and I was running faster, but I still had that [aforementioned] closer mark on the runway. I was so far under that the pole just scooped me up and shot me straight upside down. But it just felt so funny.

That’s not what I would expect the Olympic winning jump to feel like, it’s gotta be perfect. So I just loved that because it doesn’t have to be perfect. You just gotta make every attempt count ’cause pretty special things can happen if you do.

T&FN: So the lesson is, stay with it. As a klutz who never would have dared to try vaulting, I am glad for safety’s sake you didn’t try to force it at 5.01 [16-5¼, a centimeter above Sandi Morris’s outdoor AR] after that. There will be more opportunities to break records.

Nageotte: Yeah, I tried. I think part of it was that when I came into the meet, I came in with the mentality that I wanted to jump into my attempt at a World Record because that’s the dream, right, win the Olympics and break the World Record. That would be just like a Cinderella story. But also if you’re attempting a World Record there’s a really good chance that you’ve won.

I wanted to set my sights past a medal because I didn’t want to get so fixated on a medal that I got nervous and started changing things to just try and medal, and then, OK, now it’s the gold-medal bar. I wanted to keep my sights set past that. So then when I won and we got to that, Brad was like, “Well, how do you feel?”

I said, “I don’t know. I might as well try, we’re here.” And as soon as I pushed out, I just knew I just had nothing left. My energy was just gone.

And Brad said that my mark on the runway— he checks it kind of in the middle, we call it a middle mark — was 2 feet farther back than I had been the entire meet, That would have been really bad if I had tried that. So yeah, it was for the best that I didn’t.

I had watched Mondo do it the day before and I just forget that he’s, you know, inhuman. So I thought I could maybe do it too. But no, I am a mere mortal.

T&FN: Your victory came with an apropos arc in the COVID-delayed Olympic year given your personal battle with the virus’s effects. As for every athlete, though, you didn’t get to have your family in the stands to watch in person.

Nageotte: It would have been awesome, of course. I would have loved my family to be there, but again, it’s hard for me to sit here and say that I wish things were different because, you know, I’ll take it exactly as it was.

T&FN: Now you have World Champs plus an Olympics ahead in each of the next 4 seasons — not to mention multiple World Indoor Championships. Are you most excited about that or about jumping higher?

Nageotte: Both. I think a Worlds in the United States, in your home country, is about as good as it gets. So of course I’m really gonna work to make that team. And yeah, once you get a taste of trying the World Record or an American Record, that doesn’t go away and I want that.

I have a lot of things to help me stay motivated and I think the fact that we have now a championship every year, indoor and outdoor through the next Olympic cycle is going to help a lot. I think both are gonna motivate me. I’m excited to see just how high I can jump. I really think that we could do something special.