Women’s pole vault is a relatively new sport in the track and field world.
It didn’t really come into play until the 1990s, and wasn’t sanctioned by the International Association of Athletic Federations until 1997.
The men were vaulting in the Olympics in 1896, but it didn’t become an Olympic sport for women until 2000.
The winner of the first-ever Olympic Gold medal was Stacy Dragila of the United States. Dragila competed at Idaho State University from 1993-95 after transferring from Yuba Community College in Marysville, Calif.
Dragila accomplishment at the Olympics, and what she did for women’s pole vault ranks first on the Big Sky’s Conference’s list of “25 Greatest Female Moments.”
“Oh my gosh, wow,” Dragila said. “If I would have gone anywhere else in my career I would have never been on that podium or that stage. (Idaho State track and field coach) Dave (Nielsen) obviously is a pioneer himself and I give him full credit for having the vision, and the vision that he broke that barrier. He allowed his athletes to try something new.”
Dragila grew up in Auburn, Calif., where she competed for Placer High School in track and field. She reached the state finals in the 300-meter hurdles her junior and senior seasons. After graduating she went to Yuma CC and concentrated on the heptathlon.
She transferred to Idaho State and competed for Nielsen, who just completed his 28th season with the Bengals.
Dragila competed in the hurdles and heptathlon for Nielsen until one day he had his heptathletes try something new.
“We were looking at the workout for that day, and just one random fall day the workout was going to be horrendous,” Dragila said. “We were just about to walk out to the track and Dave runs over and says, ‘Hey you want to try to pole vault today?’ And I remember saying, ‘Did you see the workout you made for us? Where are were we going to fit that in with all of our other stuff?'”
“He kind of chucked and said ‘hey I would lessen the load if you go pull the poles out of the box and kind of do a couple of drills,” added Dragila. “And at the time women weren’t pole vaulting and we kind of all looked at each other and said, ‘Why are we doing this?’”
Nielsen told Dragila because they were trying it out because it was fun.
After that Nielsen decided to let the women vault at a home meet.
“When we hosted this, (ISU) was the only group to take this on, but gals from other teams thought it was pretty cool. Some were disappointed that their coaches wouldn’t allow them to try,” Nielsen said. “That’s when I figured we had something here. The next year, 1994, I hosted women’s pole vault in all of our home indoor meets starting it an hour before the rest of the event so that it wouldn’t impact their other events.”
“We started getting a few other collegiate gals trying it and also we had people coming to watch,” Nielsen added. “It was a spectator draw. By this time Stacy was starting to get much better and her athleticism was showing up in the vault. Other schools were starting to host women’s pole vault. The University of Montana now had a couple of jumpers and hosted the vault at their outdoor meet. It was catching on.”
Dragila graduated from Idaho State after the 1995 season and that year the USATF hosted the first national championship for women’s pole vault as an exhibition contest.
The meet was in Sacramento, Calif.
“I went down to the meet and really not knowing the field I was participating in,” Dragila said. “I remember being in the warm-up area in my hodge-podge uniform. I didn’t have a sponsor. I had Nike shoes and Adidas warm-ups. There were 40 women competing that day and I ended up taking second.”
At the time Dragila didn’t think anything about it and went back to Pocatello. Next thing she knew, Dragila got a call from Nielsen to come to his office. Waiting for her was a letter from the USATF.
“I opened it up in front of him and started reading it and it said, ‘Congratulations for taking second at US Nationals.'” Dragila said. “You have been selected to tour with the USA team over to Great Britain in the dual meet. And I kind of stopped, and was kind of bummed because there was no way I could afford an overseas flight or all of the expenses. But Dave said, ‘Just keep reading the letter.’ And when I kept reading it said all expenses are paid. I just had to get my passport and let them know where I was traveling from. My airfare, my room, commendations and per diem would be paid for. I would be representing the United States of America. I was just floored.”
“I was like are you kidding me?” Dragila said. “So Dave said, ‘So we better get back to work.’ And so that very afternoon we went down and started training again. And two weeks later I was on my flight to Europe to represent the USA.”
Nielsen said: “Later that summer I got a call from Duffy Mahoney at USATF and asked about getting a hold of Stacy because the USA-Great Britain dual was going to include the pole vault,” Nielsen said. “So Stacy, Melissa Price and Phyllis Raschker all went to England to compete. All of a sudden the game seemed to have changed and this was on the verge of becoming a real event. It was a great experience and now there was motivation to continue on.”
Dragila took second with a jump of 12 feet, 1-1/2 inches at the meet.
“In that meet I ended up taking second again,” said Dragila. “It was amazing to be in a national competition. People knew my stats and who I was. People were asking for my autograph. It was crazy.”
The next day she was in Nielson’s office and they he put a training program together that would end at the 1996 US Olympic Trials.
She took it one day at a time. She ended up winning the trials with a jump of 13-9 1/4, her best vault.
In 1997 Dragila was on the top of her game. The IAAF hosted the first World Championship for women’s pole vault. She went to Paris as the underdog but came out on the top of the podium.
But the next season Dragila sustained an injury. Nike had just signed her to a contract, and she was testing a new product. At the Goodwill Games, she no-heighted and couldn’t even run down the runway. An MRI showed a fractured navicular bone in her foot.
“(I was) fortunate enough the doctor I worked with down in Pocatello recommend that I came to Boise, Idaho, to work with the nation’s best surgeon,” Dragila said. “I remember telling the doctor that I want to make the Olympic team, and I have a really good shot at it. He was kind of taken back by my statement because he had no idea who I was and what my goals and ambitions were. He believed in me and said he was going to do his very best to make sure I was healthy and the procedure will make me better.”
In the 1999 season, Dragila returned better than ever and ranked first in the world. That was the year she found out that pole vault was going to be in the Olympics.
“I was leading the country at the time,” Dragila said. “There was a lot of pressure on me.”
The 2000 Summer Olypmic Games were in Sydney, Australia.
“I tried to not make the situation bigger than it really is,” Dragila said. “When I was in high school I got to state and every time I went, I failed because I made it bigger than what I needed to make it. For me I tried to keep it very simple and do a lot of visualizations. I worked with a sports psychologist on composing myself and I think that really helped me. It was really exciting to be there because you worked so hard to get there.”
“The evening was filled with excitement and the crowd (was) huge,” Nielsen said. “It was Aussie Cathy Freeman’s night to win the 400 which she did going away. Then it came down to Stacy and Aussie Tatiana Grigorieva.”
“At 14-11 Stacy was behind Tatiana on misses,” Nielsen added. “Then at 15-1 Stacy put the pressure back on making it on her first jump. Tatiana couldn’t respond and the first Olympic gold in the women’s pole vault was Stacy’s.”
After that season Dragila won the Jesse Owens Award for outstanding U.S. Track and Field Athlete.
“I remember being on the stage with the medal around my neck and (I) had a flash back to different situations people doubting the pole vault would ever take off and make it to that level,” Dragila said. “There were a lot of emotions.”
Dragila continued to compete and retired after the 2009 season. She won nine U.S. Outdoor championships (‘96, ‘97, ‘99-’05), two World Championships (1999 & 2001), the 1997 World Indoor Championships, eight U.S. Indoor Championships (‘96-’01, ‘03, ‘04), the 2001 Goodwill Games, the IAAF Grand Prix and was a two-time Jesse Owens Award winner (‘00 and ‘01).
Dragila runs a club in Boise, where she is a coach. She also runs three camps during the summer. One is Boise, one in Sacramento and one at the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif.
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