The University of South Dakota’s first-ever women’s pole vault champion at the Drake Relays was not the athlete on the team with a national outdoor title in that event, nor was it the one who recently finished second at the national indoor meet.
Madison Mills, a sophomore from Reno, Nev., may not have yet grabbed the headlines that teammates Bethany Firsick and Emily Grove have, but she’s been part of her own, somewhat quieter climb up the college vaulting ladder.
Saturday’s Drake Relays title represented another step in that regard with a 13-9.25 effort. Teammate Emily Brigham went 13-3.5 for fourth and Hunter Wilkes went 12-9.5 for ninth place. With Firsick waiting for a broken hand to heal and Grove redshirting, the second line of vaulters will be up front for the immediate future.
“Madison is like all the vaulters we have here – she’s hard-working, she’s bought into what Derek (Miles) is doing and she’s going to keep improving,” said women’s track coach Lucky Huber. “I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the others does the same thing next week. Madison got out and really competed at Drake – probably a little more aggressively than she has the last few weeks.”
Her effort improved her personal best by more than four inches and is the highest effort from a Summit League vaulter during the outdoor season. Her work to open the outdoor campaign was underwhelming – Saturday’s effort was her highest by nine inches – but she redshirted the indoor season, concentrating on refining technique that she hopes will benefit her in the long run.
“Last year didn’t go as well as I wanted so I really wanted to turn it around this year,” Mills said. “My season got off to a rough start but we had really good weather at Drake and some good competition. I went into it thinking this was going to be a great opportunity to represent my school at a big meet.”
Mills is in an odd situation in that she’s the first in the history of her school to win at Drake – one of the most prestigious meets of the season – and yet she is considered the third-best vaulter on her own team.
From her perspective, it’s not about being overshadowed, it’s about being consistently motivated.
“For me, I look at it that I’m getting the chance to train with people I look up to who are so much better than I am,” Mills said. “If you’re training with people like that it’s like if they put up five more pounds in the weight room, well, I’m going to put up five more pounds, too. That’s been really good for me. A lot of schools you might be the only real competitive vaulter on your team and here I’m training with two of the best in the nation every day. It’s very motivating and I’m very thankful for that.”
Nevertheless, as the women’s vaulting program at USD has advanced it would be possible to get a little overwhelmed trying to keep up. Grove and Firsick finished second and fourth respectively at the national indoor meet, and Firsick was first and Grove seventh at the 2013 outdoor meet.
“The whole group does feel the pressure based on what we’ve accomplished the last few years,” Huber said. “It gets to the point where if you don’t go 13-9 you feel like you let the whole world down and that’s just unrealistic. What we’re really looking for is improvement every week and Derek does a great job with that. The girls understand that it’s tough, but that’s why they came here. They wanted to be part of a great group of vaulters.”
Keeping the eye on the prize in this instance means making fundamentally sound changes, sometimes at the expense of the next jump. Part of Mills’ slow start this outdoor season could be explained by getting comfortable with a different way of doing things.
“When you’re trying to make some technical changes, that’s always hard,” Mills said. “But Derek has done a good job of keeping us motivated – not so much focused on the heights right now, but on getting prepared to do our best in June. We’re working for the future right now.”
At a Glance
Weekend: Madison Mills captured the women’s pole vault title at the Drake Relays. Distance-runner Jeff Mettler repeated as the 3,000-meter steeplechase champ.
Rising up: Mills leads the Coyotes’ accomplished pole vaulters with Bethany Firsick nursing a broken hand and Emily Grove redshirting.
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