Greek pole vaulter Katerina Stefanidi, ’12, grew up in Athens as part of track-and-field royalty. Her father, George, was a triple jumper for Greece; her mother, Zoi, was a sprinter. Stefanidi’s own talents became more apparent with each year at Stanford; as a senior, in June she became the first Stanford woman to win an NCAA title in the pole vault. Later that month, she cleared the Olympic A standard, punching her ticket to London. The women’s pole vault qualifications begin on August 4.
Your mother and father were both on the Greek national team. Did you grow up striving to follow suit? When did representing your country become an important goal to you?
My parents never pushed me towards track when I was younger. I tried a lot of other sports, but I either didn’t like them or got bored very fast. I used to run track since third or fourth grade, but I didn’t start practicing for it until sixth grade. So I was just going to meets and enjoying running and long jumping, mainly. A couple of years after I started pole vaulting I qualified for the World Youth and Junior Championships. Unfortunately, I was way too young to compete at those championships at that point. However, in 2005, I competed with the Youth national team for the first time and won the World Youth Championships. Since then, I competed for the national team many more times for World Youth Championships, World Junior Championships and European Junior Championships. So, competing for my country was never really a goal to me. It was more of an expectation. Of course, I am more than ecstatic to represent my country this summer at the Olympic Games, but more than anything I am proud to represent Stanford! Go Card!
Why did the pole vault become your sport?
The first day that I tried pole vaulting when I was 10, the federation coach told me that he thought I was really talented. I am not really sure exactly what he saw in a 10-year-old, but those words—as well as the fact that practicing pole vaulting had much more variety than practicing for any other track event—were probably the reasons I stuck with it. I am not sure what it is that makes me good at it. I want to say my awareness over the bar, but pole vaulting is so complicated that there is no one thing that makes you good at it. What I love about is that it’s not based on simple athleticism. Mentality and psychology are also very important, probably more than for other track events. It feels like a puzzle to me sometimes. Depending on the conditions and how I feel and the importance of the meet, I end up jumping on different poles and different height progressions. It’s always fun to try to figure out what’s best for you for that day.
Unlike many track athletes, you’ve got some serious gear to transport. Not to sound silly, but how long is your pole? And how do you transport it?
Ha! This is a funny question because I have had lots of problems flying with poles in the past. The poles are 14 feet, 7 inches long. If I had to guess, I would say that each pole weighs about four pounds, but I might be completely off. However, when we travel, we [have] seven to 10 poles in a pole bag. That pole bag weighs about 45 to 50 pounds and always gives us trouble at the airport. Last summer, when I was trying to fly back to Europe with my poles, I had to go to the airport three times before I was able to actually leave the United States with my poles, because no airlines were accepting them. Thankfully, flying with poles within Europe or within the United States is much easier, but the longer flights always give me some trouble. [When we don’t have to fly,] we usually just tie the poles on the top or side of a car and transport them that way.
What are your rituals and habits on the day of a meet?
I am really sorry to disappoint you, but I really have no rituals before my meets. I learned very early on in my career that it’s not about the rituals but about you and how you would react in the meet.
What are your plans post-London?
After the Olympic Games, I will be coming back to Stanford for two more quarters. I will be TA-ing Psych 1 (Woot, woot, Psych 1!) and I will be taking a couple of classes per quarter. I will continue to practice with my coach, Toby Stevenson, and help as a volunteer coach on the track varsity team. I want to continue jumping professionally but as of now I want to stay in the Bay Area. Let’s be realistic, no one wants to leave Stanford! In the not-so-near future I would like to pursue a PhD in the field of psychology.
by: Sam Scott