It was a goal Savage had set for herself for the outdoor season. Drummond spoke matter-of-factly about Savage reaching her milestone.
“Absolutely,” Drummond said. “Absolutely I think she’ll be able to reach 13 feet this season.”
He just didn’t know it would happen later that day.
Savage was set to take flight at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, and not only reached her goal, but surpassed it. She jumped 13 feet, 1½ inches to win the event and break the meet record at Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania. She also set an unofficial Connecticut state outdoor girls pole vault record.
“The crowd really helped me to push myself to that limit,” Savage said.
“Altogether it was just seriously the most perfect day for me.”
Her elite status and elevated fame in the pole vault has been a steady work in progress the last four years. Savage’s mark is currently the sixth-best in the nation, according to milesplit.com, and she is headed to the University of Oklahoma this fall on a track and field scholarship.
In terms of the event, the sky may literally be the limit.
“She wants to challenge herself and jump with the best girls,” Drummond said. “That’s definitely something I’ve admired of her. She’s always looking to get better.”
THE RIGHT FIT
The pole vault was never the No. 1 sport for Savage. For 13 years, she focused on gymnastics. But Weston girls track head coach Matt Medve was persistant and Savage gave the event a go as a freshman.
“I thought it was going to be a lot easier than gymnastics,” she said with a smile.
Not even a year later, Savage had quit gymnastics and switched her focus to the pole vault. But the decision wasn’t easy.
“Oh yeah, 13 years down the drain,” Savage said. “I grew up thinking, ‘I’m going to try out for the Olympics in gymnastics.’”
In hindsight, it was clearly the right move.
“And now I’m like, ‘I’m going to try out for the pole vault in the Olympics,’” she said. “That’d be cool.”
Drummond said when he first started working with Savage four years ago, he knew she had the potential to be successful.
“She had a very good gymnastics background, so I knew that she was a very good athlete. She was quick, but she was a little tentative, which is normal for people starting out in the vault,” Drummond said. “She came out with a good attitude and her freshman year she was just kind of trying it out.”
Her improvement was hard to miss sophomore year. Drummond said with Savage’s gymnastics history, the development was easier in some ways for the vault, but it also meant reworking and tweaking others tendencies.
“They put all these skills together quickly and then you need to refine them and build good habits,” Drummond said. “There are some great things you gain from gymnastics, but you also can gain certain habits that maybe aren’t conducive to the vault.”
Like pointing your toes. Gymnasts are trained to point their toes. In pole vaulting, that doesn’t work so well. Drummond also cited the round off, which is a common move in gymnastics and very similar to parts of the vault. But it needs some refinement.
“The thing is, with 13 years of gymnastics, it kind of just comes naturally,” Savage said of the vault. “But then again, I had no idea what I was doing. It’s a lot tougher than it looks.”
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
“The frustrating thing about the vault, and I think what she struggled with initially, is that you’re always going to end with failure,” Drummond said. “You clear a height and you keep going until you miss your three attempts.”
For Savage, learning the art of the vault took time and patience. In a sport that has so many intricacies, a leap in one area may not translate right away to the overall picture. Drummond said while she was developing at a good rate, things changed. It took Savage time to adjust to a longer pole and raised standards on the bar.
“Not seeing results immediately was a process, and she’s taken ownership of that now,” Drummond said.
Added Savage: “I grew up thinking winning was the only option. But now, it’s not. You’re not going to win at every meet, you’re not going to win at every bar.”
She finished in second place during the indoor season of her sophomore year at the Class M state meet, jumping 9-06. A few months later she claimed the outdoor title with a vault of 10-06. Savage and Drummond both agree her junior year is when she really started to understand the vault.
Savage won the indoor title (10-07, a Class M state record) and then finished third (11-00) at the State Open. She finished the outdoor season with another Class M state record (11-07) and placed fourth at the Open (11-00) before capping off the season with a personal-best 11-09 in a thrid-place finish at the New England championships.
THE EXTRA WORK
Twice a week Savage makes a three-hour round trip to Warwick, N.Y., for extra training. Last summer Drummond told Savage he would have to step back a little as he would be immersed in graduate school during her senior year. He gave Savage contact information for veteran pole vaulting coach Tim St. Lawrence, who runs the Hudson Valley Flying Circus Pole Vault Academy. Savage has been training there ever since.
“We have 97 vaulters in our club and we match her up with the boy vaulters to push up her training,” St. Lawrence said. “She takes on the challenge. Her sessions are two hours in length and we work on all aspects of the vault, meet preparation and focus on apparatus, rings, high bar, rope and flex rope.”
St. Lawrence explained they started to focus on her run posture, plant mechanics and getting her to turn off the pole following her swing up.
“He taught me the technical aspect of pole vault and I learned so much from that,” Savage said.
Savage’s athleticism and technique are complemented by a fierce desire to improve. Savage has gone full force in the sport, watching and studying how both professionals and peers train, and what she can do to get better.
“My first impression was her positive attitude and her confidence in herself,” St. Lawrence said. “Emily has been unbelievable in her drive and dedication to become something special in the pole vault.”
Savage has developed an unbridled passion and genuine love for a sport she is still learning.
“I’m addicted to it,” Savage said. “It’s like a runner’s high.”
Savage and Emma King of Oakdale, Md., were the last two high school girls remaining in the competition at the Penn Relays.
After King failed again on her third attempt, Savage stood alone.
“I could see my dad and I was like, ‘I am going to do this,’ and I pointed to him,” Savage said. “And honestly, right when I could see myself going over, I was like, ‘This is it.’
Her accomplishment thrust her further into the state and national spotlight. The only five girls in the country who have vaulted higher than Savage this season all hail from either Texas or California.
“That was one of the best performances in track and field on the girls’ side in a long time in this state,” Medve said. “She’s at that level that is just so elite.”
Savage’s senior-year accomplishments prove the record-setting performance at the Penn Relays was no fluke. The indoor season included a South-West Conference title and Class S (12-07), State Open (11-11) and state indoor titles (12-09), all in record-breaking fashion. Savage also helped the Trojans to a second-place team finish in the Class S meet.
Her penchant for the pole vault overshadows her above-average abilities in the high jump and long jump. Savage finished the indoor season with an eighth-place performance at the New Balance Nationals at The Armory in New York.
But she’s made her name with the pole vault.
“A lot of good female jumpers kind of cap out right in that 11-6, 12-foot range,” Drummond said. “She just managed to keep going. I think part of that is her physical makeup. She’s a very efficient athlete. She’s very strong, she’s lean, she’s very explosive and she also has a very good attitude toward the event.”
Savage, who said she just ordered a new pole, still has more than a month left in the outdoor season to better her mark. The goal now is the mid-13 range and to reach All-American status.
And there’s no doubt among her coaches that her best days are still ahead of her.
“She dreams big,” St. Lawrence says.
Said Medve: “That’s just the way great athletes think. They are always seeing that next beyond.”