Stacy Dragila, who in 2000 became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in pole vaulting, shares her knowledge of the sport as a high school coach.
She also tries to share with her athletes the idea that we’re all in this together.
“We’ve got a great group of kids who really encourage each other. I really encourage that,” Dragila said. “We’re out there to be a team and help each other get through tough times.”
In that spirit, Dragila — in town to speak at the 2013 Great Plains Young Professionals Summit, which is hosted by the Bismarck-Mandan Young Professionals Network — visited Sanford Children’s Hospital on Thursday.
Dragila spoked with young patients, explaining what it was like to pole vault, allowing them to wear her gold medal and generally offering good cheer.
“Sometimes these kids are feeling really down, but they have to know that there’s a goal at the end,” Dragila said. “ They have to stay committed to the medications, eating properly and persevere through times where sometimes you just feel cruddy. If you stay in good spirits, usually you’re going to get through it a lot better.
“Hopefully if I can convey that and share my gold medal and a little bit of my story, it gives them a smile on their face for a short time,” Dragila said. “Anything helps, I think.”
The 42-year-old Dragila is a true pioneer in pole vaulting. The California native attended Idaho State University, where she began as a heptathlete. Her coach, Dave Nielsen, encouraged several of his athletes to try pole vaulting, a sport that was just starting to open to women.
Dragila took to it quickly.
“Luckily I had the background in heptathlon, because I think it made me a better candidate for it. I had the upper body strength from throwing implements and the speed on the runway.
“… I was a little bit clumsy, but I think my coach kind of saw something and said, ‘You need to stick with this,’” she explained. “We started implementing a lot more gymnastics training, and things just started coming together.”
Dragila went on to become the first dominant female pole vaulter, setting world records several times along the way. Dragila won the U.S. outdoor championship nine times and the indoor championship eight times. She won world titles in 1999 and 2001 to go with her 1997 world indoor championship. But the high point was her gold medal at 2000 Olympic games in Sydney, Australia.
“When I was standing on the podium, everybody said, ‘Gosh, that was probably the greatest moment.’ But when I was standing there, I felt like it was a reflection of all the hard work I had put in prior, and the people who doubted that women could do it,” she said. “… It wasn’t just about winning the medal. It was the journey up to it. I have a lot of great memories.”
Dragila, who now coaches at Rocky Mountain High School in Meridian, Idaho, is happy that women and girls finally have the opportunity to pole vault.
“A lot of the men in the sport just thought women couldn’t do it, that they didn’t have the upper body strength,” she said. “But my coach was an ambassador for it. He saw that women could do such great things in the gymnastics room. And, essentially, as soon as we run down the runway and we plant the pole, we’re on a high bar. He knew that we could do it.”
Dragila tries to impart a similar message of empowerment to her athletes.
“For me it’s not always about working with the kid who is the stud on the team,” Dragila said. “It’s about working with kids who are kind of fearful of the event and just making friends and seeing their confidence grow as a person. That’s been a lot of fun for me.”