On any random day, you might hear country music blasting from the speakers of the Wiekamp Center at Bethel College.
But, there’s no rodeo in town. It’s 2009 Notre Dame grad Mary Saxer training for her shot at the Olympics.
For Mary, a sprinter and a long jumper in high school, pole vaulting literally fell into her hands.
“The summer before my junior year of high school, the pole vault coach
came over and he basically put a pole in my hand,” says Saxer. “I was like, you’re crazy, I’ve never considered pole vaulting but I said okay. So, I did it and basically never looked back from that day on.”
After breaking the national high school record, Mary was certain that pole vaulting would follow her to college, and to Notre Dame.
“I wanted to go to a school where I could do track but if anything happened with track I’d still get a great education and have a great time,” says Saxer. “So, Notre Dame seemed like the perfect fit.”
During her senior year at Notre Dame, Mary set both an indoor school pole vaulting record of 4.20 meters, or 13 feet 9 inches, and an outdoor school pole vaulting record of 4.30 meters, or 14 feet 1 inch. She still holds both records to this day.
Saxer also won three Big East championships and was a two-time NCAA All-American. When graduation came around, rather than move to Chicago for a marketing job she had lined up, Mary decided she wanted to stay in Michiana and keep vaulting with Bethel College coach Danny Wilkerson.
“I kind of told myself I’d give myself two years to see how it went,” says Saxer.
Six years later, pole vaulting is still her full time job. Now, more than ever, she wants the shot to represent her country at the biggest meet of them all.
“My ultimate goal is to contend for a medal at the Olympics but in order to do that, I need to make the Olympic team,” says Saxer. “The U.S. Olympic team is one of the hardest teams to make in the world.”
And no one knows that better than Mary herself.
At the 2012 Olympic Trials, just a few jumps away from London, Mary tied for third place with a jump of 4.50 meters, or 14 feet 9 inches. Based on a tiebreaker, she was bumped down to 4th place. Only the top three make the team and Mary had to settle for being an alternate.
“I think it made me stronger going forward because honestly that was the worst thing that could’ve happened and it happened,” says Saxer. “I was able to use that as fuel and motivation going forward, knowing that I never want to feel like that again.”
Saxer got married in 2013 and now lives in Boston. But, she still splits her time training in both Boston and Michiana.
“I get sad, leaving my home, leaving my husband, always living out of a suitcase,” says Saxer. “My husband is really great about it, he’s super understanding and super supportive. He always reminds me that I have such a limited window to chase this dream and do what I’m doing. If I’m always in the dumps about being away, then when I’m finally done with my pole vault career, I might look back and regret not soaking it all up. So, that reminder helps me remember to enjoy the process and enjoy what I’m doing.”
Mary’s run to the 2016 Rio Olympics is off to a good start. She won her first national title at the 2014 Indoor Championships and finished 8th at the 2014 World Indoor Championships. In the 2014 season, she also set her personal record of 4.71 meters, or 15 feet and 5.5 inches.
“In my head that was kind of like a fresh start to this whole making U.S. teams,” says Saxer.
And even though the Olympics are a year away, there’s still a lot to train for right now.
“This year, there’s an Outdoor World Championship in Beijing so my focus is about putting myself in the best position to make that team by placing in the top 3 at Nationals in June,” says Saxer. “Kind of use this year as a warm up for next year, the Olympic year.”
For Mary, it’s a chance to stand on the Olympic podium with a medal that keeps her motivated.
“That would mean everything to me because that’s what I’m dedicating my whole life to right now,” says Saxer. “And what better country to represent, right?”
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