Longhorn pole vaulter Masterson moves past her setbacks

Make one thing clear. Natasha Masterson is going places.

The NCAA track and field championships just won’t be one of them.

Masterson, the Longhorn junior pole vaulter from Hendrickson, is as determined and upbeat as they come, traits that come in handy, considering all the adversity she has overcome in her three seasons at Texas. During that time, she’s had to fight through everything from surgery to remove a benign brain tumor to torn knee cartilage to a ruptured quad.

She can add one more hurdle to her track career now. The pony-tailed brunette with lime-green fingernails and an insatiable zest for competition failed to qualify for the NCAA meet in Des Moines, Iowa, by an agonizing single spot on a steamy Friday afternoon.

Despite clearing the bar by well more than a foot each time, Masterson dislodged the standard on her way down, resulting in fouls on her two attempts in a three-way vault-off against Oklahoma’s Alexandra Acker and Illinois’ Stephanie Richartz.

“I have a lot to learn,” she said. “A lot of pole vaulters are into gymnastics. I’m a track athlete who’s trying to be a pole vaulter. I’m athletic enough to get over the bar that high, but I don’t know all the little moves and nuances. I’m just kind of raw.”

In the span of two weeks, Masterson has experienced exhilarating highs and extreme lows.

She became Texas’ first athlete to win the Big 12 outdoor pole vault when she cleared 13 feet, 6 ½ inches at the meet at Kansas State. But on Friday at Myers Stadium, she failed to advance out of this NCAA West Regional and missed out on her dream to compete at nationals.

“I’m just disappointed it came down to that,” said Masterson, who needed to finish among the top 12 vaulters to move ahead. “I think of myself as someone who thrives in that situation.”

She’s clearly a survivor. They don’t come any mentally tougher than this 20-year-old former tomboy who works on cars in her spare time, hopes to trade in her 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix — “supercharged,” she adds — for a red Corvette, and would love to drive in a NASCAR or Formula One race someday.

“I know I wouldn’t want to fool with her in a dark alley,” Brian Elmore said.

Elmore has seen Masterson’s resilience up close. He’s her volunteer personal coach, a former Lampasas High School track teammate of Olympic gold medalist and Longhorn football star Johnny “Lam” Jones.

He tried his hand at pole vaulting, mostly because he was so heavy-footed at races that he was dubbed “Molasses.”

“I was brown and slow,” the 52-year-old, dark-skinned welder said. “I remember one time we were coming back from a track meet in Temple and Johnny said, ‘Brian, I want to meet your invisible buddy.’ I said who? He said that invisible guy you’re carrying on your back when you run.’ ”

Because he was limited in mainstream sports, Elmore turned to bull-riding. But his hopes of becoming a world champion were dashed in California’s Simi Valley, in one of his final rodeos, when he was stepped on by a bull.

He broke his leg in the incident, broke up with his girlfriend and moved back to Texas.

“I was a country music song,” the upbeat Elmore said.

He came upon Masterson when she was a skinny girl who showed up at a Longhorn track camp. He taught her the basics of pole vaulting, although she dragged her pole on the ground during her trips down the runway and still does so.

Masterson’s unorthodox technique has drawn some heckles, even from her Longhorn male counterparts, and she’s seen only one other female adopt the same style.

It works for her, and she’ll likely stick with it if she can just find a way to maximize her other attributes of speed and athleticism. Nothing much gets — or keeps — her down.

“It’s frustrating, but she’s still going forward,” said Elmore, who wants to see Masterson get stronger at the point of takeoff. “With everything she’s gone through, it’s so impressive how she never gives up and always comes back. Some might say, ‘I’m just gonna watch TV now.’ She keeps going and really inspires me.”

A routine blood test during Masterson’s freshman year revealed a growth the size of a marble on her pituitary gland. The tumor was pressing on her optic nerve and could have blinded her, had she ever landed in a pole vault pit the wrong way.

When the tumor was discovered, she asked to put off the surgery until after the Big 12 meet. Doctors declined and told her they didn’t even want her on so much as a stationary bike.

Her reaction?

“I was surprised,” she said in her typical understated way.

She addressed her second surgery on her left knee in the same chin-up manner, even though she spent New Year’s Eve 2011 in her mother’s bed.

“She’s a trooper,” her dad, Todd Masterson, said. “She’s just never had much time to recover and have a full season.”

Maybe next year will be that time. Masterson sees a school record, a clearance of 15 feet and maybe even a national championship in her future.

Until that time, she’ll take nine hours of summer classes toward her advertising degree.

And some pole vault practice?

“Oh, hell, yeah,” she said. “That’s the plan.”

By Kirk Bohls



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