Joe Sanford still tells aspiring pole-vaulters the story of Alexandra Acker’s first experience in the sport. Acker was 13 years old but already had the aggressive, powerful run that serves as the foundation to the nation’s best vaulters.
“Her knees were high. Her foot strike was right below her knee,” Sanford recalled. “It was an accelerating cadence as she went from the back of the run to the (vault) box. If you can run in the pole vault, then you’ve got a good shot at being pretty good. She did it naturally.”
Sanford, her coach at McDowell Senior High School, knew a decade ago that Acker could reach great heights, even as she struggled to surpass the 12-foot plateau and find her passion for vaulting.
“She was talented right from the start,” Sanford said.
Acker arrived Tuesday at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Ore., site of the U.S. Olympic Trials’ track and field competition. She expected the surreal feeling that comes with living a dream would fade when she saw the country’s top female performers.
“I always thought it was possible,” said Acker, 23, a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma who recently completed her final college season. “But in life there’s a lot of things that are possible. But it’s really hard to accomplish them. I didn’t actually think I would be here.”
Acker has grown by leaps and bounds on her way to Eugene. She recorded a personal best of 14 feet 31/4 inches and earned All-America honors with a fifth-place finish at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, two weeks ago.
Now the goal is to soar as high as 14 feet 9 inches in today’s preliminary round, which Acker said should be enough to secure one of 12 spots in Sunday’s finals. That alone would be a great achievement, said Tim Sullivan, her event coach at Oklahoma. Acker is expected to compete against pole vaulting’s finest, including past Olympian Jennifer Suhr, a native of Fredonia, N.Y., who is ranked No. 1 in the world.
The top three finishers that meet the Olympic “A” standard of 14 feet 91/2 inches will earn a trip to the Summer Olympics on July 27 to Aug. 12 in London. Acker and Sullivan aren’t focused on that, though. A spot in the finals Sunday, Sullivan said, would provide “an experience that may drive her to want to be a professional athlete and try to make the Olympic team in four years.”
Still, anything is possible, Acker said. Her career proves that.
Her potential seemed limitless at the start. She was burned out at 13 after devoting a decade to gymnastics, but still yearned for a long athletic career. Sanford immediately envisioned Acker as a national-level, and possibly world-class, pole vaulter.
She participated in her first camp at Sanford’s Union City home. Then Acker stayed with Jennifer Suhr (formerly Stuczynski) at her home while attending a camp run by renowned coach Rick Suhr, now Jennifer Suhr’s husband. Acker had her first taste of top-flight vaulting.
She reached the 12-foot mark in 2004 as a freshman at McDowell, which led to a runner-up showing at the Pennsylvania state indoor meet. She finished among the top eight at the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association outdoor meet as a freshman and sophomore, which helped lead the Trojans to consecutive team championships.
But she couldn’t top 12 feet in her final three seasons. She also didn’t finish in the top eight in the state in her junior and senior years. “That was the frustrating part for her,” Sanford said. “Those weren’t pleasant times.”
In hindsight, Acker said, “I was (vaulting) because everyone said, ‘You can be good at this,’ and not really doing it for myself and because I enjoyed it.” Acker also figured she could earn a college scholarship through vaulting.
“In high school and college, I didn’t understand why it wasn’t coming together,” said Acker, who spent her first three years at West Virginia University, including her medical redshirt year as a junior, before following Sullivan to Oklahoma two years ago.
“These past two years, it really has started coming together,” said Acker, who has immersed herself in the sport. She followed how vaulting’s top competitors performed. “Then it became something more like a dream,” she said. “That’s when I started doing better.”
She wants to perform at her best this weekend. Sanford expects that to happen.
“Perseverance always pays off,” he said. “In her case, it’s paying off big time.”
By VICTOR FERNANDES