While Sandi Morris prepares for the biggest pole vault competition of her life, Rusty Shealy is concerned with more pressing matters – like where he’s going to have his tattoo of Olympic rings forever etched on his person.
A bet is a bet, after all, and it’s only fair that Shealy live up to his end of the bargain because Morris certainly has lived up to hers.
You see, several years and thousands of vaults ago, Morris and some other up-and-coming young vaulters were informed by Shealy – their coach and mentor – that if any of them should ever earn a spot on an Olympic team, he would honor them by being permanently inked.
On Tuesday morning, Morris will make her first vaults in an attempt to qualify for the finals of the women’s pole vault at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Time to pay up, Rusty.
“I’m going to have to find somebody who can draw good circles,” Shealy said. “And I want it to be on a part of my body that doesn’t change too much – maybe like my back or shoulder blade.”
Either location would be fine by Morris, the 24-year-old vaulter who will begin her quest for Olympic gold more than eager to represent her hometown of Greenville, Greenville High School, the state of South Carolina and, of course, Shealy – the Palmetto State’s unofficial pole vault guru.
“He thought I was going to be an Olympian even when I was in high school,” Morris said.
Shealy was right, of course. He had a good feeling about the happy-go-lucky, blue-eyed blonde with an indomitable spirit the first time he saw her.
“She was tall, she was fast,” Shealy said. “And very athletic and very tenacious.”
Such ingredients will take one far if mixed properly, and there’s no denying that Morris has done just that en route to reaching the cusp of pole vaulting greatness.
She’s already vaulted 16 feet, 2.9 inches – the third-best vault of all-time – and dreams of soaring even higher.
“There are many talented athletes in this world, they just haven’t quite figured out how to tap into it,” Morris said. “You need a big web of support to be able to tap into it – coaching, support, facilities. I’m just blessed enough to have all of those things. And now it’s such a cool feeling to know that I’m the third-best in history at what I’m doing.”
It has come naturally. Sandi’s father, Harry, was a pole vaulter in college, and her mother, Kerry, a pentathlete. Kerry also was track and field coach at Greenville High while Sandi was in school, but Sandi preferred outside instruction.
“Sandi was a very free-spirited kid; she didn’t want to be coached by dad,” Kerry said, laughing. “So we had to take her and find her a coach.”
Enter Rusty Shealy.
In Sandi’s freshman and sophomore years, they’d drive to Columbia – where Shealy’s camps and programs are based – once a week to get tutoring from Shealy. Suddenly, the 13-year-old who fought to clear six feet was easily vaulting 10 feet and more as a high school sophomore.
By her junior and senior year, Shealy was driving to Greenville every week to coach Sandi and other local vaulters.
The impact was obvious.
Sandi’s progression was steady, if not downright rapid. She won back-to-back state titles as a junior and senior, vaulting 12-7 in her final season to break the state record.
After graduating, Sandi spent a couple of years at the University of North Carolina, where her progress stalled, if not regressed, but she got back on track after transferring to the University of Arkansas.
Under the tutelage of Coach Bryan Compton, Morris would harness her talent once again and claim Southeastern Conference and national titles. She joined the professional ranks last year and continued to soar to new heights, winning the silver medal at the 2016 World Indoor Championships.
Despite missing six weeks of competition time after suffering a broken bone in her wrist in May, Morris returned to action in early July and placed second at the U.S. Olympic Trials to earn a trip to Rio and put Shealy on tattoo alert.
Then, late last month in Houston, Morris bolstered her case for Olympic medal contention by establishing a new American outdoor record of 4.93 meters, or 16 feet, 2.1 inches.
The least-surprised person to hear the news? Shealy.
“I knew it was coming; it was just a matter of time,” Shealy said. “And she’s still not done. She still has things to work on and improve on in my opinion. I have no doubt in my mind that she can break the world record. I think she can be the first woman to jump 17 feet.”
He’s not alone.
“I hope to,” Morris said. “It’s neat to look ahead and wonder if I could do that, but it’s all about improving inch by inch.”
Morris and Shealy have remained in regular contact through the years, with Shealy continuing to offer his coaching and facilities when Sandi’s home. He also isn’t shy about touting her work ethic to his current crop of young vaulters who also aspire to reach the world’s biggest stage.
“She has been an incredible role model,” Shealy said. “Hey, she inspires everyone, including me.”
Given her ability and drive, it’s not surprising then that Morris is in Rio, poised and eager for her chance at history.
And leaving Rusty Shealy to debate his tattoo location.
“Maybe I’ll put it on my forehead,” he said. “That’s how proud I am of her.”
SANDI MORRIS POLE VAULT PROGRESSION
Age Year Ht (ft) Ht (meters)
13 2005 6-0 1.83
14 2006 7-6 2.29
15 2007 9-0 2.44
16 2008 10-6 3.20
17 2009 12-6 3.81
18 2010 13-3.5 4.05
19 2011 14-1.3 4.30
20 2012 13-7.4 4.15
21 2013 14-6.5 4.43
22 2014 14-11.1 4.55
23 2015 15-7.4 4.76
24 2016 16-2.9 4.95