Katrine Haarklau made it look easy, almost carefree, as she breezed down the runway, planted her pole and thrust herself into the air and over the bar.
She started celebrating just as soon as she cleared it, letting out a scream and throwing her arms up in front of her, as she floated down and made a soft landing in the pit.
Haarklau knew she’s just pushed herself into position for a top-three finish yesterday in the women’s pole vault competition on the third day of the Southeastern Conference Track and Field Championships.
Unless any of the spectators looking on from the east side of Walton Stadium had talked to her before, there’s no way they could have had any idea about the anxiety — really, the fear — she’d been coping with leading up to that moment. She’s been worried about nearly everything — not being able to plant the pole or bend it at takeoff or missing the pit on the way down.
“I’m just having many wrong thoughts right now,” Haarklau said. “My psychologist says it’s a phobia, and it’s true because I seriously think I’ll die on every single jump. That’s not the way a pole vaulter is supposed to think.”
Haarklau, a 22-year-old sophomore who is the latest in a long line of Norwegian athletes to compete for the Tigers, has been competing in the pole vault since she was 12, but it wasn’t until last fall that her anxiety started.
She’d completed a strong summer competing in Norway after a freshman season that saw her set the Missouri record in the pole vault (13-9¼), earn All-Big 12 honors and place 15th at the NCAA National Championships. She threw herself into a period of physical training and when she got back on the track to begin working on jumping again, she was scared.
“And I’ve been scared since,” Haarklau said.
She described her fear as irrational, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
“To be honest, I knew she was scared, but I got a much better sense at the end of the indoor season of how bad it was,” said MU assistant coach Dan Lefever, who works most closely with Haarklau. “It was worse than I thought.”
As Haarklau mentioned, she’s been working with a sports psychologist to combat her fear, and Lefever also has been supportive while trying to help her work through it.
“Everyday has different situations, so just trying to make the right decisions to protect her health and her overall development,” he said. “It’s challenging. But I don’t criticize her for it. It’s just something that she has to deal with and work on a daily basis to help to get her as comfortable as possible and keep progressing to where she’s trusting in what she’s doing, where we don’t have the fear.”
Haarklau’s been coping as best she can, but it can be draining.
“I have been dealing with just not jumping, running through for six, seven months now,” she said. “I’m just doing it almost every single practice, almost every single meet. That’s tiring.”
But she still hasn’t given any thought to walking away. She has too much potential, not just as a pole vaulter but as a heptathlete.
Haarklau competed for Norway in the IAAF World Junior Championships in 2010 and placed 17th. She’s also been competing this season for the Tigers and, after coming in with the 19th best mark on the NCAA Division I Outdoor Qualifying list, she figured to be a contender in the SEC competition. But MU’s coaches elected to hold her out to try to manage a troublesome back.
She will be throwing in the much less stressful women’s javelin competition at 1 p.m. today and owns the fourth-highest seed mark.
“The thing that makes me so proud of her is the amount of courage she’s had to have to really face what she has,” Lefever said. “She’s just such a tenacious competitor. Literally, she’s wanting to become an Olympian and to become one of the world’s greatest athletes, and that’s a lifelong goal that she’s had since she was a little girl. She’s not going to let go of that.”
To reach her full potential, Haarklau doesn’t just need to overcome her fear. She also needs to be able to lengthen her approaches and begin using longer poles.
Yesterday was an encouraging step, not just confronting the thoughts in her head, but placing third by clearing 13-5¼ in very windy conditions. It could give her confidence as she sets her sights on greater heights in NCAA preliminary competition, and it already gave the MU women’s team six points in the SEC team competition.