Earlier this week, before what would be their first appearance together on camera for a site known as TrackTown Live, Demi Payne sent a Facebook message to Sandi Morris. “Well, we’re about to go on camera,” Payne wrote to her ostensible NCAA pole vault rival. “How should we act?”
Morris replied: “I guess…normal?”
The term “raising the bar” was conceived on the infield of a track oval. In the past five months Payne, a junior at Stephen F. Austin University and Morris, a fifth-year senior at Arkansas, have taken that idiom to new heights. Indoors, the duo has raised the bar in terms of collegiate records from 15-1½ (Morris) to 15-2¼ (Payne) to 15-7 (Payne), although Morris did win the NCAA Indoor championship and has twice vaulted 15-3 or better. Outdoors, from 15-1 ¾ (Morris) to 15-3½ (Payne) to 15-5½ (Payne) to 15-5¾ (Morris). Morris and Payne are the Mantle and Maris of track and field, chasing history with a pole instead of a bat in a milieu where the sky truly is the limit.
“To give you an idea of how far ahead of the field these two are,” says ESPN track analyst Larry Rawson, whose networks will cover their pursuit of an NCAA Outdoor title this weekend, “the next closest woman in the field has jumped a 14-4 this season. They’ve both jumped more than a foot higher than that.”
Relative unknowns when 2015 began, the blonde Morris, 22, and raven-haired Payne, 23, between them now own the nine best indoor vaults in collegiate history. Outdoors, where beginning Thursday they will compete on the same runway at the NCAA Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon, each woman has set a new collegiate record this season—twice.
“I’ve really tried hard not to focus on Demi all season,” says Morris. “You could go crazy keeping track of who’s broken whose record. So I wouldn’t. Usually my coach would just approach me and say, “‘Welp, it’s broken.’”
Last January 16, at a home indoor meet in Fayetteville, Morris cleared the bar at 15-1¼, eclipsing the mark of 15-1 held by then-NCAA indoor champion Kaitlin Petrillose of Texas. One afternoon later in College Station, Texas, Payne, who had not competed collegiately in more than a year, shattered that ceiling with a 15-2¼.
Welp, it’s broken.
In the first 17 years of NCAA women’s indoor pole vaulting, only Petrillose had soared above 15 feet. Then Morris and Payne both did so within 17 hours of one another.
“I like having the competition with Sandi,” says Payne, “and honestly I don’t think I’d be where I am right now without her having the season she’s had.”
In a meet at altitude in Albuquerque, New Mexico last January 24, Payne would vault 15-7. That remains the highest a female collegian has ever soared, indoors or outside. However, it was Morris who captured the NCAA Indoor Championship in mid-March. Her winning vault of 15-1 was the least of the pair’s nine 15 feet-or-higher vaults of the indoor season, but it was good enough for the title. Payne, bizarrely, failed to clear the bar on all three attempts.
“I no-heighted at indoor nationals,” says Payne, who only two weeks earlier had won this event at the USA Track & Field Indoor Championships, an event that is usually dominated by post-collegiate athletes, in Boston. “That sucked. But I felt worse because I’d let the crowd down. They came to see a competition between the two of us and I failed to hold up my end.”
Both Morris and Payne are the progeny of college athletes. Morris’ dad, Harry, was a decathlete at Western Illinois and her mother, Kerry, was a pentathlete there. The 6-foot Payne’s mom, Dana Macfarlane, played basketball at Baylor while her dad, Bill Payne, was an All-American pole vaulter for the Bears who eclipsed 19 feet. “My dad’s pretty serious about pole vaulting,” says Payne. “He has a regulation-sized pole vault pit in his backyard in Fort Worth.”
Both women also transferred after two years at their original schools. Morris first matriculated at North Carolina before deciding to transfer. “My main issue was I got nervous really easily,” says Morris. “I was jumping 14-1 as a freshman and then I never did better than 13-11 my sophomore year. At the ACC Outdoor Championships that spring, I no-heighted. I realized something needed to change.”
Payne’s transformation was more abrupt, and required more immediate attention. “I found out I was pregnant a week before the Big 12 indoor meet [in the winter of 2013],” recalls Payne. “I called my mom—the dreaded phone call that no parent wants to receive—and asked her what I was going to do. Then I begged her not to tell my dad.”
Payne competed at the Big 12 Indoor Championships and finished fourth without telling any of her coaches at Kansas that she was pregnant. Eventually she informed them and completed the semester before moving back home to Texas. “When I left Kansas, I was five months pregnant and I just dropped off the face of the earth,” says Payne, who is now engaged to the father of the child, former KU pitcher Thomas Taylor. “Those first few months, I was pretty low. The first thought going through my head: I’m going to lose everything. I was scared to death.”
Back home in Texas, Payne accompanied her father to Fuzzy’s, a taco shop. “He was having a beer and I was kinda moping about my situation,” says Payne, “and about the fact that I couldn’t have a beer.”
Bill Payne stared dead into his daughter’s eyes. “Demi,” he told her, “you can make one of the biggest comebacks that the pole vault world has ever seen.”
On October 22, 2013, Charlee Taylor Payne was born. Four days later, Bill Payne had his daughter back in training, in his backyard. Six weeks later, Payne vaulted a 12-6. Last summer at an all-comers meet, she cleared 15 feet for the first time. “It’s funny,” says Payne. “At Kansas my grades floundered and I partied…a lot. My PR [personal record] was 13-11. Since I’ve become a mom, I got a 4.0 GPA and my vaulting is well…obviously, my focus is completely different.”
Of Payne, Morris says, “We’re different people.” That is an understatement. The Greenville, North Carolina native possesses all the reserve of a Labrador puppy and she lives every day as if it’s a heptathlon. Morris plays both the violin and the guitar and she is an avowed herpetologist: She currently owns two pythons and three boa constrictors and also has a 75-gallon fish tank.
A broadcast journalism major, Morris is that rare jock who is jocular. She keeps a blog that is titled “Anyone Can Dance On A Pole, But I Can Fly on Mine.” She produces music videos of her own songs but also enjoys a comic riff or two on her own event. “Passion is important,” says Morris. “Why only have passion for one thing?”
Why, indeed? This weekend in Track Town, U.S.A., the fans at Hayward Field will be rooting for both Demi Payne and Sandi Morris. For a pair of disparate pole vaulters who this year have broken so many records and may do so once, or twice, more. If that does not sound like a broken record…
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