VAULTER VAULTER

Pole vaulter competes for championship

IU senior Kelsie Ahbe prepares to vault 4.20 meters. She doesn’t know if this height will be enough to claim the Big Ten Indoor Title.  

She makes her approach, picking up speed as she glides down the runway, and she plants her pole into the ground.

The pole curves beneath her. She pulls her feet level with her head for just a moment and drives her body into the air.

Teetering on the brink between silence and cheers, the crowd at the SPIRE facility in Geneva, Ohio, watches the competition at the Big Ten Women’s Pole-vault Championship.

It’s the last year Ahbe will vault before these fans and the last chance to earn the Big Ten title that has eluded her since her freshman year.

She hangs there for a moment, caught between the bar and a dream to become Big Ten Champion. 

This moment at the 2014 Big Ten Indoor Championships is what Ahbe has strived for — through the loss of a mentor, a lost season and the crises of confidence and injury.

It is a pursuit that has taken five years, countless vaults and many struggles. 

***

One year ago, Ahbe was practicing alone. Hundreds of miles away from the roaring crowds of Geneva, Ohio, she dashed up the silent runway inside IU’s Harry Gladstein Fieldhouse — vaulting rep after rep after rep.  

It was all part of the plan. Ahbe would redshirt her senior year so she could compete in top form as a fifth-year graduate student. 

The training was rigorous, augmented by the lack of competition. At times, Ahbe said she had little motivation to keep moving forward. 

“I think you kind of lose sight of what your goals are when you don’t have scheduled meets in front of you,” she said. “I wasn’t jumping well. I was struggling even on the days I was jumping with my coach.”

But Ahbe persevered. She entered the summer with a newfound energy and focused on her training.

“I’ve never seen anyone work so hard in conditioning workouts,” sophomore teammate Sydney Clute said. “She beat half the boys, and they didn’t even care because it’s Kelsie.”

Ahbe seemed poised to overcome her latest setback, one of a series of struggles that began her junior year of high school. 

But during one summer trail run, her plans would take a tumble. 

***

Growing up in Uniontown, Ohio, Ahbe was a year-round athlete. 

She competed in soccer, gymnastics, swimming and track and field — but it wasn’t until her sophomore year at Green High School that she would first attempt a vault.  
It didn’t take her long to catch on. That year, Ahbe was crowned the 2007 Ohio State Champion in the women’s pole vault.  

The following year, when she was in pursuit of back-to-back championships, Ahbe met her first challenge.

As a junior in high school, her appendix ruptured — confining her to bed rest for six weeks. 

The 16-year-old Ahbe  feared she would never compete again. Now she admits that line of thinking was overly dramatic. 

“I had a soccer season coming up, and I thought it was the end of the world that I wasn’t going to be able to train with the team,” she said. “But it’s just another thing you work through, and I came back from it fine.”

She rebounded to championship form — repeating as the Ohio State Champion in 2008. It was a small lesson for Ahbe, but foreshadowing of the resilience she would demonstrate time and time again. 

Her performance at the 2008 State Championship sparked the interest of several scouts, including IU Assistant Coach Jake 
Wiseman.

“I saw that she was a competitor,” he said. “That’s always been her greatest attribute.”

In her freshman year at IU, Ahbe flourished under teammate and mentor Vera Neuenswander — now known as Vera Schmitz. 

Schmitz, at that time a senior, helped Ahbe from afar as she trained through a redshirt season — the same Ahbe would go on to do her senior year.

“Before the word ‘selfie’ meant what it does today, I used to call Kelsie ‘Selfie,’ because she was my little shadow,” Schmitz said. “We did everything the same.”

Under the guidance of Wiseman and Schmitz, Ahbe began toppling records, becoming the third woman in IU track and field’s 190-year history to jump over 13 feet. 

She finished second at the Outdoor Big Ten Championships and 14th at the national meet, unexpectedly working her way onto the 2010 IAAF Junior World Championship team.

“Basically, I just followed (Schmitz), and I ended up jumping high,” Ahbe said. “I had no idea what was going on.”

From the moment Ahbe began her sophomore season, which was also her mentor Schmitz’s fifth and final season, she and Schmitz had a plan to capture first and second in the Big Ten Championship meet.

The focus remained on their team dynamic, aiming to go at the title together, not as individuals.

Challenging each other by clearing bar after bar, the duo’s plan played out flawlessly. Schmitz won gold and pushed the younger Ahbe to win silver at the 2011 Big Ten Outdoor Championships. The silver-medal performance was a career-best for Ahbe — her first time over 14 feet. 

At the NCAA Championship meet, Schmitz and Ahbe continued to shine, finishing fourth and sixth, respectively.

They were the only two women from the same school to receive All-American honors in the pole vault. 

“Pole vault is an interesting sport because it’s really easy to pit yourselves against each other,” Schmitz said. “We had a really unique camaraderie.”

After Schmitz graduated, Ahbe lost her teammate and her mentor, but also her best friend. 

Struggling with that transition throughout her junior year, Ahbe was unable to return to her personal-best height, failing to qualify for the NCAA meet for her first time at IU. 

“For the longest time, Vera led me,” Ahbe said. “Then all of the sudden, I was the leader, and it was hard for me to figure out at first.”

Following her junior season, Ahbe would have plenty of time to mull over her performance. In order to comply with the NCAA’s four years of eligibility rule, Ahbe would have to redshirt her senior season so she could compete as a fifth-year nursing student. 

She wouldn’t vault competitively for the next 18 months. 

***

When Ahbe entered her fifth and final season at IU, she harbored a goal. Every day, she pictured herself as the Big Ten Champion, envisioning herself atop the podium.

But that goal would not come easily. 

After a summer training run through the woods, Ahbe encountered yet another obstacle. She twisted her ankle, causing a stress fracture in her navicular bone. Still, she refused to reevaluate. 

“That Big Ten Championship was always in the back of my mind,” she said. 

Forced to wear a boot and miss practice for four additional months, Ahbe threw herself into cross-training, swimming and biking.

Come January, she had a full bill of health but only three months to sharpen her skills before the Big Ten Indoor Championships in March. 

Though Ahbe said she lacked the confidence at times, she relied on the unwavering endorsement of Coach Wiseman.

“For her to win a Big Ten Championship, I don’t think she cared if she jumped 10 feet or 20 feet — whatever it took to win,” Wiseman said. 

Combining that belief, a strong chemistry with sophomore teammates Sophie Gutmermuth and Sydney Clute and her Christian faith, Ahbe devised a goal that would change the face of the Big Ten Indoor Championships altogether.

She told the girls they could sweep the event — claiming spots one through three — and she set them on a path to do it.

***

Back at the 2014 Big Ten Indoor Championships, Ahbe hangs in the air, her feet stretching over the 4.20 meter bar. 

Her body follows, slipping over the barrier, falling gracefully onto the mat. She glances at the scoreboard and is satisfied — she has cleared the height. 

All she can do now is await the performance of her competitors.

One hour later, her satisfaction  has transformed into triumph ­— Ahbe has officially been named the Big Ten Indoor Champion in women’s pole vault.

Finally, Ahbe stands on the podium. She sees her family in the stands and feels fulfilled — but not because she has won a Big Ten Title.

Ahbe said she felt most satisfied because IU women’s pole vault had won as a unit. 

The women went on to capture first, second and fourth — a collective effort, like Schmitz and Ahbe in 2012. 

“That day, it felt like we turned pole vault into a team event,” Clute said. “It felt like we did it together.”

The runway doesn’t stop there for Ahbe. She has already eclipsed her personal-best mark, defeating Schmitz’s stadium record at Cardinal Park with a vault of 4.32 meters three weeks ago. 

That clearance is the second-best in the history of IU track and field. Second to none other than Vera Schmitz.

“If anyone’s going to beat my records, I would love for it to be Kelsie,” Schmitz said. “She just kept trusting that if she stuck to the plan, then things would come back around for her. A big part of it was just never losing hope.”

 

From:  http://www.idsnews.com/news/story.aspx?id=98064

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