There’s a new fear in Zariah Tolman.
She’s a pole vaulting champion, a senior from Burlington. She’s about to graduate, and the thing she loves to do scares her.
It all started after she wrecked her motorcycle driving home from the pool.
She used to be nervous near the middle of the pole vault approach run. Now the fear strikes early and often. She looks at the pit, the pole in her hands. She worries about going up. She worries about falling down.
And on her last try at the Wyoming State Track and Field Championships Thursday, she went down for good.
Her support system surrounded her as soon as they could. She laid down and barely moved for 10 minutes, maybe more. Her day was done. Zariah had already done enough to win the 1A girls pole vault state title, but now she wouldn’t break the record she’d set last May.
“It wasn’t what I wanted,” said Zariah, 18. “But I need to be a lot more grateful for what I have. I have come a long way. I need to give a lot more credit to the people that helped me get here.
“I need to think about all the things that I did right sometimes.”
Minutes before, her mother, who’s also her coach, stood with Zariah and talked about where to improve, what to focus on. None of that seemed to matter as Zariah grimaced and winced, helped by her friends as she got up and moved to a nearby bench.
This time a year ago, Zariah broke the 1A pole vault state record, a whole year of high school still left to go. But then there was the crash and the recovery. There was the possibility that she wouldn’t walk again.
Her mother knows the date of the crash by heart. She remembers the little steps that led her daughter to pole vaulting again.
“We’ve cried a lot,” Penny Tolman said. “When she could move her thumb about an eighth of an inch, we were all just cheering and excited, and then she could move her fingers, and then her first steps. Everything’s a progression.”
Tolman said her daughter had surgeries, including one that put a rod in her femur and another that tried to close up her amputated toe.
“We try to keep our focus on what she has accomplished since then, not what she’s lost,” her mother said.
Zariah could have stopped pole vaulting, decided that walking around and smiling again was enough of a victory. But she came back.
“Somebody told me that I wouldn’t be able to,” Zariah smiles, as she remembers. “So I said, ‘watch me.’”
And this week, a whole stadium watched as she won another state title and waited for her first-place medal.
She was a champion.
She was hobbled.
She was hurt.
Her opponents helped her up to the podium, where she shook as she tried to stand. And even after she was recognized, and announced to the stadium a back-to-back champ, and the crowd cheered, and the other pole vaulters walked away, she struggled to get down on her own strength and find a place to rest.
Laying down under a tent in the shade, she spoke slowly. She promised she was normally more coherent, that this had just been a tough day among many in the last year. She spoke not about regrets but about thanks. Yes, she didn’t get the ending she would have liked. No, it wouldn’t haunt her or keep her down.
The injured pole vaulter sat up, still moving slowly, ignoring her scars, making light of what had already come to pass.
One day, she’d like to be a doctor. She’d thought about it before the accident, but the last year solidified her ambition. Her doctor had put her back together. Her doctor had given her a second chance.
She liked that, she said.
She’d like to help people get that same comeback. She’d like to help them get that same second chance.