ALLENDALE –Kristen Hixson quickly put aside one notion about the pole vault – there are heights and then there is competition.
The former Grand Valley State standout is looking at the latter as she prepares for the United States Olympic Trials on July 8, 10 in Eugene, Oregon.
“The trials are different; it doesn’t matter what you’ve done before,” Hixson said earlier this week during a light training session at Grand Valley State’s Kelly Family Sports Center.
Hixson isn’t a favorite – at least on paper and looking at the heights. She has cleared 4.65 (15-feet-3), which is fifth on a list of top vaults in the U.S. this season.
She said there is no way to guess what height will qualify.
“Honestly, it could be anything,” said the three-time national champion at the NCAA Division II powerhouse. “It could depend on the weather that day or how everyone else is jumping. All I can do is go out there, be prepared and do my best. That’s all I can control.”
Just three will qualify for the United States team for the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Jenn Suhr, the defending gold medalist from 2012 Olympics, is also the gold standard. The 34-year-old is the Olympic and world champion and has been ranked No. 1 in the world the past two years. She has gone 5.03 (16-6) indoors.
At the national championships in March, Sandi Morris did 4.95 (16-2 3/4) to beat Suhr, while Demi Payne has reached 4.90 (16-0 ¾) and Mary Saxer has a 4.71 (15-5 ½).
Hixson’s best came March 11 in Portland, Oregon, was good for fourth at the USA Track & Field Indoor National Championships and came less than a month after she first cleared the elusive 15-foot barrier with a 4.62 (15-1 1/2) on Feb. 19.
“That was a good jump and that became the base to look at where we are and now what do we need to do technique-wise to get better,” Hixson said of the jump in Portland.
“Looking at a really big bar is nice, it’s fun. But as long as I’m learning and fixing something; that’s a goal that motivates me each day.”
That’s also a mental necessity, she added, in a sport where failure is more common than success.
“When I don’t make a bar that I want, I have to stop and think about what I did do well during the week,” Hixson said. “You have to do that or you’ll get so down on yourself. That’s the way pole vaulting is. You’re always going to end up missing three times. It’s hard to understand that and that’s something that comes with experience.”
Being a singular pole vaulter has also been a transition for the 2014 graduate with a degree in finance. Her career now requires discipline and self-motivation.
“I have the same coach (Grand Valley State’s Lou Andreadis) and the same stability so that’s a smooth transition, but at the same time I don’t have a team I’m competing for anymore,” Hixson said. “A lot of times I don’t have a competition every weekend. So it has been different as you say, ‘Yeah, I’m training for the trials – in two years!’ That mindset is definitely different.”
Hixson will compete Saturday in Chula Vista, California, at the U.S. training center and then return to West Michigan to continue her training while working part-time at law firm Stenger & Stenger where she handles client accounting. Then it’s off to Oregon.
“Mentally I have to be confident that all of this training the past two years is for this day,” she said. “Everything we have done to prepare … as long as I do what I’ve trained to do, well that’s all I can do and be confident in every step I’ve taken to reach this point.”
Meantime, she has to resist the thought of making the Olympic team even though she’s asked about it often.
“I really don’t have words for it” she said. “I’m more excited than anything right now. But come that day, I like to think I’ll be more excited than nervous. That usually happens – once I get on the runway, I’m having fun. But I can’t imagine the excitement level, let alone if I make the team.”