Cameron Overstreet is not a prototypical pole-vaulter.
At just 5-foot-5 and a half inches, the junior on the North Carolina track and field team is a few inches short of what coaches look for in an ideal vaulter.
But Josh Langley, the vaulting coach for UNC, couldn’t help but notice when he saw her years ago.
“Wow, she’s kinda short for how good she is,” Langley said to himself when he first met her.
She won’t be growing anytime soon — she has been the same height since seventh grade. And now that her third indoor season at UNC has come to a conclusion and the outdoor season officially kicks off today, she accepts there is nothing she can do about her height. But her coaches say she has certain intangible qualities that all coaches seek out. The same words keep popping up, over and over.
Dedicated. Determined. Motivated. Intelligent.
While the first three are hard to demonstrate on paper, Overstreet leaves little doubt that she is just as much student as she is athlete. After graduating among the top 10 in her high school class, she came to UNC and continued to excel in the classroom.
ACC Honor Roll — twice. U.S. Track & Field And Cross Country Coaches Association All-Academic honors — twice. Dean’s List — every semester.
Kyle Bishop, her high school vaulting coach in Mechanicsville, Va., met Overstreet through some of the girls on his team who were also her friends. She was just an eighth-grade gymnast. He knew immediately he wanted her on his team.
“That day, I said, ‘She’s going to be a state champion,'” Bishop said. “And her (gymnastics) coach looks at me and says, ‘Yeah, in gymnastics.'”
After that, the two coaches fought for her time. Eventually, Bishop and pole-vaulting won her heart, and soon enough, Overstreet was a state pole-vaulting champion in Virginia.
“She’s a scrapper,” Bishop said. “She might not be the greatest physical specimen out there, but she’s the kid that you can count on. When her back’s to the wall, she’s going to go as hard as she can.”
While few who know her will argue that there is a better competitor, effort is just one element of the equation. Three weeks ago, at the ACC Indoor Track and Field Championships, she didn’t have the other elements working.
On her final attempt at 13-11 1/4 she fell millimeters shy, barely clipping the bar. Had she cleared it, she would have set a new personal record. Instead, she was eliminated from the competition, her chances of advancing to the NCAA Indoor National Championships crushed and her indoor season ended.
“I just knocked it off with my thigh,” she said, stressing the “just.”
But Overstreet knows that she can use the early finish to fuel her upcoming outdoor season.
“You’ve got to look at vaulting as a four-year commitment,” she said. “If you have one season where you don’t have all your dreams come true, then it’s OK … as long as you come back in a strong way.”
Langley has no doubt that Overstreet will return for the outdoor season with a vengeance. While he said not making the National Championships hurt at first, it will add an entirely new level of motivation to her approach. And ultimately, it will be her competition that suffers.
“She already is determined, she’s already dedicated, but I think you’re going to see a whole different animal, come outdoor season,” Langley said. “Cameron Overstreet with something to prove — that’s dangerous for the rest of the ACC.”
Though the ACC Championships might be a sore topic for Overstreet, one UNC vaulter set a new career best that day in Clemson, S.C. Freshman Amanda Benninghoff tied for fifth place with a jump of 12-11 1/2, and credited Overstreet — the only non-freshman female vaulter — for guiding her early in the season.
“Cam was like our mom on the team, leading us through the workouts in the fall,” Benninghoff said.
Fellow freshman Caroline Brailsford echoed that sentiment.
“She has this dedication about her that’s really admirable,” Brailsford said. “She eats so well, she studies really hard, she takes really good care of her body in training.”
“She is just the perfect role model for what to be to succeed as an athlete.”
As a freshman, Overstreet had then-sophomore Sandi Morris to look up to and train with. After that season, Morris — who holds the UNC indoor and outdoor women’s pole vault records — transferred to Arkansas, leaving Overstreet as the only female vaulter on the team.
Langley said she constantly pestered him to recruit some vaulters for her to train with, so when he brought in a crop of freshmen this season, Overstreet was overwhelmed.
“She has really done an outstanding job of taking them under her wing and showing them the ropes,” Langley said. “It helps me a lot because I don’t have to go through the whole processes of the small things, like how to warm up and how to approach each practice and competition.”
Brailsford, Benninghoff and Langley all credit Overstreet for bringing the vaulters together. Before the first meet of the indoor season, she wrote each vaulter a letter, praising their accomplishments thus far and encouraging them to keep striving to be better.
Her influence on the impressionable freshmen became noticeable almost immediately, and soon enough, the rookies had returned the favor.
A few days before the ACC Championships, Overstreet went to Virginia Tech for an additional chance to record a performance that would qualify her for the National Championships.
She was the only member of the team who went — only Langley accompanied her — but the other vaulters were there in spirit, rooting on their mentor. Each freshman vaulter, including the men, wrote Overstreet a letter of their own, hoping to boost her confidence enough to propel her to the NCAA Championships.
Overstreet was touched by the letters, which she said congratulated her for what she had already accomplished. Though she ultimately came up short, the letters helped remove some of the initial stress.
“It was just really nice to hear, because I’m kind of hard on myself,” she said. “It’s kind of weird to think that at the end of the day, even though you gave it your best effort, it still wasn’t enough.”
Though it wasn’t enough this time, Overstreet did make the National Championships last year, and still has the outdoor season this year, as well as the indoor and outdoor seasons next year, to reach new heights.
She and Langley have already begun working on ways she can improve and changes she needs to make, including moving five inches up to a 14-foot pole, but she said her perspective has changed after the indoor season.
“Just enjoy the journey instead of just basing it on the outcome,” she said. “That’s something I’ve learned.”
“You can’t just be focused on the outcome, you have to enjoy the whole package.”
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