She says, “Every competition ends on a miss.” Before the vault, she stands on the runway with a pole in hand. She sprints, she jumps, she soars. Bending, launching, floating—if only for a moment. She falls. The bar tips, drops and bounces onto the pit.
It’s a miss.
It’s funny, she says. The life of a pole vaulter is all about the failures. For without all of the attempts, without all the tries, she could not reach new heights. And Olympic hopeful Sandi Morris wants to show the world she can fly.
Her journey began on 25 cents. Morris was seven years old and playing along the sidelines of her older sister’s soccer game. She was a skinny, energetic little girl with a shock of blond hair. She paid a boy a quarter to race her 100 meters. Morris smoked him, and her parents—who were track athletes in college—noticed their daughter had a gift.
So in second grade, Morris joined a track club and soon found herself leaping over hurdles. But by eighth grade, Morris was recruited at her school to be a pole vaulter. She was fast, had strong, broad shoulders, was “tall-ish” and had an undeniable X factor.
“I’m just a fearless personality and I’m always ready for a new challenge,”said Morris.
On the first day of practice, her coach challenged her with a bar that hung six feet tall. She looked at it boldly. “I thought that if I could jump that then I am Wonder Woman,” she said.
So maybe Wonder Woman didn’t show up that day, but many falls and triumphs later, Morris won two South Carolina high school state championships and earned a scholarship to vault at UNC. In her first year, Morris was a rookie to be reckoned with. She was the only freshman to advance to indoor nationals and clear 14 feet.
Though the scoresheets were impressive, Morris was starting to break down. College life was getting to her and between school, friends and pole vaulting, she often went to bed exhausted and stressed. By sophomore year, Morris found she wasn’t improving in the vault and her mental game was crumbling. She’d get so nervous at competitions her body would shake.
“I messed up because I wasn’t focused enough,” said Morris. “I had great friends there, but having all of that freedom, I wasn’t doing as well as I should have been in the classroom. I felt pretty lost.”
And yet she was still able to hang on to the dream of pole vaulting in the Olympics. In 2012, Morris was on the brink of advancing to her first Olympic Trials, but couldn’t hit the qualifying height at her last meet.
“I was trying so hard to scrape in by the skin of my teeth,” said Morris. “And I had friends who were on social media posting about going to Trials. It just crushed me.”
Coach Bryan Compton of the Arkansas Razorbacks helped to change all of that. After all of the disappointment, Morris hit the reset button, transferred to Arkansas and decided to give it everything she had. Arkansas has had some of the best pole vaulters in NCAA history, and under Compton’s wing Morris really learned how to take flight.
“I really attribute my success to the discipline my coach teaches us,” said Morris. “He was what I needed in my life. I needed someone to crack that whip.”
In 2015, Morris had a breakout season in her last year at Arkansas. She broke the collegiate record at the second meet of the indoor season and jumped the current NCAA Outdoor record at 15’5.75″. By using her skills as a broadcast major, she started collecting video clips from all of her track meets and interviews. Morris wanted to create a montage because she knew her time was coming. She became a Bowerman semifinalist, a four-time All-American, a Nike athlete and even jumped for Team USA for the IAAF World Championships.
“That [moment] was a realization point for me,” she said. “Going all the way to the Olympic stadium in Beijing and wearing USA across my chest … That really hit home for me the importance of representing my country. It proved to myself that I belong on the world stage.”
The “queen of hobbies”
Sandi Morris is a flying squirrel—or at least that’s her spirit animal, she told Excelle Sports. There’s a reason why her social media handles are named “sandicheekspv,” and it’s not just because she’s a Spongebob fan. Not only does Morris like to leap from high places on the track, her “squirrly” personality has her jumping from hobby to hobby and always looking for an adventure.
Morris grew up in Greenville, S.C., a little haven nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her father Harry is a geologist and he always liked to take his daughter camping. Through their explorations, Morris fell in love with nature, rocks and animals.
“God bless my mother,” Morris laughed. “She would let me have every animal I wanted. But her rule was if you don’t take care of it, [she was] going to get rid of it.”
One day, Morris begged her mother to take her to an exotic animal exhibit, after which she took home a flying squirrel named Rufus. Remember the rule was that Morris had to take care of all of her animals or else she’d lose them—reptiles, snakes, fish, birds and all—so she took her father’s saw and built Rufus his own wooden cage.
Her latest addition to the pet family is a little Greyhound puppy named Rango who likes to run with Morris at practice.
Besides her love for animals, Morris has a passion for art and music. She grew up playing violin and taught herself acoustic guitar. Though training for trials has occupied a lot of her time, she uses her rest periods to write songs or make music videos. If she’s tired, she’ll be curled up in one of her blankets, which she happens to collect.
“If I go to any home-goods store and I see a comfy throw, it’s really hard for me to refrain from getting a new soft blanket,” Morris said. “I guess I am a squirrel who likes to nest.”
On the mend and off to trials
It will soon be time for the Sandi “The Flying Squirrel” to soar in Eugene, Ore., where the qualifying round of the pole vault is set to kick off on Friday. But there’s one challenge Morris has to face when she steps onto the runway. In May, she snapped a pole and broke her left wrist at a meet in the Czech Republic. But that wasn’t going to stop her from training as much as she could.
“We just had to get really creative with my training for all the times I couldn’t use my arm,” Morris explained.
With her arm now healed but still achy, Morris is just getting back to vaulting. The doctors said that her wrist is probably going to bother her throughout the competition, but because of all of the reading she’s done, all of the coaching she’s had and all of the falls she has taken just to get up again, Morris knows how to focus. Only a fearless squirrel makes it to the other tree.
“It’s going to be about confidence,” said Morris. “It will mean even more to me if I make it than if I didn’t have this injury. As long as I am confident going into Trials, I can still make this Olympic team.”