Melinda Owen Withrow has been here before, you see.
Hayward Field, home of the Oregon Ducks and the site of countless vaults during track and field meets spanning close to a decade.
The USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, the pinnacle of domestic competition this week where Withrow has finished among the top six five different times.
Where she hasn’t been is just as much on her mind as the 30-year-old Polson native and Montana Grizzlies assistant track coach prepares to pole vault with America’s best this week. A top-three finish at the USA Games guarantees her a spot in the IAAF World Championships in Beijing.
Then of course there are those Olympic Games just around the corner in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“The big thing is preparing for the next step, next year,” Withrow said during a phone interview from Eugene, Oregon earlier this week. “We’re not trying to jump ourselves into the grave right now.”
Don’t get her wrong. Withrow and the 17 other women pole vaulters, those who will compete on the Games’ final day Sunday at 1 p.m. (Mountain), are still looking to win.
Withrow holds the sixth best mark of United States competitors this week with a jump of 15 feet, 1 inch (4.60 meters) — a career vault she completed in Phoenix in May. It was the fourth-best jump in the world at that point, though a handful of Americans have bested it since.
Among that crop is New Yorker Jenn Suhr, the 2012 London Olympics gold medalist and last summer’s USA title winner, who claimed first with a jump of 15-1.
“My plan going out there is just jump as high as I’m capable,” Withrow said. “If I get beat, they better jump pretty high to beat me.”
“This year is probably the best we’ve ever had coming in, height-wise,” she added of her competition. “How people are doing now and the success in women’s pole vault is huge.”
Withrow figured it will take another career jump to win gold Sunday — “Maybe up to 4-meters-70, which is 15-3, which is huge” — but her coach isn’t ruling that out.
“She’s one of the most physically gifted women in America at pole vaulting,” began Greg Hull, a vault coach with Phoenix-based World Athletics Center. “… She has shown moments of brilliance in the last month where I think she’s capable of competing with anybody in the world.”
Withrow has also shown moments of doubt, Hull continued, as he’s worked with her on new technique.
The vaulter, a former NCAA national qualifier with the University of Idaho, came to WAC with a deep injury history that covered her lower body and back. Hull’s first objective was retooling her movements on approach to alleviate the issues.
“I would very much relate it to — with all the attention last weekend on the U.S. Open golf tournament — to her working with a new swing coach,” Hull said. “In doing that, you always take a bit of risk that you take the proverbial two steps backward to go one step forward.”
Repetition is key to letting new technique take lasting root and Withrow has only been working with Hull and WAC since last spring in Phoenix. Regardless of her jump Sunday, she’ll be in better shape to compete come next summer.
When the stakes will be much higher.
Her 15-foot vault back in May cleared the Olympic Trials’ qualifying standard of 4.5 meters (about 14 feet, 9 inches). So she has a ticket back to Hayward Field next July for a shot at reaching the Olympics.
With a vaunted vault this week, Withrow could have a pair of exclusive meets on her calendar for this summer, too. A top-five finish could earn her a spot in Pan America Games in July in Toronto before the World Games in August against the best vaulters alive.
“There’s potential there could be record-setting bars put up,” Withrow said of what it could take to qualify. “And you always want to be in that environment and competition.”
The USA Track and Field Championships began Thursday and run through Sunday afternoon. All events can be streamed online at USATF.tv with some coverage televised live on NBC affiliates.
Montana has a few other connections at the outdoor championships this week.
Whitefish’s Marlow Schulz, who recently completed her freshman season at St. John’s in New York, ran in the 800-meter preliminaries in the USA Junior Championships on Friday. She qualified for the eight-runner finals Saturday by placing fourth in the second heat.
The junior 800 finals begin at 5:15 p.m. (Mountain).
Missoula Big Sky graduate Lindsay Hall is entered in the women’s heptathlon. The former Griz and five-time Big Sky Conference champ (three indoor, two outdoor) will compete in her seven events across two days Saturday and Sunday.
The heptathlon begins with the 100-meter hurdles at 12:05 p.m. (Mountain).