Santa Cruz pole vaulter Katherine Whiting qualified for the CIF state track and field meet after 9 weeks in the sport

SANTA CRUZ — Two months and one week ago, Katherine Whiting begrudgingly sat down next to the pole vault pit at Santa Cruz High.

Usually, she would have been at gymnastics practice, but a series of unfortunate events within the sport led to her unexpectedly having the afternoon off. Or she thought she did. When she arrived home from school, her mother informed her otherwise.

“I said, ‘Katherine, I want you to go see the track coach.’ She said, ‘What? No!'” relayed Serena Whiting, Katherine’s mother. “She said, ‘You’re going to have to hold a gun to my head.’ And I said, ‘Did you hear the hammer cock? Because I just did.'”

Two days later, the junior made her first attempt at the sport, clearing 8 feet. A week later, she broke the school record when she sailed over 10. And last Friday, a mere nine weeks after she first picked up the pole, she qualified for this weekend’s CIF State Track & Field Championships by clearing the at-large height of 12 feet.

“It’s crazy,” Whiting said Saturday. “I woke up this morning and was like wow, that was real life.”

The only person who can legitimately say he saw this coming is Santa Cruz pole vault coach Paul Friedman. Friedman’s daughter Corey also trained at Santa Cruz Gymnastics, where Whiting reached the highest echelon, level 10, as a freshman. So, his eyes must have grown big at the sight of her sitting next to his pit.

“She’s been at the very top of gymnastics for a verylong time,” he said. “Without seeing her, I knew what we had.”

“The first day, I knew she was going to jump high,” he added. “When I told her to do something, she immediately did it. Most athletes it takes four to five days for them to figure out what you want. She figured it out immediately.”

Whiting owes much of that to her rigorous gymnastics training. For 12 of her 16 years, all she had known was gymnastics. She practiced 21 hours a week and often traveled to competitions on the weekends, leaving little time in her schedule for anything other than that and school. She knew she would compete in gymnastics in college and had started to take college recruiting trips.

Then, it all started to unravel.

Whiting missed all of her sophomore season when she fell ill to a bacterial infection from having her wisdom teeth pulled. She came back for her junior season in top form, but faltered some when her coach of 10 years left the club. Then, she really faltered, suffering a concussion after falling off the high bar while performing a release drill. When Whiting came back five weeks later and failed to qualify for the regional championships for one of the first times in her career, her mother knew she needed a change.

Whiting said she had doubts, but she didn’t necessarily agree.

“I’ll be honest, a couple of months ago I was 100 percent sure I was going to be doing college gymnastics,” she said. “Even the day I went out to the track, I said, ‘Mom, stopping gymnastics is not an option. In no way is it an option.'”

But Serena, who had played basketball and run sprints in track at Santa Cruz and later went on to play basketball for Oregon State University, thought her daughter might enjoy competing for her school. She also knew how headstrong Whiting can be, so she felt she had to make it mandatory.

“She would have been at (gymnastics) practice the next day and put her head down and walked on somewhere (for college),” Serena Whiting said. “I told Paul, ‘You do understand that this wouldn’t have happened if she would have stayed on that beam?'”

Friedman feels like he hit the jackpot with Whiting. She is tall, has her mother’s speed and has a gymnast’s body awareness and drive. She’s also fearless and thrives on competition.

But that’s one of the things she’s come to enjoy about pole vault. She said that, compared to gymnastics, there’s no pressure at all.

“Honestly, I found it so relaxing, so fun,” Whiting said. “Other people were nervous. I was like, ‘This is all I have to do?’ Other people were doing things at the same time and not all eyes are on you.

“What I do is get up on a 4-inch piece of wood and do flips while a judge deducts points from me. I think that’s as nerve-wracking as it gets.”

Many successful pole vaulters start with gymnastics, and several college and high school coaches have already approached Friedman about Whiting. They often ask about her 100-meter speed, trying to suss out her limitations.

What he will say is that he thinks this weekend she can reach the state finals, which he expects will take a leap of about 12-4. At the CCS finals, she showed that’s within her grasp when, on her final attempt, she cleared the state-qualifying, 12-foot bar with nearly a foot to spare.

Other than that, he’s being careful not to set a ceiling for his prodigy. For Whiting, the sky truly is the limit.

“My ultimate goal is at the end of her career to jump 14 feet and win the state meet,” he said. “That’s pretty lofty, but keep in mind she’s still running from a practice run. She’s not at her full approach yet. Once we pull her back, then we’ll realize her full potential. I keep telling her mom, ‘Don’t limit her.’ “…

“With most athletes, it’s let’s set some goals and achieve them,” he added. “With her it’s too early. She’s just nine weeks in.”


Whiting Vaulter Magazine
Whiting Vaulter Magazine

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