Seven years ago, when Mary Saxer was breaking all those records, people assumed it would come to this. As a senior at Lancaster, she broke the national high school record seven times. No American female had accomplished so much at that age, and it had taken her only a year or so to get there.
So of course, she thought about the possibilities. How could she avoid it? Saxer remembers people asking in wonderment, “My God, Mary, are you going to the Olympics?”
Then she went to Notre Dame on full scholarship. And she didn’t get better. Oh, Saxer was the best Big East vaulter. But she was supposed to be the best in the country. Eventually, she got worse. She was miserable and frustrated, out of touch with her coaches. Back home, as Jenn Stuczynski (now Suhr) became the local pole vaulting sensation, Saxer faded from memory.
“At one point, I even debated quitting the sport altogether,” said Saxer, who will compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials next weekend in Oregon. She’s one of three former Section VI athletes (with Suhr and Janice Keppler) who will be vaulting in the Trials.
“I was really struggling with various parts of college,” she said. “I asked myself, ‘Is this fun for me anymore?’ My college career tested me, in a sense. How much did I love this sport? I didn’t really process my high school success until after the fact. It was something I was good at, but not my entire life. Did I only love it because I was good at it?
“When it was the worst of the worst, I took a step back and said, ‘I love pole vaulting. I’m going to vault for myself and not anybody else.’ Something dawned on me and I just started improving again. It was really a battle with myself.”
It couldn’t have helped moving away from her first coach, Rick Suhr, who has developed so many elite vaulters. Suhr takes pride in sending athletes to college. He says they have earned more than $1 million in scholarship money.
“But when they go to college, I cut the cord,” Suhr said. “I cut it. They have to become self-sufficient with their new coach. They have to figure it out. You cannot have a third party try to coach.”
Saxer struggled to figure it out at Notre Dame. Maybe she needed time to be a typical student, so she could rediscover her passion for a sport. The turning point came before her senior year, when Jim Garnham Jr. arrived to help coach the jumpers.
Garnham was a state champion pentathlete at Sweet Home in 1993. He was a pole vaulting student of Suhr’s. Garnham’s dad, Jim Sr., coaches the throwers at the University at Buffalo and is a legend in the sport in Western New York. It was great to see a face from home.
“She was lost,” Garnham recalled. “Look at the results. She was OK as a freshman, but it fell off pretty bad after that. We had a meeting when I got there. I said, ‘I’m from Buffalo. Tell me about it. What do you want to do?'”
Saxer said she wanted to get to the NCAA meet and be an All-American. She wanted to have fun again. Garnham promised her that much. “Then all of a sudden, she started to take off again,” he said, “when she started believing she was good again.”
As a senior, she earned All-American status with a ninth-place finish at the 2009 NCAA indoor championships. She came in third in the NCAA outdoor meet. She got her vault back up to 14-2, which was her best in high school. She got a degree in marketing from Notre Dame in ’09. She also had her love for pole vaulting back.
Now, she wanted what outsiders had assumed for her in 2005. She wanted to be an Olympian, to pursue the dream that Jenn Suhr had inherited after Saxer left. Her new coach, Danny Wilkerson, lives in South Bend, so she could work out at Notre Dame.
Saxer jumped a personal-best 14-9 (4.50 meters) to place third at the 2010 U.S. outdoors. In 2011, she vaulted 15-1 (4.60 meters), breaking 15 feet for the first time. She made it onto the prestigious Diamond Meet circuit, a gathering of the world’s top vaulters.
She’s on the rise and has a decent chance to be one of the three American women who go to London. Suhr is a clear favorite. But Saxer is among a handful of women, including Lacy Janson and Kylie Hutson, who have a solid shot at taking the other two Olympic spots.
“If it’s nice weather, I’m thinking I’ll have to vault a 4.60 (15-1),” Saxer said. “It’s so hard to predict. You try not to think about it, but you can’t help but prepare for the worst. Only three of us can make it. I’d definitely say I’m in the fop four or five. But it’s the pole vault, and you never know.
“Of course, I’d be emotional and upset if I didn’t make it. But I’d still smile and continue to work toward my dream of competing at an Olympics. The biggest thing was I had to dig deep. I found that I love pole vaulting no matter what. And I’m not going to give it up.”
By Jerry Sullivan