When Stacy Dragila entered Idaho State as a heptathlete in 1993, conventional wisdom stated that women lacked the strength to compete in the pole vault. At the urging of Idaho State coach Dave Nielsen, Dragila helped prove conventional wisdom wrong. She eventually won World Champions and an Olympic gold medal. Dragila currently coaches aspiring pole vaulters, both male and female. In part 1 of her interview, which took place in February 2013, Dragila explains how she became a pioneering vaulter.
When did you become a serious track and field athlete?
“I went on to junior college (Yuba Community College in California) and I continued to play volleyball and run track. But from there I got a scholarship to go to Idaho State. And obviously that’s when the focus then became more track. I was sad to leave volleyball because it was such a fun, team sport. But I knew that I probably had more talent for track and field, so that became my focus. And about six months into my first year there, that’s when my coach (Dave Nielsen) came to me and the heptathletes to see if we wanted to try the pole vault. And we thought, ‘What? Women don’t pole vault.’ Because back then no one was pole vaulting that I knew of. But he had done some research on the computer and saw that the Germans and the Chinese had been vaulting. And his wife owns a gym, and him kind of being a gym rat growing up, he knew that the women had the upper-body strength to do this. But for so long we were denied. Maybe the men in the sport just didn’t think we had the upper-body strength, or that it’s such a violent event that the women couldn’t withstand it. Much like the marathon, we were told for a long time that women couldn’t do that and put their body through that kind of strain. But I think my coach was one of those visionaries and he came to us one day and said that ‘Hey, let’s pull out some poles and learn how to do some grass vaults.’ So we thought, ‘What?’ But we did, we followed through and we were having fun (even though they were) clumsy and uncoordinated.”
What was your first thought when your coach asked you to try the pole vault?
“I was just like, ‘Why?’ Right before that, we were looking at our workout, and we’re heptathletes, so we had one of these monster workouts. We were going to be there for three hours just grinding it out. And I said, ‘How are we going to fit this in, coach? We’ve already got three hours of work to do?’ And he goes, ‘How about this? I’ll make a deal. If you come out and do the pole vault and learn to do this, I’ll cut that workout in half?’ So that was a done deal for us.”
What made you become a full-time pole vaulter?
“My coach just kept encouraging us, and for some crazy reason I was the only one out of that group to really stick with it. I was progressing – slowly, but I was progressing. And I was seeing some headway and connecting some drills, and it was kind of fun. It was very different from any of the other events that I had done. Obviously, there’s an attack phase where you come into takeoff, much like the hurdles and the long jump. But I didn’t really associate that at the beginning. But I liked it because it was really challenging for me, especially once you leave the ground and you’re starting to swing – I was terrified, but I kind of wanted to overcome that fear. And my coach was there every step of the way to help me overcome that. So it was a fun coming together between me and my coach and this relationship that we had as a coach and athlete, for 14 years into the future. So it was a really fun time to be able to master something, or work at something really hard and keep seeing progress. And then eventually it became an Olympic event, (and) I never, ever thought that I would ever be (an Olympian). So to be in kind of the infancy of something, kind of being what they say is a pioneer of an event, it was pretty fun to be that person.”
Were you thinking about being a pioneer for women as your career progressed?
“I didn’t really think of it. I know people always say that, or, that things in the history book are going to be this and that. But I think as an athlete you’re in that moment of always trying to perfect that next jump and looking at the plan that your coach has set out for you. And so I thought, ‘I just want to accomplish what I can, and then maybe one day I’ll sit down with my kids and reflect on what things I have accomplished.’ But (during her active career) it’s about putting the work in and being the athlete. So I tried not to think about it too much. I did know that people were watching me and that I needed to be a good advocate for it, and an inspiration for that next generation. Because I knew if this did go well it could really open the doors for some women. And it really did. It gave us another event for scholarship athletes. And it helped the men, actually. We saved the event, is what everybody says. I didn’t think we were doing that at the time, but now looking back, it’s pretty powerful to think that you’re a part of something, a movement like that.”
What were the advantages or disadvantages of doing other events and not beginning the pole vault until later in your athletic life?
“It’s a double-edged sword. It was kind of fun being that first person, and really not having a role model. We had to look to the men for technical models. But then I look back 10 years later, and a lot of these women basically learned from my mistakes on how to be better. And so it was kind of like, ‘Well, gosh, do I want to be that first person of really treading new territory?’ Or would it have been fun to have had models to look at and say, ‘OK, these are the things we really need to work on.’ And could I have been better? I don’t know. But I had fun with what I was doing. And I have no regrets.”
Because you grew up as athlete by performing different events, such as the heptathlon, do you use any of that in your coaching today?
“Absolutely. I think it’s great for kids to be a little bit more balanced. I think kids are too focused on one event and they just don’t have that athleticism any more. They’re just so streamlined, that I think having a little bit of a wide variety of events kind of thrown at them just makes them a better athlete. So I always encourage my kids, when they come to me – we’re learning the long jump, we’re learning the hurdles. We’ll go play the high jump. Some of my kids wanted to learn the shot put. And I know they’re not shot-putters, but they wanted to try it and I said, ‘Let’s go do it.’ Because it’s something that they’ve seen from afar, being on the track and seeing this big ball being thrown, I think it just gives them an appreciation for what the throwers do. So we use mostly the long jump and the hurdles a lot in my training, for my kids.”
American pole vaulter Stacy Dragila was the first woman to win a pole vault gold medal at the World Indoor Championships, the outdoor World Championships, and the Olympic Games. She also set numerous world records. In the second half of her About.com interview, Dragila recalls her pioneering successes, and how she saved her 2000 Olympic medal hopes when she was on the brink of elimination.
How did you feel about your first World Indoor Championship in 1997?:
“I was really nervous. And I wasn’t even expected to. I went in there and the girl that was supposed to win and was the big favorite win (Emma George of Australia), she just had a cruddy day, and I said, ‘Well, I better step up to the plate.’ And I came out with a new PR (4.40 meters; 14 feet, 5¼ inches), and a world championship. And I think that was kind of the awakening, I think, of the women’s pole vault. Not because of me, but just that we were on that platform. And that was that first step to getting into the Olympics and being recognized internationally. And more and more women were competing, obviously. And so it was that first mark to being in the record books, per se, and the rest just kind of followed suit. It was fun to be that first person and to kind of get the ball rolling.”
Were the first World Outdoor Championships in 1999 similar?
“I think I was leading the world at that time, so, obviously, I was always afraid that someone was going to knock me off my pedestal. So that was kind of a different situation for me. Training I thought was a little bit more serious. I think you’re more mature. … So you’re kind of honing in and focusing, and I think just taking it to that next level. And there were a few new girls in the mix – the who’s who in the pole vault – and we just kept taking the bar higher and higher. So that was fun as well. It was a long, drawn-out competition. But fortunately I came out on top and it was another medal for me” (Dragila cleared a then world-record 4.60/15-1).
How much different, mentally, were the Olympics the next year?
“I think you put way, way, way too much pressure on yourself because it is the Olympics. I think it’s something that so many people dream of being a part of, that now it’s kind of in your face and a reality. And the biggest thing for me, going into the (American) Trials, was this negative self-talk that I was giving myself – ‘What if I screw up?’ Because I was leading, and I was pretty far ahead of my U. S. competitors, that I started just going, ‘If I screw this up I could not make the team.’ So luckily I started using a sport psychologist and that really helped me kind of calm myself and bring myself back to center. And when I started having those negative doubts, he really helped me, gave me some tools to really defuse those things and block them out. And that gave me a lot of confidence going into the Trials and helped me sleep a little bit better at night, because I would stay up just thinking of stupid scenarios. And I don’t know why it just crept into my mind, but I think as an athlete you always know someone’s trying to get to you and you’re always trying to stay one step ahead. But I’m sure everybody goes through these different peaks and valleys of their career. That was one of those times that I was really kind of stressed out.”
What was it like when you had to clear 14-9 on your third try to avoid going home without a medal?
“Fourteen-nine (4.50 meters) – a jump that I had jumped many, many times. It was, ‘Holy crap, Stacy. Get your business together.’ I think I was just a fan of the sport as well and I think obviously the adrenaline – there were 110,000 people in the stadium – that was something I had never experienced before. And the night of my final was also the night of Cathy Freeman and Michael Johnson (both in the 400 meters). It was an historical night of track and field. And I’m out there trying not to be a fan, trying to be a participating athlete. It was hard to just focus on my event. And I think that was the hardest thing. I think as soon as Cathy had started her race, everybody was cheering and clapping, and basically the flag was up on my runway that I needed to go. And I had always encouraged people to clap for me, so everybody’s cheering for Cathy but I just kind of said (to herself), ‘Everybody’s cheering for me!’ And it kind of just brought a calm to me. Because it wasn’t like I always wanted people looking at me, but for me it just kind of brought me to center. The crowd was clapping but it was kind of like this noise that I really didn’t hear. But they were doing something and I was doing my thing. And I was able to separate the two things and I just thought of me running down this tunnel, or down my runway, and I’ve just got to plant this pole and I’ve got to be good on the pole and technical. And I was over and that was just a huge relief off my shoulders.”
What do you remember about your winning Olympic jump, at 15-1?
“Well it was crazy, because I had jumped that bar in practice. Actually, I think I had jumped 15-6 in practice at the training site. I was on a roll. But just being in the Games, there’s just way too much energy going on and too much adrenaline. To then jump that bar, I was like, ‘OK, that’s a good jump.’ But I knew Tatiana (Grigorieva) was on a roll, too, and I’d never seen her jump so well. And she did really well with the crowd. I didn’t know if it was the winning jump, and it was down to her last jump to see if she made it, and she didn’t. And it was just kind of surreal that I had won the (gold) medal.”
Are you at a point now where you look back at your career and consider yourself a pioneer?
“I’m glad I was a part of that because I feel that I’ve been able to touch a lot of young athletes. And I think I made myself available for athletes to be able to come to me and ask questions, and kind of be an inspiration to them and let them know that I didn’t start pole vaulting when I was in high school. I was 23. I was pretty old as an athlete, to start an event. And to be able to progress that quickly and win a medal, I tell the kids the sky’s the limit. If you really focus in and have passion for something, you don’t know what you’re able to achieve. And so I just try to always let them know that – to let them dream, whatever age they are. If you work hard at something and you surround yourself with positive people that believe in you, I think anything’s achievable. And that’s kind of the message that I always try to tell my kids, and the kids that come up to me.”