The first time Sonia Grabowska’s middle school coach handed her a pole, she fell in love, but in Warsaw, Poland, where she grew up, she would have referred to her newfound obsession as “skok o tyczce,” meaning pole vault.
Track and field spectators can pick Grabowska out at a meet by finding the athlete with a half-sleeve tattoo on her left arm and a bright-blonde, asymmetrical haircut.
“She has a fiery personality,” USU track and field coach Gregg Gensel said. “She is very outgoing, very vocal.”
Aside from being one of the top-ranked pole vaulters in the Western Athletic Conference, Grabowska is an older sister who loves to Skype her friends from home and listen to music as often as she can, Grabowska said. One day, she will be “heavily tattooed,” she added.
Her journey to USU began when she heard friends talking about going to school in the U.S. She said this encouraged her to call a man who was helping Polish athletes and students get connected to American universities.
Grabowska received offers to join the track and field teams at Virginia Commonwealth, Adams State, Texas State and Colorado Mesa University, as well as a slew of other small East Coast colleges.
In the end, she said, it was a toss-up between Utah State and Texas State.
“I looked at the pictures online, and they were just pretty, so I wanted to come here,” Grabowska said.
However, she could do without the cold weather, she said — it annoys her.
So, she took a full-ride scholarship to represent USU in pole vaulting. Ever since, she has won titles and awards for indoor and outdoor events, ranking regionally and nationally.
A few of the bullets on her list of accomplishments include setting the indoor and outdoor school pole vaulting records and tieing the WAC record. This is Grabowska’s last season on the team, but she said her personal victories on the team will forever be cherished memories.
Her triumphs haven’t come without struggles, Grabowska said. Not only did she need to adapt to her new surroundings as an athlete, but also as a student.
“I think the language barrier was the hardest adjustment,” Grabowska said. “I remember coming here, and I knew English before, but it was hard to speak in English and think in English 24/7, but I got used to it. The culture is different than back home but I adjusted pretty good, I think.”
Grabowska will receive her master’s degree in exercise science in one year, and she said being a graduate student has helped her prioritize her time between athletics and academics better than she did as an undergrad.
“We are gone all the time,” Grabowska said. “I remember undergrad was rough, because we would leave almost every Thursday and didn’t come back until Sunday, I missed a lot of my classes.”
Grabowska is viewed as somewhat of a team icon, said Amber Thompsen, who is also a pole vaulter on USU’s track and field team.
“She adds an element to the team that nobody else has,” Thompsen said. “Her advice is different sometimes, and it’s always good to have a different perspective. Having her gone next year, I’ll definitely feel it.”
Thompsen said she was slightly intimidated by Grabowska at first, but over time they’ve begun to support each other and learn from each other.
Over the three-year period Thompsen and Grabowska have been teammates, Thompsen said she feels she has improved enough to compete with Grabowska, and she knows Grabowska feels the same way.
“If you can get Sonia’s approval, well, that means something,” Thompsen said.
At every practice, Thompsen said she feels Grabowska’s intensity and knows she comes each time to work, giving each jump everything she has, despite the injuries she battles.
Grabowska ruptured both of her Achilles tendons but doesn’t let that stop her from progressing in her sport.
“I just want to qualify for nationals,” Grabowska said. “I’ve had some injury trouble this year, but it’s important for me to do well at regionals and qualify for nationals.”
Gensel said Grabowska’s work ethic is admirable, and the other teammates take notice of that, but to Grabowska her work is the product of aiming to achieve the high goals she has set for herself. While some may think Grabowska’s best memories as a track athlete are owning WAC titles, she said her favorite moment will always be the first moment she made a name for herself.
“Our first home meet our sophomore year — that was the last home meet we had at the Fieldhouse ever — and I broke the school record that first time indoors,” Grabowska said. “And then I jumped the outermark to qualify for nationals. There is actually a video on Youtube of me jumping around all happy and celebrating.”
The pole-vaulting passion Grabowska discovered when she was 15 years old will remain with her beyond her USU career, she said. After she completes her master’s degree, there is one place she has her mind set on going — New Zealand.
“My dream is to keep training and compete at the Olympic games,” Grabowska said. “Hopefully, one day I will train professionally in New Zealand. I would qualify for Poland.”
Grabowska said she couldn’t have become the athlete and person she is without her teammates, trainers, doctors and, especially, her coach Gregg Gensel.
“There are several types of athletes,” Gensel said. “There are the ones that have talent and use that to get by, and then there are the ones that don’t have a lot of talent and work really hard. Then there are the ones that have a lot of talent and work very hard. That’s where she is at.”
By CATHERINE BENNETT
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