TAMPA — The typical pole vaulter’s pedigree is steeped in gymnastics. Show someone an 11-foot vaulter, and that someone will show you a nimble cheerleader, acrobat or pommel horse prodigy.
In that sense, Annie Harwig is atypical.
“That is not me,” the Tampa Catholic senior says with a chuckle.
The daughter of two U.S. Army colonels, Harwig was a frustrated midfielder in Austin, Texas, when maternal grandfather Jerry Don Johnson urged her to bypass futbol for the fringe sport in which he had excelled as a youngster.
“He vaulted 12 feet; it was back when they landed in sand,” Harwig said. “So he was like, ‘You’ve got to try pole vaulting.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know. Is that that thing where you jump with the stick?’ I was all scared.”
Three years later, fear has evolved into formidability. In her lone season at TC, Harwig has become the school’s record holder (11 feet) and a region champion.
Saturday at the University of North Florida, she’ll try elevating her way to a Class 2A state title. Harwig’s most daunting foe: Jacksonville Episcopal senior Emily Smithwick, the only vaulter to go higher than her at a region meet (11-8).
Then again, Harwig has competed in this eclectic, unnerving event long enough to realize once she slips on her black “mojo” socks and engages in her pre-vault prayer time with TC coach Arron Prather, anything can transpire.
“I don’t think there’s any question as to whether she’s going to win or not,” said Bob Leidel, president of the Tampa-based Florida Pole Vault Academy, with whom Harwig has trained since moving to Florida.
“We’re determining whether she’s going to jump 12-3 or 12-6, depending on things such as runway conditions, wind conditions. We jump it at practice all the time. …It’s just a matter of time before the practices come together and we do it at a meet.”
Harwig, 17, moved to Tampa last year when her mom — Col. Monica Harwig — took a job at MacDill as deputy commander, Joint Intelligence Central Command. Before that, she had spent 19 months in Afghanistan, unable to see her daughter’s athletic transformation in person.
Frustrated by her lack of playing time on the St. Michael’s Catholic Academy soccer team, Harwig had been prodded to give pole vaulting a try near the end of her freshman year. Armed with no full-time coach and only a bit of online research by her dad, she initially couldn’t clear your average chin-up bar.
“It was 6-foot-6, I remember,” said her dad, John Harwig, a retired lieutenant colonel. “Six-foot-6 and she couldn’t get over the bar and it was frustrating for her.”
But research and resilience led to a steady progression.
St. Michael’s volunteer coach Don Keller (“You name a field event, he can coach it,” John says) hooked Harwig up with a local pole vault club, which led to another run by University of Texas volunteer coach Brian Elmore.
By last spring, Harwig placed second (10-6) in the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools Class 5A meet. The evolution continued under Leidel, with whom she trains four days a week.
Roughly six weeks ago, at a small meet at Berkeley Prep, she hit 11 feet to eclipse the TC record held by Mari Ostrenko, who happened to be watching.
“She was getting me pumped. She was like, ‘Go to the bigger pole,’ ” Harwig recalled.
“I was trying to get 11 feet for almost a whole year. I was at 10-6, 10-6, 10-6 and then the moment I got 11 feet it was the most wonderful feeling because I had been working at it so hard.”
Hitting loftier goals, Leidel says, is merely a matter of finding the right standard, or distance the crossbar is set behind the plant box. In high school, the crossbar must be between 15 to 32 inches behind the box. “We haven’t quite adjusted correctly yet,” Leidel said.
If she hits 12 feet, Harwig, who has earned academic scholarship money to attend FSU, says she has been assured by Seminoles coach Bob Braman she’ll get a partial athletic scholarship. Harwig, who has forged a career of raised bars and set standards, would have it no other way.
“She’s got a lot of determination,” Leidel said.
By: Joey Knight