It was ecstasy.
Bethany Buell popped off the mat, leapt into the air and raced to her coach. The University of South Dakota’s pole vaulting pride and joy had just done the unimaginable. She won the national championship.
Buell cleared 14 feet, 7.25 inches on her final jump to tie the NCAA record and give her the crown.
She hugged Derek Miles, her pole vault coach, a three-time Olympian and, until this moment, the best vaulter to compete for the Coyotes. None of this would have been possible if not for Miles. His savvy and experience in the training room and the runway combined with Buell’s desire, work ethic and pain tolerance were an unstoppable force at Friday’s NCAA national championships at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
But it was a moment that nearly never happened. It was a championship that could have dissipated with every obstacle that landed in Buell’s path.
Instead, the 2009 Summit graduate conquered them, one by one.
It was agony.
Bethany Buell knew something wasn’t right. It’d been three weeks and her left shoulder was still giving her fits. After the training staff took a deeper look at her wounded wing, they discovered she’d suffered a tear to one of her ligaments and possibly tore her labrum. No one would know for sure about the depth of her injury until she had surgery.
And she was going to need surgery, the only question was when. Have it now in April and be back to full strength in the fall or wait until the summer and see what the last few weeks of the season held in store.
“They told me, ‘You will need surgery. It’s up to you if you want to keep vaulting,’” the 5-foot-4 Buell said. “They figured, if we strengthened the muscles around it, then it would be structurally sound. And if the pain wasn’t that bad, I could finish out the season.”
During her career at Summit as a two-time Class 4 champion, Buell had her share of bumps and bruises, but was never forced under the knife. Buell wanted to keep going, but only if she could maintain a certain level of excellence. The third-place finisher at the national championships the year before, Buell had set the bar high for herself this time around. She didn’t want to put her summer and fall in jeopardy for a half-hearted spring.
“The issue was ‘can continue to vault at a high level like I was?’ I didn’t want to continue the season if there was no shot at me placing well at nationals or a PR or something like that,” Buell, 21, said. “(Miles and I) had a sit down and a serious conversation if that was achievable. I knew that’s what I wanted. I knew I could grind through it. Is it going to be worth something? I didn’t want to go through two months of pain and physical therapy and postponing the surgery for a season that’s not going to result in anything.”
With Miles and the medical staff on the same page, Buell began a grueling training regimen that focused on strengthening the muscles around her shoulder to compensate for the torn ligament. With just two months before the national meet, time wasn’t on their side.
“She was diligent. She did two to three hours of therapy in the training room before she jumped and after she jumped. That’s the kind of person she is,” Miles said. “She does anything and everything to get the job done.”
Buell started slow. The day they gave her the shoulder brace she would wear to train and compete, she grabbed the smallest pole she could find and went to work.
The transition from vaulting healthy to vaulting hobbled was tough. The first few days, the pain was a problem. But she quickly figured it out.
“After the first day or two of doing small drills and vaulting it started to get better,” she said. “It got stronger and it got better.”
The training and therapy routine she was put through by Miles was borderline masochistic. His goal was to have her as strong, fast and agile as possible. They went hard for a three-to-four-week cycle that pushed Buell’s fitness to the limit.
“For three, four weeks we pounded her,” he said. “We did sprint work, we did core work, we did as much lifting as we possibly could to take some pressure off the shoulder, but also some leg squats to really get her strong.”
Just as all appeared well, Buell suffered another setback.
“Right after we came out of that cycle, she was doing a sprint workout and twisted her ankle really hard,” Miles said. “Now, we can’t run for a week to 10 days. That was the week of conference. You take a hit in the shoulder and then you take away the other stuff.
You wonder, ‘Is this really getting worse?’”
Before Buell and Miles embarked on this journey they agreed, if she couldn’t clear 14 feet before the regional meet, then they would shut it down. That was the benchmark she had to clear to give herself a shot at a special season.
Despite the shoulder and the ankle, Buell cleared 14 feet at practice before the regional meet.
She was off to compete at nationals.
Derek Miles was beside himself.
The South Dakota assistant track coach spent the past seven seasons working with the jumpers and pole vaulters. Never before had this happened at a competition. And this isn’t just any old competition.
His prize pupil is within a whisker of winning a national championship.
Bethany Buell spent the day jumping like nothing was ever wrong. Her shoulder and ankle injuries played nice and she was flying over the bar. Buell was going to win this national title. She just needed one thing to help her out.
It was the one thing Miles didn’t have.
Before the Coyotes left for the national meet, Miles ordered a new set of poles for the team. The newer poles were similar to their previous models, but had a little different design here and there that gave Miles and his team what they were looking for.
Only now he didn’t have what he was looking for.
With the national championship in the balance, Buell needed a bigger pole. Miles didn’t have a bigger pole.
“We were on the very last pole. When you order poles as a coach, you order up to the biggest pole we’re going to need. Unfortunately, that was my flaw. I ordered the biggest pole she’d ever been on in her life,” he said. “Shows you what I know, she ended up getting that last pole and jumping really great.”
Without the next pole, Buell had to make due with what Miles had brought her. Miles, who won the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials and then took fourth at the games in Beijing, gave Buell some modifications to her hand grip and foot placement to compensate for the small pole.
“What you have to do to slow the pole is bring the grip up, which creates more bend and slows that roll, cheat the step in and get kind of yanked off the ground,” he said. “The combination of those little tweaks tend to put your height in a different spot in the air. It worked out. Those little things are pretty common in the sport. Ideally, the best adjustment you can make is to tell her to go up to the next pole and make it by about three inches.”
Buell never made these types of adjustments on the fly. This was all new to her.
“It’s a good thing Derek knows the sport so well so we could make the adjustment of having too small a pole. It was not my favorite plan,” she said. “Ideally, we would have had the next biggest pole to jump on, but we didn’t have that. We made adjustments and hoped it worked.”
Buell gave it a go on her second attempt, but didn’t clear the bar. It all came down to her third and final attempt. Make it over and she was the champion. Miss it and she would be the runner-up.
She stood on the runway and processed all of this. The season that had started with championship hopes only to be sidetracked by a shoulder and then ankle injury. Now here she was with all the marbles on the table with a pole that was too short and an off-the-cuff plan to compensate for it.
“I definitely knew if I made it, I got first, and if I didn’t, I got second. That was definitely in my mind. At the same time, I didn’t want to set too high of expectations going into it, considering everything,” Buell said. “I was already happy that I had placed second. That was a good competition and I was happy for that. I had to do my best, stay calm and relaxed and focus on my technique. I knew if I did those things it would give me the best shot at making the bar.”
Buell said a prayer and raced down the runway.
Bethany Buell dreamed of this moment, though she never knew it would be such a nightmare to make it come true.
After finishing third at nationals last season, Buell was hungry for more. Maybe too hungry. She went into the indoor national championship meet with great expectations.
She walked out with different priorities.
“It was definitely a goal to become a national champion. Approaching indoor nationals, that was all that was on my mind,” Buell said. “I focused on the wrong things. I forgot about the technique and what I’d been working on. I wanted to win so badly, I didn’t even vault well at all. I ended up sixth and I had the worst meet of my season. I had to go into this with a completely different mindset.”
It was a mindset that refused to lose. Miles has had his share of glorious moments and been witness to countless others. But Buell’s success is among the best, if not the best, he’s been around.
“This is better than any of those. I think the reason for that is because she had gone through so much adversity this year,” he said. “Her being able to tough through everything this year, she is really a stud to be able to do all that. To go from almost the lowest of lows to the highest of highs, I didn’t ever experience that. That was really special to be a part of because she’s such a good kid and deserves it.”
There weren’t many days Buell allowed doubt to creep into her mind but, when it did, it was crippling. All the time, dedication and work could be lost with one shoulder ligament.
“There was a good week or so where I was pretty upset and emotional,” she said. “I didn’t know how much vaulting my shoulder was going to handle.”
With her national championship secured, Buell was scheduled for shoulder surgery this week. Miles said her ankle was to be examined again as it continues to bother her.
Buell will stay busy this summer as she rehabs and prepares for an early July wedding day. She and her fiancé looked into moving the honeymoon around because taking a vacation right after surgery is no picnic. But the timing of it all was just too complicated to switch up.
“We’ll make the best of it,” she said.
Her hope is to be near full strength in the fall, so she can join her teammates as they prepare for the following spring. Miles said the training in the fall and winter is where spring championships are made.
Champions, though, need more than training. They need heart. Buell showed what is possible by refusing to wilt in the face of adversity.
“Fortunately for us, she’s a really talented person. Mentally, physically, how she looks at the sport, it’s a total package thing,” Miles said. “When it all adds up, it doesn’t matter how many obstacles you put in someone’s way, they’re going to come to the top and she’s that type of gal.”