Laura Tieszen Kamarainen’s height was gymnastics’ loss and track and field’s gain.
A multiple state champion at Rapid City Stevens in gymnastics, the 5-foot, 10-inch Tieszen Kamarainen, then known as Laura Tieszen, knew her athletic future didn’t lie in the sport, so she gave pole vaulting a try.
On Nov. 3, Tieszen Kamarainen was inducted into the Western Carolina University Athletics Hall of Fame in track and field.
“I was fairly tall for gymnastics,” Tieszen Kamarainen said. “But gymnasts have the upside-down ability, which is perfect for pole vaulting.”
The rest, as they say, was history, especially as a collegiate track and field athlete.
Tieszen Kamarainen captured 13 All-Southern Conference accolades during her four-year Western Carolina track and field career between the pole vault, javelin and the pentathlon/heptathlon events.
“It was a cool shift for me. I didn’t see myself doing gymnastics past high school,” said Tieszen Kamarainen, who was the 2001 South Dakota all-around gymnastics champion and individual winner in floor exercise and balance beam. “Having a new sport was a really good outlet. Pole vaulting was so new and exciting at the time. It was scary for the first couple of times for sure, but as I learned more techniques, it became fun.”
Tieszen Kamarainen gradually learned the sport and she also did other jumping for the Raiders. While she placed well, she never won a track and field state title. Yet, she showed enough promise to get a scholarship in track and field at Western Carolina, located in Cullowhee, N.C.
“Women’s pole vaulting in general was fairly young; it had not been around long,” Tieszen Kamarainen said. “In high school, it was just in its second year. A lot of universities were looking for women pole vaulters.”
Tieszen Kamarainen said pole vaulting was her best event, although in the last couple years of her college career she also saw success in the other multiple events, especially the javelin. Her best vault at 13-feet, 1 ½ inches, is still a school and Southern Conference record.
“In the javelin, I enjoyed it because there is a lot of technique,” she said. “But not a lot of people had the background in the javelin, so we all came in at a level playing field. It was just athleticism. The hurdles weren’t necessarily my strength, but I also enjoyed that event.”
Tieszen Kamarainen’s athletic achievements at Western Carolina are impressive. She was a six-time Southern Conference champion in the pole vault, including three individual crowns split equally between both the indoor and outdoor seasons, while also claiming individual championships in the outdoor heptathlon and the indoor pentathlon in 2005.
She was a three-time conference Most Valuable Field Performer, earning the recognition in both the 2004 indoor and outdoor championships and again in the 2005 outdoor championships. Also during the 2004 outdoor championships, Tieszen Kamarainen collected a runner-up finish in the 2004 javelin throw en route to being named field MVP at the meet. She was also tabbed as WCU’s Female Student-Athlete of the Year in 2004.
Tieszen Kamarainen also dominated the conference indoor pole vault competition from 2003-05, winning the event three consecutive seasons. She additionally competed in the pole vault at the junior national level as a true freshman in 2002. She also held WCU’s record in the indoor pentathlon from 2004 until 2010, collecting 3,102 points.
Just being nominated for the school’s Hall of Fame was an honor, she said, as she was surprised with the whole process.
“I was unaware of who nominated me or how the process started. To get a call like that I feel old,” she said with a laugh. “I’m very humbled. It was a great opportunity to head back to the mountains and catch up with people I haven’t talked to in a while.”
She credits her coaches and teammates for her success, as well as an outstanding work ethic.
“To be recognized is recognition for the track and field program there,” she said. “It’s nice to know that the hours of hard work, practice, preseason training, weight training and things like that, paid off. I guess people appreciate your dedication and hard work.”
Tieszen Kamarainen is in her second year as a fourth-grade teacher at Pinedale Elementary in Rapid City. Before moving back to South Dakota, she spent five years as a teacher in Tampa, Fla., where she met her husband, Steve Kamarainen.
Last year Tieszen Kamarainen spent a couple of days a week as a volunteer coach at her high school alma mater, something she said she wouldn’t mind doing more in the future.
“I think in the future it would be nice to help more full-time,” she said. “For now, it’s just a part-time thing. But you never know what the future holds. I’ve always wanted to be involved in athletics.”
With a Hall of Fame résumé, that’s easy to see.