MUNDELEIN — When she walked off the track after finishing 10th at the 2010 IHSA state track meet, Carmel Catholic graduate Stephanie Richartz was convinced she was done with the sport.
“I didn’t think I was good enough to go on to college and compete at that level,” she said. “I thought that would be the end of it.”
Little did she know that her track career was just beginning.
During that summer, her high school pole vaulting coach, Tom Hickey, encouraged her to give it a try at the University of Illinois.
“He said that he saw a lot of potential in me,” Richartz said. “He told me no matter how much I might hate pole vaulting right now, I had to give it another try.”
Two years later, the results speak for themselves. This spring, Richartz was a champion at the Big Ten’s outdoor conference meet, after placing 12th at the NCAA Division I Indoor Championships, and earning second-team All-America honors. Richartz established a new school record in pole vault at 14-2¾.
Earlier this summer, she was selected to represent Team USA at the 2012 North American Central American Caribbean U23 Championships, held in Irapuato, Mexico.
“My dad has been telling me since I was young that I’m capable of so much more than I think,” she said. “I thought he was just saying it because he was my dad. Now, I believe him.”
Illinois assistant coach Mike Erb chuckled when asked to put in perspective what Richartz has accomplished over the last two years.
“It has been a pretty dramatic improvement,” he said. “We knew that she would improve, and you hate to put limits on your athletes, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted it would be this fast. She’s exceeded all expectations.”
In the air: Richartz participated in gymnastics for three years in high school. While her 5-foot-7 frame was a slight liability in gymnastics, the sport proved to be great training for her pole vaulting.
“I learned so much about body awareness and (being comfortable) in the air,” she said. “It made pole vaulting easier because I knew where my body was in the air.”
When she went out for track as a freshman, though, pole vaulting was not on her radar.
“The coaches suggested I try it, and I’m always up for a challenge,” she said. “I thought it would be fun.”
She proved to be a quick study, and really began to emerge her sophomore year. She qualified for State as a junior and as a senior.
Meteoric rise: In high school, Richartz used a technique in which she didn’t bend the pole. That promoted consistency, but limited how high she could jump.
At Illinois, she was quickly taught to bend the pole. Combined with intense training and weightlifting, Richartz began her ascent.
“Most people have a breakthrough and then level off for a while,” Erb said. “It is rare for someone to keep (improving) so consistently and regularly.”
Richartz earned a scholarship prior to her sophomore year. She has made it a point to enjoy the experience.
“(Initially), I was just along for the ride,” she said. “I never expected any of this to happen. I’m having so much fun.”
Richartz is starting to realize the possibilities that lay ahead. She proved to be among the nation’s best by qualifying for the Olympic Trials, held in Eugene, Oregon.
Richartz, who’s studying to be an industrial engineer, is interning at Deere & Company this summer. She only is able to train on the weekends, so her preparation for the Trials was less than ideal. Still, it was an experience she’ll never forget — and it left her hungry for more.
“Meets like this are the first step to the Olympic games and a professional career,” she said. “It was an incredible experience. It gave me chills.”
by: Bob Gosman