“Time to Dest: 3:05” is flashing on the screen mounted onto the seat-back in front of me. The number has been slowly shrinking for the last four and a half hours since takeoff. The wheels of this plane will touch down in New York, and from there I will proceed to hassle my way through customs with a 14-foot-7-inch-long bag of vaulting poles (yes, it’s as difficult as you imagine it to be) two suit cases, and a backpack. I will then make my way onto a flight to Atlanta and catch the last leg of my journey back to Fayetteville, Arkansas.
I have spent the last three weeks traveling through Europe, or shall I say “vaulting through” since I competed about every 2 to 4 days. I wanted to sit down and write more during my trip, but by the time I reached my bed at night I was too exhausted to have the motivation to do so… but here is the perfect opportunity…a long flight with time to kill.
My story begins in Eugene, Oregon, where I accomplished two dreams of mine: I signed as a professional athlete with Nike, and I placed second at USA’s, solidifying my position on the world team to represent my country in Beijing this coming August. I won’t go into detail there, being that I already wrote about that (see previous post). Since then, I have been on the “European circuit” as they call it. You see, for track athletes, the best place to make a living is Europe. Track fans in Europe are like American Football fans in the states.
Never in my life had I been approached by a mob of children wanting my autograph – until now.
Straight from Portland, I scrambled onto a plane to Paris (with all of my way too many belongings – I need to learn how to pack for these journeys). The longest I have ever flown for is about 5 hours – from East US coast to West. The flight to Paris wasn’t bad at all, about 7 hours. There is a 6-hour time change from the Bible Belt states to this place new to me called France. To my happy surprise, I acclimated to this change quite easily. I can’t sleep on planes, so after my long travel out there, I had been awake for nearly 20 hours. I arrived in Paris about 3 p.m. and exhaustion aside, my eyes widened when we finally pulled up to the hotel. There, one single block away, stood the Eiffel Tower.
I paused with all of my bags in the middle of the street (bad idea to do that in Paris, unless you desire to be flattened) and stared at it for a moment. I imagined what it must have been like for people to see it back when it was first erected. Their eyes had not seen what I have: skyscrapers, the Statue of Liberty, and cinematography that make real life seem so miniscule. No, they hadn’t seen any of that. The sight of the Eiffel Tower must have been completely mind-boggling… and it still is. I turned my modern eyes away from the wonder and toward the glass doors of the hotel. I sleepily checked in, and found my way up to the room (the elevator was seriously confusing to a half-asleep American) and I forced myself to stay awake until about 8:00 p.m. Once the sun had gone down enough for me to get away with calling it “night time” I finally allowed myself to go to sleep. I frustratingly could not figure out the weird outlets in the room, only the ones in the bathroom in which I left my phone to charge after informing loved ones that “yes, I finally made it”.
12 hours later, I heard someone fiddling with the door. “Oh yeah, I have a roommate,” I thought in my dizzy mind. I was extremely happy she didn’t come any earlier in the morning. I had almost made up the night of sleep that travels had neglected of my body.
I had three days to prep for my first competition. I needed to do my best to reset my circadian rhythm, which thus far had been going smoothly. I woke up the first day and felt fine, just a bit groggy. I had a good breakfast and a solid cup of coffee to kick start my brain. The few days following consisted of relaxing at the hotel, doing workouts, trying to figure out how to use the owl-eyed outlets (I made that name up for the funny looking circle with two black beady eyes for the plug to go into), and taking care of my body. Each day I felt just a little better than the previous one. I even got to do a little sightseeing. The hotel was not only by the Eiffel Tower, but a cool war museum where we saw Napoleon’s tomb, too. It was nice to get out of the hotel and see what was around me. I think checking out your surroundings is an important aspect of life.
After experiencing some interesting things with my new roomie…. I soon was competing in my very first professional and Diamond League meet (a very important series of professional track and field competitions).
I walked into the stadium of 42 thousand people with wide eyes. Was I going to see the World Cup? I had never seen this many people in a stadium so large to watch a track meet. Yes, I said 42 THOUSAND PEOPLE were watching. That is by far the most pairs of eyes I have had on me while vaulting…ever.
Was I nervous? Well, yes. I would be dead lying if I said no. It was a very surreal experience. The stadium was huge. It almost felt as if I was indoors because the stadium’s ceiling enveloped the stands hundreds of feet up, meeting in the middle at an oval opening, as if I was looking up out of the mouth of a giant monster as we competed in its depths.
The officials barely spoke English…and they didn’t call out who was up, on deck and “in the hole” as they say it in the USA. You “simply” had to keep track of who was ahead and behind you in the lineup. I use quotations on “simply” because I approached another vaulter who I had never met before and asked her how we were supposed to know when it was our turn… and she said “simply pay attention to where everyone is in line…”. Great. As if vaulting competitions didn’t already overwhelm my mind. Thoughts blaze through my brain; “Where should my standards go? What pole do I need to be on? Should I go up one yet? Shoot. Should I attempt the next bar first and then go up a pole? No, no. Coach usually has me go up if we are even considering the idea of it.” So now add in paying close attention to what order I am in, who is still in the competition and who goes out, instead of just listening for my name, which is the norm. It was one element that sounds like it would be, as she said, “simple”, but when you aren’t used to that, it truly does make things a bit more complicated.
Oh, and somehow I converted my mark on the runway about a meter off.
You know how we use those wonderful things called feet in America? No, not the ones we run on, but the ones that nobody else on the surface of the earth uses. Yeah, so I thought I was planning ahead when I converted my step from those funny feet to what the rest of the world understands – meters – until I did it incorrectly and earned myself a run-through in warm-ups.
I really hate run-throughs – especially in competitions. You have to wait in line forever for your turn… just to waste your jump away on a run-through.
Aside from the minor hiccups and rookie mistakes, I did just OK. I ended up jumping 4.53m/ about 14’ 10”. It’s really difficult for pole-vaulters to explain how we jump certain heights when explaining it to non-vaulters. I am going to assume most of those reading this having an understanding of the basics, but as a courtesy and an attempt to bring it more readers, let me elaborate a bit. I was unhappy with that mark because my PR at the time was 15’5.75” (a weird number because it was 4.72m which converts over oddly). I think I can speak for all vaulter when I say we are happy when we PR or come close to doing so…so jumping that height meant nothing to me. But what I took from that competition would help me along for the rest of my European adventure.
I assessed the situation. I knew that I was fresh off the plane and in a strange environment. No matter how tough we think we are, those things really do affect us. My mind was going 100 miles an hour, lights were flashing everywhere, and the jumbled up languages that I couldn’t understand put me in an odd state of mind. I took 6th at that competition against other girls who are also among the world’s very best. Even though I didn’t jump the heights I wanted to at that meet, I had to really take into consideration all of the elements that played a roll in my performance – and there were many. A positive note… I wasn’t used to walking away from a competition unhappy with my height but happy to be making some money at what I am doing. It was at a Diamond League meet in Paris, and that 14’10” make will cover my rent for two months. I have zero complaints about the amazing things life has presented me with. I traveled to Europe…for free. I competed in front of 42 thousand people…for free. I have access to the most amazing facilities and coaches at the University of Arkansas, where I blossomed into the athlete I am now…for free.
After the Paris meet, I competed in Sotteville, France, and then Rottach-Egern Germany. These first three meets all go into a category in which I call “rough”. My first meet was, well, I already talked about that one. My second meet in Sotteville I ended up jumping something like 4.40m/14’5 (I think…I honestly can’t really remember…) and the meet in Rottach I jumped my opening bar. 4.35m. Here comes the most difficult thing to explain to non-vaulters… I felt the best out of all the meets at the Rottach meet, where I jumped the lowest. How does that even happen? Well, there is this thing called “the pole is too small”. You need a stiffer pole to make your hips peak over the bar, not behind it. When the pole is too small, all of your height is in the back of the pit, and you have already taken the bar off before you have peaked.
Ah, the frustrations of the vault.
I was very down in the dumps after the Rottach meet. I felt like I had traveled all the way to Europe for nothing. After thinking these thoughts and having a good cry in the room (yes, I admit to crying frustrated tears and doing some angry sprints down the beautiful Bavarian streets around our adorable bed and breakfast…) I then knocked my head against the wall a few times and made myself come to the realization that today, the Rottach meet, was a GOOD JUMP DAY. How? I only jumped 4.35m…. a foot and a half UNDER my PR. How is that a good jump day at all? Well, I knew if I jumped exactly the same way but with a bigger pole in my hands, I would PR.
And that’s what I did at the very next meet…well, almost. I went to Luzern, Switzerland, through the beautiful and majestic Alps, and jumped 4.71m, just one centimeter shy of my personal best.
I simply have to include a couple pics from the bed and breakfast we stayed at in Germany…
So, going from being in tears and hitting my head against the wall to basicallg tying my best mark and winning my first meet on the European circuit. What did that feel like? It felt like a weight lifted off of my chest. I believed in myself again.
You know what really amazes me about sport? A single bad competition can get you down, three in a row can really get you feeling low, but once you have one good meet, it can pick you right back up. Your confidence level rises.
The fire burning inside you swells as if someone shot lighter fluid on a campfire. Hitting big performances re-instills the hunger for repeated success. As I have said before, jumping high is my drug. I am absolutely addicted.
Two days later, I competed in my fifth and last meet that I would do on that trip to Europe. And what did I do at that meet?
Hit a new PR of 4.76m/15’7.5”
There is this thing called rhythm that I would like to talk a little bit about. I have noticed that when I get in a groove, I have maybe two or three consecutive meets where I perform really well, and then I go on a little downslope for a meet or two. This trend not only happens in my career, but all athletes’ for the most part. When you hit big performances, it kind of shocks your nervous system. You go back down a little bit after you hit a huge peak of either one or a few performances. What goes up must come down, as they say…but then your body and mind learn from it and recover from the exhaustion and excitement of that performance, and work right on back up to an eventual new and even higher peak. What I am trying to say is you have to experience the lows in order to have the highs. Not only does it make sense when it comes to the science of the body and brain, but it also is what makes great achievements mean so much.
Another thing that gives me confidence is the amount of space between my body and that new PR. The first time I jumped 4.72m at the 2015 Outdoor SEC Championships, I felt a slight brush of the hip as I turned to go over the bar. When I jumped 72 in Lucerne, I had so much clearance over it that I go back and gawk as I watch the video. I knew it, too, and knew that the next meet I could jump even higher. Now, I go back and watch myself jump over 4.76 in Belgium and it looks like it was so easy. All I know is I put every ounce of my mental and physical energy into that jump. I was so determined when I stood on the back of that runway. I wanted so very badly to hit a new PR while still on my first trip to Europe. I ran down and nailed every mental queue I had been working on (I talk about mental queues in a previous post). Once I made the bar, all the emotion I had been storing inside during my sprint down the runway exploded out of me. I usually scream and yell when I hit a big jump. I can’t help it! It just feels so natural to yell like I’m going into battle!
People may laugh, but at least they can tell I am happy about the jump…
I will never forget the way I felt during that jump. Focused, determined, and confident. I am working on bottling that lethal combination to use in all competitions.
What happened after that? I went back to my hotel that evening and reflected on the entire trip. I saw so many amazing places.
I met countless professional athletes who I have watched and looked up to throughout my childhood growing up as a little track runner. I had some meets where my performances weren’t what I wanted, but I learned from them, and I moved on. In the end, I had two amazing competitions that will forever make my heart race when I think about them. Those are the days athletes live for.
I started writing this blog post a couple weeks ago, on a plane home from that trip. Since then, I have moved into a new apartment (two days of moving boxes in the 100 degree Arkansas heat), I have had the blessing of getting home to South Carolina to see my family (where I competed in Atlanta, GA…I jumped 4.50… remember the down-slope thing? The incline is on the way!), and now I am on another plane…heading to Japan. I will be there for a few days before I fly into Beijing to compete in the World Championships. Have I mentioned how cool it is to compete in that USA jersey? Ain’t nothing like it. Pardon my southern. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but all I know is I will think about my 4.76 jump. I will crave that next bar. I will give it all I got.
Next bar? 4.80m. Heck, let’s shoot for the stars while I’m at it. 4.90? Maybe at Worlds (hopefully), or maybe not, but I know it’s in me, and I am going to chase it like it’s my job. Oh wait…it is my job. I feel like I am the luckiest girl in the world.
To be continued after my Japanese/Chinese journey…. (Oh and I am going back to Europe for three meets after Worlds)… until then…
Thank you so much for reading this ridiculously long post.