Linda Hadfield has no fear of flying.
When you have set the bar as high as she has, though, the taking off and the landing can be just as unnerving.
“A lot of pole vaulting is mental,” she said. “Physically, you can be able to do it, but there’s always that mental aspect, that fear factor, that can hold you back.
“You’ve got to conquer that fear.”
Hadfield has done that, and more.
Factoring out the fear and facing what pole vaulters commonly refer to as the “pit demons” has helped the University of Tennessee junior from Yorkville soar to school record-setting heights.
A week after opening the indoor track and field season with a personal-best vault of 12 feet, 7½ inches, Hadfield cleared the bar at 13-5¾ – breaking the Lady Vols’ 10-year-old record by more than 3 inches – at the Virginia Tech Invitational.
“It’s about being confident, making every practice count, and feeling more invested in it,” said Hadfield, she and teammate Erin Champion committing themselves to a more aggressive strategy. “We just wanted to set our standards higher. We wanted to be at a higher level, mentally.”
Nobody who knows the physical trials and tribulations Hadfield has endured can question her mental toughness, or her drive.
The former New York Mills star captured three state titles as a high school pole vaulter, and would have been favored to win another if not for a field hockey injury. Reconstructive knee surgery grounded her for most of that senior season, dashing nearly all hopes of a Division I scholarship offer.
“Yeah, that was a long winter,” said her father, Gary Hadfield. “It was a shock. She had all of these plans. That was a blow, but it just made her even more determined.
“A lot of it was just her guts and her determination. That (injury) was not going to get her down.”
Hadfield had made official NCAA visits to the University of North Carolina and Clemson University, and she also was considering Florida State. After the injury, when Tennessee – her first choice all along – was the only school still offering any scholarship help, “she couldn’t sign the paperwork fast enough,” her father said.
“The first time I went to Tennessee, I loved it; I felt like I really fit in,” she said. “And just the fact that they didn’t lose interest in me.”
That interest helped get her through the 16 to 20 weeks of rehabilitation and physical therapy, and she finished 10th at the Southeastern Conference Indoor Championships as a Tennessee freshman. In between the indoor and outdoor season, though, while practicing without a knee brace, the left leg gave out again, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament.
“I was freaking out,” Hadfield said. “I was like, ‘Mom, I can’t do this again!’”
But she did.
Not long after arthroscopic surgery and four weeks of rehab, Hadfield was setting Tennessee’s outdoor freshman record with a vault of 13-1¾ – good for sixth at the SEC Championships – and earning a spot on the conference’s All-Freshman Team.
The valedictorian of her senior class at New York Mills, Hadfield also made the All-Academic Team and received the James Snow Award, which goes to the outstanding academic Lady Vol freshman.
Hadfield’s sophomore year was highlighted by a fifth-place vault of 13-4¼ at the SEC Outdoor Championships and a first-ever trip to the NCAAC Outdoor Championships – she finished 20th with a height of 12-9½ – and the economics major was named the Female Scholar of the Year for University of Tennessee athletics.
A gymnast at an early age, Linda – the youngest of Gary and Diane Hadfield’s five children – was still in elementary school when she first saw her brother, Gary, pole vaulting.
“She used to watch him and say to me, ‘Dad, that looks like fun. Can I try it?’” her father said.
Linda’s first attempt at the pole vault came as a seventh-grader. A year later, in her first varsity track and field meet, she won four events, including the pole vault.
“She was always fast and was always fearless,” Gary Hadfield said. “She was the fifth of five kids, with three older brothers. She grew up in a family where she was the runt of the litter, so she had to be tough.”
Despite the ever-present knee brace – “Without it,” she said, “I run scared” – Hadfield is still fast, and as tough as ever.
At 5 feet, 4½ inches, Hadfield is shorter than most of her Division I peers, but she has been amazingly consistent this season. She cleared 13-2¼ and placed second at the Texas A&M Challenge and last weekend, tied for third place in the championship division with a mark of 13-5¼ – the second-best vault in Tennessee history – at the 12th annual Armory Collegiate Invitational in New York City.
Hadfield, whose school-record 13-5¾ currently ranks her fourth in the SEC and 14th nationally, would like to place in the top five at the conference meet, qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships, and clear 14 feet by season’s end.
Of course, on the way up, there will always be that “fear of getting out of your comfort zone,” she said. “But you don’t think of what can go wrong until something does.
“At a certain point, everyone is going to be afraid. The ability to put that aside, that’s what sets you apart.”