Raising the Bar

ND Students reached new heights at the 30th National Pole Vault Summit


The competition was held in the Livestock Event Center, an arena known for its Roping Classics, Arabian Horse Shows, and national monster truck rallies. We fit right in.

I get two responses when I first tell people I pole vault. 

The first: “What is that?” 

To which I reply, accompanied by some sort of dramatic, explanatory charade: “The thing where you take the thing and then go over the other thing.” 

And I see something click. Their eyes widen, or perhaps they gasp a little, or maybe they exclaim, “Oh, that!” and proceed to accompany me in my dramatic, explanatory charade. And possibly, if they’re feeling particularly conversational, they’ll add in a “wow!” or a “you do that?” or some other fun, enthusiastic phrase—you get it. 

These are nice people. They have empathy. They have feelings. 

Then there’s the other type of people. They already know what pole vault is. You don’t need to tell them. There is no need for a dramatic, explanatory charade in the middle of a classroom, restaurant, or other public place where normal people are doing normal things that don’t involve track and field re-enactments. 

“That’s so cool/great/awesome!” The other type of people will exclaim, but I’m not phased—I’ve seen this all before. There will be someThe competition was held in the Livestock Event Center, an arena known for its Roping Classics, Arabian Horse Shows, and national monster truck rallies. We fit right in. talk, some questions, and the subject will pass. I’ll forget about it and so will they. We’ll forget about it, that is, until a few weeks later; when out of nowhere, they’ll send me a TikTok of a vaulter snapping a pole and landing on their head. 

Amazing! Thank you so much for that. Very motivating.

The 30th National Pole Vault Summit offered a break from all that nonsense—and a wonderful opportunity to grow with people who love this niche sport just as much as I do. Along with Anaïs Dherbecourt ‘23, Cooper Bigley ‘22, and our librarian-All-American-athlete-coach extraordinaire, Molly Pearlman ‘11, I flew to Reno, Nevada for the annual event. 

What I would see and learn in the next few days was nothing like I’d ever experienced before. First off, I had never been in a room where the amount of pole vaulters exceeded four or five. Then suddenly, I was thrown into a hotel—and subsequently, an arena—with over a thousand others, all laughing and chatting about things like “four step drops,” “swing up racks,” and “bungee PRs.” (These are terms I have chosen intentionally to be confusing to the average reader, to emphasize how weird this thing we do is. You’re welcome.) 

Katie Nageotte, gold medalist at the 2020 Olympics, was the keynote speaker at the assembly that kicked off that first day. She spoke with poise, confidence, and intense humanity. I had to blink away tears a few times, a fact I’m only sharing because I am a true believer in honest journalism. 

Afterwards, the high school girls went to talk in small groups with the elites. The elites are the state record holders, the national champions, the Nike-sponsored, and the olympians. They eagerly answered questions and gave advice from their years of training and competition, from the technically specific to the deeply personal. Their stories were intended to motivate and inspire us, and I can confidently say they did just that. 

For my teammate, Anaïs, Jacqueline Williams, Ph.D., struck a particular chord. By most definitions, William’s was not an exceptional pole vaulter in high school, but she returned to the sport later in life—equipped with an impressive organic chemistry doctorate—and excelled beyond anyone’s expectations. 

“She was the most real out of all of them for me,” Anaïs explained. “She addressed some of the mental blocks that I’ve faced personally, and she tackled them in a way that made me feel like I could also overcome them.” 

So now that the next generation of stick jumpers was newly galvanized, it was time to hit the pits. We were separated into groups based on our personal records (PRs), and paired with coaches from across the country. Along with its awe inspiring heights and mind-bending agility, pole vault is characterized by its mental blocks, and the coaching aspect is no different. For me, learning under a different teaching style for just a few hours provided the necessary perspective for some unexpected breakthroughs. 

That following evening brought team bonding, an overcrowded hot tub, getting lost in the casino, coach lectures, lots of elevator trips, getting lost in the casino, the infamous Starbucks line, passionate retellings of the day’s events, and did I mention getting lost in the casino?       

We couldn’t be wandering around disoriendently for too long, however, because the next day was chock-full of competition—and the most unfortunate of us had a 5:00 AM call time. It was hard to rest with all the excitement and nerves of my first ever Summit looming over my head, but the day had me wonderfully exhausted, and I was asleep soon enough. And since my group was in the late afternoon, I was able to wake up slowly, enjoy a relaxing morning, and watch my friends jump. 

One of those friends was Cooper Bigley, who won his competition (his first ever!) and vaulted the best he had in his ENTIRE LIFE that morning. He credits part of his performance to the environment that Reno creates: “The energy was something that I’ve never experienced before; it was positive, encouraging, and honestly unreal. Seeing all these people vaulting…you just wanted to do better, to be the best you could be. And that’s exactly what I did.”

When I asked exactly how he did it, he generously reported that he “ran fast and jumped high.” Spoken like a true vaulter!

Soon, it was my turn. Unfortunately, I did not have as great of a day; I struggled immensely during my competition. The control and strength I had felt during practice a day earlier slipped through my fingers, and I missed my first bar three times—a universally painful experience known as a “no height.” It was definitely frustrating and even embarrassing, but Coach Pearlman remained stolidly supportive the entire time. After all, she’s been going to Summit since 2008; there isn’t much she hasn’t seen. 

Pearlman’s first Summit was thirteen years ago, her freshman year here at Notre Dame. Just like Cooper, it was her first competition ever, and in the years since she’s seen her fair share of ups and downs. She’s had PRs and breakthroughs, but also rough competitions, difficult circumstances, and even a life-threatening car accident on the drive up. Not every year has been perfect, but every year has shown her something new. She detailed, “It’s really just taught me that there’s more to the sport than just competition and your results. Every year, I come back more inspired and excited leading up to the season than I am when I first get there.”

So with energizing leadership, incredible coaching, efficacious experience, renewed confidence, and fond memories, the pole vaulters of Notre Dame are launching into the 2022 track season with a vigor like no other. The 30th National Pole Vault Summit is just the beginning—we will continue to reach for new heights, trying and failing until we finally succeed. Oh, and please, stop sending us traumatizing TikToks.