Stacy Dragila, who won the first women’s Olympic pole vault gold medal in 2000, visited Arizona four years later and attempted to break a world indoor record on a January afternoon.
Here’s what I reported that day for the Arizona Daily Sun:
By Ed Odeven
Stacy Dragila refuses to believe she can’t do something. When she first took up pole vaulting as a hobby a decade ago, it was a diversion for her and some Idaho State female teammates, something to do when they weren’t training for the heptathlon.
Though she quickly developed a fondness and passion for the sport, Dragila heard the discouraging voices; men told her women don’t have the upper-body strength to be successful pole vaulters.
Boy, how she’s proved them wrong. Dragila rapidly developed into an elite-level competitor, one who has shattered the world record many a time.
Saturday, Dragila showcased that world-class form while winning the women’s pole vault competition at the Springco NAU Invitational at the Skydome. She vaulted 15 feet, 5 inches, a scant few inches shy of her American indoor record of 15-8.25.
Much to the delight of the crowd, Dragila attempted to set a world record at 15-10. But she failed to clear the bar on three attempts. (Others have attempted similar feats in Flagstaff: On Feb. 9, 2002, Canadian Mel Mueller attempted to surpass the then-world indoor record of 15-5 at the Mountain T’s Invitational at the Skydome.)
“You have to be patient,” the 32-year-old Dragila said. “It’s a long year. It wasn’t about coming up here and breaking a world record; it was about coming up here and executing the things I’ve been working on in practice.”
Indeed, those are the words of a perfectionist.
Dragila, who moved from Pocatello, Idaho, to Paradise Valley last spring to train on a full-time basis in a warmer climate, has a name synonymous with astounding athletic accomplishment, especially historic achievements. Consider:
* She won the first-ever women’s world indoor pole vault competition in 1997.
* Two years later, she won the first-ever women’s outdoor pole vault title at the IAAF World Outdoor Championships in Seville, Spain.
* And she won the inaugural women’s pole vault competition at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.
“What an awesome experience,” a smiling Dragila said, about what it was like to win the gold medal in Australia. “To be on the podium and know I was the first one to receive a gold medal for the women’s pole vault, I didn’t want to get off the podium. Everyone was screaming and yelling and I’m like, ‘This is my moment. This is it. This is what I’ve worked my last eight years to achieve — this medal.’
“It was just so much fun.”
RISE TO STARDOM
Don’t think, not even for a second, that Dragila was immediately a superstar vaulter.
There was a King Kong-sized detail — fear of heights — that was a major stumbling block in the early days.
“The first couple trillion times trying to go over the bar were frightening for me,” recalled Dragila, whose outdoor personal record (15-8) is second all-time behind Russian Yelena Isinbayeva’s 15-9. “I was terrified to go upside down.”
So what was the phobia-buster for her?
Well, she began training in gymnastics at a gym near the Pocatello campus, where the wife of her ISU coach Dave Nielsen served as a coach.
“I think that really helped me become comfortable upside down on the pole,” Dragila said. “It just gave me a lot of upper-body strength that I didn’t have.”
Nowadays, gymnastics are an integral part of Dragila’s weekly workout routine — doing handstands and the use of high bars, rings, etc. all help her maintain her strength. Usually, Mondays and Wednesdays are “jump days,” with the focus being pole vaulting. Tuesdays are her “multi-event days,” when she incorporates long jumps and hurdles into her workout. Thursdays are generally reserved for jogging, stretching and going to a gymnastics club.
Dragila is considered America’s fastest female pole vaulter, and as she dashes down the runway, you notice her graceful, explosive stride.
Speed helps, she said, but it’s not the most important thing.
“It’s not necessarily about being fast,” Dragila explained. “It’s about being consistent, and being able to maintain that speed. If you’re just fast and you can’t put up a jump, it’s like (sprinter) Marion Jones — she struggles so hard with the long jump. She’s so fast, but if she can’t set up a jump, she’s really going to struggle in the long jump.”
Over the next several months, Dragila will work on fine-tuning her technique in preparation for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Up next for her is the Boise Invitational on Saturday, followed by the Boston Indoor Games Jan. 31. Then it’s the prestigious Millrose Games Feb. 6 in New York City.
Last year, Dragila hired a new coach, Greg Hull, who also instructs Arizona native and reigning men’s Olympic gold medalist Nick Hysong. She said the change will be beneficial in the long run.
“I just have to be patient and I know that the heights will come,” Dragila said. “I’m really excited. I’m healthy. I’m putting my technique together.
“I think it’s really going to help me get to the next heights that I want to see,” she added. “I think we’d like to start off with 16 feet, and then anything after that is always a special place to go. The ultimate goal is 17 feet out there for me. I’ll just keep chipping away at it, it’s like climbing a mountain.”
Though Dragila didn’t start pole vaulting until she was 23, she hasn’t wasted any time securing her place in the annals of American sports history.
Even so, Dragila dismissed the notion that she’s a pioneer.
“I think when I retire I’ll recognize the things I’ve done for the sport or the things that I’ve accomplished,” she said. “But right now, like anybody else who has goals, my focus is this: to work on my technique, make it back to the Olympics and go for another gold medal. And after that, maybe I’ll sit down and go, ‘Wow, it’s been a long time. What have I accomplished?’ It’s been fun but I try not to think about those things.”
There’s plenty of time for Dragila’s contemporaries to ponder such thoughts.
Just ask April Steiner, who trains with Dragila in Paradise Valley.
“She’s a great ambassador for our sport. Everybody loves her,” said Steiner, a Mesa native. “She just never stops. She’s always pushing it. The girls have been chasing her for the last five years; it’s always out of reach. We just can’t get her.”