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IF YOU CAN’T GET THROUGH IT, GO OVER IT: Stady Dragila
By Kim Goss
Published: Fall 1999
Nearly every sport has its weirdos. Well, maybe not weirdos, but people who perhaps march to a slightly different drummer than the rest of us. In football, there are the kickers who drive their teammates nuts with elaborate pre-performance rituals and superstitions. Then there are the hockey, soccer and team handball goalies who take special satisfaction in blocking shots with their face. In track and field, there’s a whole range of personalities, from the high-strung sprinters and easy going throwers to the introspective distance runners. But I know of only one sport where all it’s star athletes are a breed apart: pole vaulters.
Pole vaulters are the daredevils of track, racing down a narrow runway at top speed so that they can fling their bodies often as high as 20 feet straight up. And once their flight has reached it’s zenith, they will contort their bodies over a crossbar and then trust their fate to an enormous box of foam that is usually reserved for packing grandma’s fine china. Tell me that doesn’t sound just a little bit wacko? But whatever the reason, until recently only men could pole vault. Now, thanks to a worldwide movement to make sports gender-equal, women with a no-fear disposition can participate in this strange twilight zone of athletics. Enter Stacy Dragila.
Dragila (rhymes with tequila), is America’s most accomplished female pole vaulter. She holds the American record in both the indoor (14’ 7 1/2”) and outdoor (14’ 10 3/4”) events, won the 1997 Indoor World Championships with a height that tied the world record, and is our best hope for a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Despite her success, she saw herself more as a Gabrielle Reece than a Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
“I really love volleyball, “ says Dragila. “I was a a hitter, and I really liked the aggressive play.” She also said the idea of being in a team sport and being able to bond with other athletes attracted her to the sport. “You have to be a team-oriented person in volleyball and willing to trust other people. I also liked track, but I always wanted to go into college and play volleyball.”
Dragila was able to play volleyball when she attended Yuba Community College in Yuba, California, but showed more promise in track. She excelled in the heptathalon, and like Olympic Gold Medalist, Dan O’Brien, who competes in the men’s version of this event, Dragila was especially strong in the hurdles. Her success didn’t go unnoticed, and in 1993 she left her home town of Auburn, California, with a track scholarship to Idaho State University in Pocatello. “You know, I always loved the mountains,” says Dragila when asked why she decided to move to Idaho. “I had lived in California all my life, and I wanted to get away.”
Although recruited as a heptathlete, when Dragila came to Idaho in the spring of 1993 her coach, Dave Nielsen, encouraged her to try the pole vault. “I heard that the women in Europe had been doing it for the past three to four years. My coach, being a pole vaulter himself, said, “We should try this, because I bet it’s going to become an event quicker than you think.”
Because she had only two years of eligibility as a college athlete left, Dragila had her doubts that the sport would take off before she graduated. “I asked myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I thought that although I would always participate in sports, my career in track and field would be over when I was done with college. But my coach just kept encouraging me to stay with it.”
With the enthusiastic support of coach Nielsen, Dragila and several of her fellow heptathletes played around with the pole vault on their light workout days. “You know, pick up a pole and just kind of run with it, getting comfortable carrying the pole. I think that’s the first thing that athletes often have a problem with--just getting used to coordinating your running while holding the pole,” says Dragila.
Pole vaulters are considered daredevils, and consequently the question Dragila is most often asked about her event is if she’s a risk taker. “They ask me, ‘Are you daring? Do you also jump off bridges?’ The answer is no, I’m not a daredevil. When I was introduced to the pole vault everything we did was performed as safely as possible. It wasn’t just, ‘grab this big ole’ stick, run down that track and hold on tight and see where you go!” My coach gave me progressive drills. I stayed on the ground a lot, especially at the beginning. Then we progressed to ‘we’re going to just plant it into the box, and stay on your feet and land in the pit.’ I never felt that I was totally out of control.”
When she started to leave the ground, Dragila admits that she had some apprehension. “When I started to go upside down, that scared me. But then, luckily, my coach’s wife owned a gymnastics gym about two blocks from our university. She had trampolines and high bars, and coaches who would teach her how to develop spatial awareness so that I wasn’t flipping around like a fish out of water. Those coaches knew what they were doing, knew how to spot, and got me comfortable turning over in the air and teaching me how to land so that I wouldn’t get injured.”
The easygoing pole vault practices, however, soon lost their appeal. “We felt like we were never gaining any ground because we were always training for these other events, and we had to concentrate on these events because that’s what our scholarship was for--not the pole vault.” As such, her teammates eventually gave up on the experiment and concentrated on the scholarship events. But not Dragila.
Although she was putting in time with the pole vault, Dragila was still able to perform impressively in the heptathalon. By the time she finished her final year at Idaho State with a degree in physical education and health, she owned five school records and placed second in the 1995 Big Sky Championships. It was at this time that she was able to focus on serious training for the pole vault, and on Jan 13, 1996 in Pocatello, she set an indoor American record, 12’11 3/4”, her first of many to come.
The following year was the Olympics, and even though the women’s pole vault was not yet approved as an Olympic event, Dragila was able to participate in the Trials on April 20 in Lawrence, Kansas. She really put on a show, setting an American record of 13’6 1/2”. Although she didn’t get to compete in the Olympics, she did get to compete in the European circuit that summer. The following year she continued her steady progress and won the World Indoor Championships with a mark of 14’ 5 1/4”, a vault that tied the world record.
To fulfill her potential and achieve her goal of winning the Olympics, Dragila decided to stay in Pocatello to train under Nielsen and work towards a masters degree in health education at ISU. She also works as an assistant track coach, training the vaulters and heptathletes. Her husband, Brent, is also an ISU student, majored in criminal justice and sociology.
One of her major competitors is Emma George of Australia, a former circus acrobat, who is the current world record holder at 15’ 1 1/4”. With the Olympics being held in George’s home country, Dragila knows she needs to work even harder to bring home the gold. To win it, she says it will probable take vaulting as high as 16 feet, which she thinks is definitely within her reach by then.
You Can Do. . . .
Just as Dragila’s vaulting ability has improved, so has the popularity of the event. “I had heard that high school girls were starting to do it in California, and a couple states were trying to push it.” She also heard that many athletes were considering going to court about it because the schools thought they couldn’t afford the sport and the injury factor was too high. “But the gals thought, ‘Hey the guys are doing it, why can’t
Stacy Dragila (rhymes with tequila), is America’s most accomplished female pole vaulter and hopes for a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Photo © Tony Duffy: TSI
Stacy flying high.