Katie Nageotte - becoming Olympic champion



Katie Nageotte, Tokyo Olympic gold medalist, pole vault, photo by Stuart Weir

If you did not see the women's pole vault at the Tokyo Olympics, then, go back and check it out. Many of the finest women athletes were there, and the competition was riveting. Katie Nageotte went from almost not clearing a height to winning the gold in a spectacular competition.

This is a column by Stuart Weir after an interview with Katie Nageotte. I have added a link to an interview done on RunBlogRun on Katie Nageotte at the end of the article.

Katie Nageotte - becoming Olympic champion

I first met Katie Nageotte in the transit lounge in Abu Dhabi, when we were both on our way to the Doha Diamond League. Waiting with her at the luggage carousel was my first introduction to the anxiety of the travelling pole vaulter as to whether the poles had made it to the destination intact. As I have got to know her more over the years, my fascination - dare I say obsession - with the intricacies of pole vault have grown. Thanks, Katie, for the education and for your time for this interview.

2021 was certainly an eventful year for pole-vaulter, Katie Nageotte. She caught Covid and struggled with lingering symptoms, then her poles got broken and she got food poisoning two weeks before leaving for Tokyo. Oh, and she won the Olympic gold medal before "no-heighting" at the Diamond League Final.


Katie Nageotte, photo by British Athletics

From mid-May to Tokyo her record was competitions five, wins five. The secret of her consistency, she told me, was good coaching and hard work. "I think what it came down to was the training we got in last year. When everything shut down, we were very fortunate to keep training. We were in our own little bubble. I was lifting weights in my garage. The training facility we were using was an old abandoned factory warehouse. A couple of us would go in, vault and leave. We were really lucky for that allowed me to get the repetitions done, repetitions on the runway, getting rid of the bad habits that I still had. A huge part of it was just getting the numbers in. I have always been better after a pre-season and this was just one long pre-season.

I also think that my poles breaking and changing brands to ESSX was the best thing for my vaulting. The new poles are perfect for me but I wouldn't have given them a shot, if that had not happened. And that's not to say that my original poles are bad. Just when we're all fighting for centimeters, these poles are perfect for me".

As Tokyo was Katie's first Olympics, she had no "normal" Olympic experience to compare it with. "I knew what to expect going in. So for me it is a case of the Games are still going ahead and I will take that, however it happens. In some ways it was better that I couldn't get distracted because I think, if I had been able to go to other events and other sports, I might have done that, which could've taken me away from resting. I chose to be excited and happy to be there so I wasn't frustrated with the circumstances. Perhaps if I'd been to a previous Olympics it would've been a let-down. I was just happy to be there".

The qualifying looked straightforward as she cleared 4.55 first attempt but there was more to it. The rain came on heavily and the officials decided to cut short the qualifying competition for safety reasons, rather than making the 15 athletes on 4.55 jump off for 12 places. Even then it was not without drama with Sandi Morris, Katie's friend and team-mate, being hurt and not making the final.

Katie recalls: "It was a pretty crazy day but thankfully Brad [her coach] sat me down before we left because his Olympic experience wasn't great. There had been delays and it affected him. So he sat me down and said 'anything and everything that can go wrong - can go wrong today. So be ready for anything'. Because it's the Olympics you expect things to be perfect but that's usually not the way it goes so I'm really happy he had that talk with me.

"When I picked up my poles, I felt the rain. That gave me the urgency to think 'you really have to make this bar with this attempt because it looks as if the rain is going to pour'. And it did. So I was very grateful that I didn't have to jump again after the rain delay. Lots did and that takes a lot of mental toughness - to sit there, nervous, on edge and with the added pressure of the long wait, cooling down and having to warm up again. Had there not been the rain delay I think I would've had to jump again but I think the officials just felt it wasn't worth doing another bar just to eliminate three girls. So the rain worked in my favour but it was a chaotic day".

In the final, her quad was tight and grabbing as she did her warm-up. "I wasted a lot of trips down the runway just trying to loosen up my leg. So it wasn't my normal intentional warm-up. But it seemed like the perfect representation of what my year was like". She started with two failures at 4.50. At that point an Olympic gold medal seemed a long way off! When she cleared 4.50, she realized that her two failures were in effect the warm-up she had not had. She cleared 4.70 (second attempt) followed by 4.80 and 4.85 (first attempt) by which stage there were only 4 ladies left - but Katie was in third place because of her earlier failures. "When I cleared 4.80", she continues, "that was the moment while I really felt myself again"

4.90 proved to be her winning jump and by that point her confidence was back: "I had jumped 4.93 and cleared 4.90 several times in 2021. I'd like to think it's not a coincidence. I think that was why in Tokyo when it went to 4.90, I wasn't thinking 'this is a high bar' but 'let's get back on the runway'. It doesn't always happen but in theory you know how to make your body clear that height of a bar. Whether you do it or not at a different story, but at least I knew what to do to clear the bar. And what to tell my body to do.


Katie Nageotte, Anzelika Siderova, Holly Bradshaw, 2021 Tokyo Olympics, photo by Stuart Weir

Of becoming Olympic champion, she said: "Very surreal. It still hits me in waves. As an athlete there's always something bigger, always something better, there's always an athlete better than you. The Olympics is the biggest meet and to think that I won it. There was a bit of a disconnect there. No way! I'm just me. I'm not that special. It's so big that it's hard for me to grasp that.

"Growing up, it was these larger than life, extras-special superstars, they are not human. So for me to have done that feels so surreal because - I'm just me. Obviously, I am good at what I do but I don't feel extraordinary or superhuman or anything like that. I'm just a girl who loves to pole vault and is lucky that God gave her the ability to be good at it.

"There's also relief that I did it. All the work that I put in. I think everyone is a little afraid that they will come up short so there's just that relief 'you did it'. I achieved the goal and it's pretty amazing".


Katie Nageotte, Muller Indoor Birmingham, photo by British Athletics

2022 is a big year with (probably) a World Indoors and definitely a home World Championship. Paris 2024 is also in her plans: "That it is only three years away makes it too hard to pass up. I would like to defend my title and I also think that I'm still getting better. I haven't quite peaked yet. Look at Isenbayeva and Jenn Suhr - if you can stay healthy and if you're enjoying it, you can still be competitive in your thirties. I recognize, too, that I am at a stage where I have to be conscious of how my body is feeling".

There is lot more to come for Katie Nageotte!

Check out the Socialing the Distance we did in February 2021 on Katie Nageotte: https://www.runblogrun.com/2021/02/socialing-the-distance-featuring-katie-nageotte-pole-vaulter.html

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