In this piece, Dave Hunter writes about the 2021 Olympic gold medalist and 2022 World Champ indoor silver medalist Katie Nageotte. Katie speaks about the motivation to compete, overcoming her fears of competition, and how she prepared for the Tokyo Olympics in the crazy year that was 2021.
David Hunter will be sending us pieces each week, once again, and we are happy to see him back. Watch for his columns on Wednesday! And watch for David’s coverage of the NCAA Outdoor, US Champs and World Outdoors!
Katie Nageotte, 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials, photo by Kevin Morris / @kevmofoto
Vaulting Hot While Staying Cool
Olympic Gold Medalist Katie Nageotte Is A Steely Performer, by David Hunter
We’ve all seen it before: the game-winning field goal with no time left; the late-inning walk-off homer; the Game 7 buzzer-beater. Those game-ending come-from-behind victories comprise some of the most exciting moments in all of sport. And, yes, track & field has those electrifying moments as well: a stirring anchor leg; a torrid finishing kick; or a final round throw or jump that lifts a down-and-out field athlete to the top step of the podium. Katie Nageotte, USA’s Olympic gold medalist in the women’s pole vault, has been there. But she first had to travel a pathway that featured disappointment, courage, revamping, and self-confidence.
Katie Nageotte began showing great potential as a vaulter in high school, clearing 3.97m /13’¼” and winning the Ohio high school Division I state title. A high school performer that placed her among a handful of the top national prep vaulters in 2009, Katie was recruited by a number of the top track & field powers. “I definitely was recruited by really good schools,” notes Nageotte. “But I just knew that I couldn’t be that far from home.” The Olmsted Falls native eventually found her way to Ohio-based Ashland University where in her senior year she was the NCAA DII national vault champion both indoors and outdoors.
After graduation, Katie turned pro. Innately goal-oriented, the new professional became impatient with the pace of her progression. “When I didn’t make the [Olympic] team in 2016, that was kind of my sign that I had a really good day and I didn’t get what I had wanted. So that told me that I couldn’t do it by myself,” explains Nageotte who went on to make a move that has proved to be the critical turning point of her career. “I couldn’t [continue] to do what I was doing at the time. I needed a new change; I needed an entirely new situation.” Nageotte moved across the country to work under the guidance of Brad Walker, a two-time Olympian and former American record holder in the vault. “There was nothing really keeping me in Ohio so it was like, ‘OK, this is the right move.’ I think going into college I felt like I could probably have success wherever I went. And that was just me being naïve. By the time I made that decision to move out to Brad I was much older (25) and it was 100% the right move.” As the Dalai Lama says, “Sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.”
Once in Washington state, Walker went to work retooling his new young athlete. “When I first came to him, I was very afraid to pole vault. I would just run down, deer in the headlights, and just kind of jump and hope for the best. I really didn’t have much control over what I was doing. I was just athletic enough and fast enough to jump decently well,” admits Nageotte. “Brad really tackled the mental side of it; how I was thinking on the runway, how I was focusing on the runway, and how I was trying to execute something every time I came down. When you figure out how to think on the runway it is a complete game-changer because it is not as scary.” Walker’s approach not only resulted in technical precision; it also built confidence. “I run down with intention and trying to do something,” explains Katie of her revamped approach. “And you get more repetitions, better repetitions so that your technical side can really change. He changed everything about me mentally.”
Like all of us, Katie, Brad, and the rest of the training group had to deal with the emerging pandemic. And Nageotte explains how the team benefited from the enforced isolation. “We were lucky because where we trained was this old, abandoned warehouse in the middle of nowhere. So we were just our group and we kept vaulting. We really were able to keep training in a way that I don’t think many people were,” she explains. “I think that time when we were just training with no competition was really what changed a lot for me. I think that was the reason I was able to win [the gold medal].. Just having that foundation – a year of just training and repetitions. It got rid of a lot of bad habits. And when you go to a competition and things aren’t dialed in you often revert to old, bad habits. It really worked out for us. We were very fortunate and that was not very common. I know a lot of people who were not that lucky.”
Katie Nageotte, 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials, pole vault, photo by Kevin Morris / @kevmofoto
The run-up to the Games proved to be more challenging. “We had a plan and then a lot of things happened to me that foiled those plans. It was a lot of reevaluating. We were just rolling with the punches and adapting.” It started when Nageotte fell ill. “I got COVID in December [of 2020] and that knocked me out for a while. The lingering side effects really affected me for months. It was really hard. I just felt like I couldn’t pole vault. I just had this disconnect – this mind/body connection/disconnect brain fog that I just could not jump through.” While the Nike athlete eventually recovered, Nageotte also had to deal with (i) an airport fiasco that snapped all of her poles; (ii) an eventual switch to a different brand of pole [“I do think those poles are the best fit for me.’]; and (iii) a “horrible food poisoning” about two weeks before the Olympics. “It was just one thing after the next. We never really got the training that we planned or that would be perfect for the lead-up to the Olympic year.”
In the midst of it all, the 30-year-old performed well at the always-tense U.S. Olympic Trials, winning the competition, clearing 4.95m/16’¾”, establishing a personal best, a new world leader, and a new Olympic Trials record. The Trials champion even took a shot at taking down Yelena Isinbayeva’s world record [5.06m/16’7¼”]. Although unsuccessful, her three attempts at a world record height of 5.07m/16’7½” further strengthened her confidence. “At that point when I had made the team, I had only jumped a few times which I wasn’t expecting. I started crying when I made the team. But I was able to regroup. The first attempt felt pretty good,” adds Nageotte with a smile. “But after that, I just crashed.”
Morgan LeLeux, Katie Nageotte, Sandi Morris, 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials, pole vault, photo by Kevin Morris / @kevmofoto
At the Games, the women’s pole vault final proved to be one for the ages. After a rain-soaked preliminary round, 15 athletes were set to battle for the gold in the final. The competitors were quickly trimmed as 11 of the 15 were gone after the first two heights. The four remaining vaulters – defending Olympic champion Katerina Stefanidi; Great Britain’s Holly Bradshaw; Russia’s Anzhelika Sidorova; and Nageotte all cleared 4.80m/15’9″ and were still alive when the bar went up to 4.90m/16’1″ – with the Russian, sporting a clean card, in the gold medal position. At the new height, all missed on their 1st attempts. Stefanidi was out when she missed on her 2nd and final attempt, leaving the remaining three to determine the medal distribution among the trio.
After failed 2nd attempts by the Brit and the Russian, Nageotte gathered herself for the vault for which Walker had prepared her. “At that point I had finally found my rhythm,” offered Nageotte who had regrouped after several scary misses at the lower, opening heights. “Once I do that, it doesn’t really matter what the bar is at,” she explains. “I was almost kind of excited because I knew how clearing 4.90m felt the past few times that I had done it. And I knew exactly how I could do that. ‘Ok, I’m in this. I’m in my groove. Just keep doing what I did at the height before.’ That was really the mentality.” In a jump, she will never forget, Nageotte produced a majestic clearance to move into the gold medal position. Bradshaw took her 3rd attempt, failed, and clinched the bronze. Sidorova passed, electing to take her sole remaining vault at 4.95m/16’3″ in hopes of regaining the clear lead. Seemingly unsettled in the wake of Nageotte’s unexpected clearance, the Russian was not successful on her final attempt, thus clinching the gold medal for the American. “When she went out, I was like, ‘What? Did that just really happen?’, explains the Olympic champion. “And I was like, ‘I need to go find Brad.'”
Nageotte now stands tied for 3rd on the all-time world list, behind only Ishinbayeva [5.06m/16’7¼”] and Sandi Morris [5.01m/16’5¼”]. The newly-minted gold medalist has vaulted higher than Olympic champions Stacy Dragila, Jen Suhr, and Stefanidi.
The Olympic gold medalist does not foresee any motivational challenges in the years to come. “Other than the Olympics, competing at a world championship in your home country is as good as it gets. Most athletes never have that opportunity,” she explains. “I would love to be at that meet. I am going to work really hard to make that team and hopefully get another major medal added to my resumé. And to be honest, there is a world indoor or outdoor world championship every year until the next Olympics and after. It definitely makes it easier to stay motivated.”
Before concluding, Katie Nageotte reflects on how being an Olympic gold medalist is impacting her life. “It is so weird to be on this end of it. I just think about the other people I’ve looked at who have won gold medals and the way other people see them. There is such a weight to that title of Olympic champion. There will be more financial opportunities that will be made available to me which will be wonderful, just an added bonus,” she adds with a laugh. But then the gold medalist reveals what has likely been the most powerful driver in her pole vault career. “I just wanted to see how good I could become at this sport. I wanted to be the best that I could be. And I kept pushing myself to be the best,” she adds with conviction. “I am just so relieved that all the work really did pay off – and that I was as good as I thought and what other people kept telling me I could be.” / Dave Hunter /