There will be plenty of exciting matchups on the oval for national titles and qualification for the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade, however, some of the best competition will be taking place inside it. It’s no secret that the majority of subscribers to The Lap Count have a bias toward distance running, but one of our goals has always been to bridge that gap by introducing the beauty and intricacies of other events.
In talking with Sandi Morris, she does exactly that by describing the technicalities of the pole vault. And who better to do that than a 2x Olympian, 2016 silver medalist, 8x US Champion, and World Indoor Champion? Following an injury in Tokyo, Sandi made the decision to change coaches and training groups. If you don’t know much about the event, buckle up — you’re about to learn!
THE LAP COUNT: How would you grade yourself on the season so far heading into USAs? You’re undefeated indoors, but given your injury from the Olympics, have things felt the way you’d hope at this point in the year?
SANDI MORRIS: A lot of times the height doesn’t reflect everything going on. Given that I just changed coaches and coming off an injury, I am really happy with the first few performances. With that delay and other things flaring up randomly I think my body knows I am creeping up on 30. My hip injury was still bugging me and so I had to take more time off for PRP so it’s been stop-and-go.
When I went to my new coach, Brad Walker, two years ago, I came to the idea of joining the group with Katie [Nageotte] because I was ready for a change. My husband and I were doing distance for five years and as he was coming out of business school we were looking for a new exciting place to live. My family is from South Carolina so when they moved to Atlanta, I noticed.
The hip now feels 100% and about a month ago I noticed in training that I wasn’t noticing the hip anymore. I still felt my hip in the beginning of preseason when I was trying to hit that top gear, it would tug and be tight. It took about six months as it was a grade three strain in the sartorius.
With Brad, I have been working on new technical things like the start to my approach and the way I am dropping the pole. Every trip down the runway feels a little funny so the fact that I can clear some bars right now is a good thing. It’s something I wanted to change in the past, but I’m taking a different approach using new drills and new mental cues to try and make corrections that I’ve known are flaws in my jumps for years.
What happened in Tokyo was devastating, but now I am more motivated than ever to make a comeback from that. I don’t think injuries define athletes, what defines athletes is their resiliency and determination to continue forth, even through the bad circumstances.
THE LAP COUNT: What’s the dynamic like sharing a coach with arguably your fiercest competitor, Katie Nageotte? Kudos to both of you for being willing to work together!
SANDI MORRIS: It’s definitely fun and interesting to be training with your main competitor. I think it’s going to help us both as we are going to push each other to higher heights and bigger bars.
Brad intentionally does two jump sessions — so we vault twice a week with three in each group and he puts us at different times for pole vault practices, apart. It can creep into your mind a bit and you don’t want your attention on your competitors — that’s not a formula for success. I think it’s good to have technical days separate and then conditioning side-by-side when we can push each other running sprint workouts on the track.
I have always noticed how there have historically been a number of elite groups of sprinters training under the same coach and I thought, ‘why can’t vaulters do it too?’ Having talks with Jeff Hartwig made me feel ready to take it on. He trained with Derek Miles and Jeremy Scott and said those were the best years of his career and training with those guys pushed him to the next level.
His only words of caution were to avoid the, ‘I have to win every rep’ mindset. Jeff has been one of my most involved mentors and he knows how I am on the runway better than I know myself. Ultimately, it was Brad and Katie’s willingness (and enthusiasm) to have me join the group that gave my gut the green light. So far it’s proven to be a smooth transition and having a healthy amount of competition on a daily basis is working out well.
THE LAP COUNT: Is the technique adjustment like a Tiger Woods rebuilding his swing situation? How dramatic are the changes?
SANDI MORRIS: It’s pretty dramatic! When I drop the pole, Brad teaches a different pathway for your top or my right hand to take. So if your top hand is at your hip, I guess the best way to describe it is that he teaches for your hand to come through your peripheral vision so my right hand comes through the peripheral of my right eye. And so it’s up and in front of your forehead angle for a more angular plant.
Traditionally I was taught to draw a straight line from your hip through your ear straight up or over your head. Instead of going straight up with the top hand, you’re coming in at an angle like Superman taking off from the ground. It’s more chest forward. You wouldn’t think that’s a big deal, but it feels completely different. The way you enter the jump changes the way you load the pole, the way energy goes into the pole and then swings and the top of the jump feels different. Right now when I’m in practice I am trying to change the pathway of my hands and change the positioning of my chest and shoulders.
Sometimes I take off from the ground and it all feels so weird that I can’t finish the jump and I look at him like, ‘I don’t know where I was.’ The hardest part is trying to compete while trying to engrain different movement pathways. Every trip isn’t a guaranteed clean executed jump. There are more goofy jumps or run-throughs than usual.
They’re small and subtle, but in an event like this it feels like it’s a massive change. I don’t know much about Tiger Woods and his golf swing, but I assume it’s a good comparison.
THE LAP COUNT: I always think the biggest disservice we do in the presentation of the sport is dumbing it down rather than elevating it. Hearing the details of everything you’re working on gives me more interest to watch you at USAs. Tell me more!
SANDI MORRIS: Brad wants you to be moving the energy as deep into the pit as fast as you can — most coaches say that, but the difference is the pathway of the top hand. When I am running down the runway it feels very foreign. Then when I do it right and a jump comes together I agree it’s the right move to focus on this technical thing. There isn’t one model that everyone agrees is the best way to vault. It’s interesting to hear all the theories, but my conclusion is there are many methods, but you have to find the best way for you.
Once you are with a coach for nearly a decade there’s not much change and I believe I can still jump higher than five meters. It’s like that saying: ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ Like, I am crazy if I think I can jump higher without making big changes and I am ready to risk it all to do that.
THE LAP COUNT: I heard you once say you’d rather vault the world record than win a gold medal. I’m here for this hot take, but why is that the greater motivator for you?
SANDI MORRIS: I don’t want anyone to take that the wrong way. If I ended my career with a gold and no world record then I won’t have any complaints. Medals make money and that’s why the world obsesses over them — I get that. But jumping the world record would mean more to me on a personal level because it means I found my physical ability’s maximum limit.
You can win a gold medal without breaking the world record or without being the highest vaulter to walk the planet — those are different things. I respect being able to pull it out on the day to put it together. But to me the world record means more on a personal level while the gold medal may mean more to the world. It comes back to why am I doing this? My dream, without anyone else’s opinion factoring in, is to break the world record.
THE LAP COUNT: Is that because you’re more intrinsically motivated, and it’s you vs. you rather than the competition? The pole vault seems different since it’s contested sort of in a vacuum. There’s less defense than in a 1500.
SANDI MORRIS: That’s a great way to put it and you said it better than I could. I feel like I haven’t jumped the highest I physically can and I believe I have the ability to break the world record. I think that’s why our event has such a friendly dynamic. Even if an athlete doesn’t win the meet, if they PR they’re probably still really happy. Because we aren’t running side-by-side I think it’s more you against you than the track events.
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