Q: You won your fourth pole vault state championship this spring. What was that day like for you?
A: Being my last high school meet, it kind of felt good to end it on a good note. I didn’t do exactly what I wanted height-wise this year, but it was good to win my last state championship of my high school career.
Q: What was the height goal?
A: Sixteen [feet], 16-5 was the goal because practices were going really well before the season. But we had a few road bumps and technicalities. … We realized it would be good to break down the jump and focus on certain technicalities. I was doing good things in every part of the jump, just not great in everything, so we decided to work on some things so that later on I’d be able to progress.
Q: You flirted with 16 feet over the winter and spring. What will it take for you to get to that height?
A: I guess just being more consistent in the vault and jumping. We almost had it at states. I guess just being more consistent every vault and being able to have that gas in the tank toward the end of my competition.
Q: Your success has been remarkable, especially since you’ve only been vaulting since your sophomore year. How has vaulting changed your life?
A: It’s completely changed my life. Before, I used to play soccer, and I knew I wasn’t great. I knew I was gonna have a few select schools close to here to chose from, and stay homebound. … Then I started to pole vault and see different places. Then the official visits came, and being able to go to schools like Ole Miss and Ohio State and traveling beyond my comfort zone. I wouldn’t have gotten those choices if it wasn’t for pole vaulting.
Q: When you first started, did you have any idea you could be good, that it would lead to a scholarship to UVa?
A: At first definitely not. It was so new to me. I didn’t know what colleges look for. But later on, I guess more so when they started contacting me, I realized what heights they were looking for, what qualities they were looking for in a jump. One thing I had that a lot of people didn’t have was the short amount of time. That showed I could learn fast.
Q: Speaking of the Cavaliers, what are your goals heading into your freshman season?
A: I want to be able to balance not only school but the workouts and load that I have next year, and be able to consistently vault at least the height I was this year.
Q: When you look back on high school, what are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?
A: Going to all the big meets I’ve gone to. One thing I’ve learned is I never want to fall into being a cocky person. Seeing other athletes that are like that, I want to be humble. I don’t want to boast in anything I do.
Q: How were you able to improve in such a short period of time?
A: I think being able to trust my coach [Lance Carter] was the biggest thing. It was such a new thing to me. Trusting someone to put the right equipment in my hands and land in a foam box, I just needed to trust someone who knew a lot more than me.
Q: So Coach Carter got you started vaulting. What does he mean to you?
A: He means a lot to me. I wouldn’t have been where I was if it wasn’t for him asking me to pole vault and seeing something in me. ... We still [spend time together]. Right now he has a pole vault club that helps other athletes who don’t have pole vault coaches. Even through the summers, I had a coach who was able to teach me instead of paying to go to the rare pole vault clubs that are, like, two hours away.
Q: You sprained an ankle the first day you tried to vault. What advice could you give younger track athletes who may struggle initially to succeed?
A: To never give up on what you’re doing, because when you first start out on something your brain can be very closed-minded. You want to give it a chance for a good amount time, progress through it and take time.
Q: Was there a time when you realized pole vaulting could take beyond high school?
A: Yeah, I guess when I was consistently clearing 15 [feet]. I was able to trust in myself.
Q: So what’s your favorite season, indoor or outdoor?
A: I’m not a very picky person, but I guess outdoor, because I’m able to have more practices outside and have more meets and have the chance to clear more heights.
Q: What’s the best part of your vaulting game and what needs work heading into college?
A: What needs work is the rhythm of my jump, being able to approach the box in the sense of hitting my mark every time. What’s good are the things I do in the air itself, being inverted or getting upside down quick enough to clear the board. My body awareness.
Q: Who has influenced your career?
A: Definitely my family and friends; them first of all, because my family was really supportive of [vaulting]. They weren’t like, “That’s a weird sport. Why are you gonna do that instead of soccer?” They didn’t know what was gonna happen in this sport or the danger of it. ... Then Coach Carter, because he’s the one who got me into it. And also the friends that I made in track, because the community you meet in pole vault, they support you and cheer for you.
Q: What’s your favorite high school track memory?
A: I guess it was my first outdoor state championship, when I was almost about to lose and we made the decision to go up to an unfamiliar pole that was really tough. Basically I had to make one last jump to make it. It was a PR. The feeling of clearing 15-7 was really cool. That was outdoor states my junior year.
Ben Cates covers high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5527.