When you’re an athlete in your junior year of high school, there are few titles better than “state champion.”
But “two-time state champion” is one of them.
Land O’ Lakes resident Nikki Carroll earned that designation by claiming her second straight Class 2A pole vaulting title earlier this month at the state meet, on the University of North Florida campus in Jacksonville. She cleared an even 12 feet to best her closest competition by six inches.
“It feels amazing doing it twice,” Carroll said. “I really wanted to win it again and I knew that a lot of people were expecting me to win. It was definitely my goal to win again and to jump 12 feet.”
That mark — a full foot better than last year’s winning height — not only gave the Tampa Catholic High School junior a second state title, but a new personal best as well.
While it was the perfect ending to another year of track and field for Carroll, it didn’t happen under perfect circumstances. Pole vaulting, is the kind of competition where the weather can make or break an athlete’s day. Since participants are using a long pole to propel themselves above and beyond a set bar, anything that makes it harder to run, set and grip can mean the end of the competition.
So when it was raining on the day of the meet, and didn’t stop when she had to perform, Carroll had every right to be concerned. But her coach told her that holding the pole lower makes it less likely that an athlete will slip, and Carroll naturally has a lower grip than many pole vaulters.
While it wouldn’t help in good weather, she said the lower grip might have helped succeed in the rain.
But Carroll had to overcome her own miscues as well, and the pressure that came with them. A pole vaulter has three chances to clear each height. After the third miss, they’re out of the competition — and, in this case, the running for the state title.
Twice in Jacksonville, Carroll found herself down to her last try.
“I was on my third attempt at 10 feet, 6 inches and at 11 feet, so that definitely freaked me out a little bit because I was almost out,” she said.
But Carroll was able to stay focused, keep her grip and clear the hurdle both times to stay alive in the competition and eventually claim the title.
Successfully clearing a certain height and being successful at pole vaulting in general is harder than it looks, Carroll said. On television, such as during the Olympic Games, the athletes make it look easy. But it takes a lot of training and practice to get it right.
As a state champion, Carroll definitely puts in the time to be the best. She does gymnastics every day (a sport she’s been doing for several years) except Sundays, and said the skills she hones at those practices are a natural fit with pole vaulting.
But Sundays aren’t a day of rest. She travels across the state to Melbourne, where she practices at Pole Vault City to stay prepared for the actual competitions.
Bobby Haeck, co-owner and head instructor of Pole Vault City, said Carroll’s skills give her an immediate advantage over the competition.
“It’s speed and tremendous gymnastics,” he said. “If you put those two things together, you get a really good pole vaulter.”
Height also can be important for an athlete, he said. While Carroll isn’t tall, her quickness and ability to clear the bar more than compensates for a lack of height.
Haeck, who has trained pole vaulters for nearly 15 years, was there to see Carroll defend her title, and he was impressed with her ability to succeed in the rain and convert her third attempts. He believes she has a bright future continuing the sport in college.
Carroll said she’d like to continue pole vaulting after she graduates high school, and will pursue a pre-med course load in college in order to become a doctor. But before any of that happens, she still has her senior year ahead of her. And that means another chance to defend her title.
“Not a lot of people can win it back-to-back, and then even less can win it three times,” she said. “I’m definitely going to go for three.”
Published May 14, 2014