By GARY SHELTON
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Fear. She was talking about fear.
You can understand that, can't you? After all, she begins her event by running very fast with an extremely large object -- a spear, more or less. Then she plants it in the ground and soars upward. Then she turns upside down and twists to get over a bar. Then she basically falls off a building into a pit below.
Yep. When Stacy Dragila talks about fear, you can imagine her terror.
But when the anxiety crept into Dragila a week ago, she realized the reason for her sudden irritability was good, old-fashioned terror -- but not of the physical nature of the pole vault.
It was fear of failure.
That is the beast that attempts to devour the world-class athlete -- that surge of panic to the heart when the meet reaches the stature of these Olympic track and field trials. Left unchecked, it can turn to doubt, then desperation, finally to disappointment.
And so it was that Dragila, the woman in the spotlight, lay on a floor in a darkened room. She is an athlete who has captured the fancy of her country -- that is her in a Visa commercial, morphing from the diving board to the track; that was her on David Letterman and Today and every other talk show you can imagine -- but suddenly, things were unraveling.
It was a week ago, and Stacy Dragila was something of a mess.
"I was nervous, I'll be honest with you," she said. "So many little things were bugging me that never bugged me before. I was getting really irritated at things.
"I told my assistant coach (Brian Jansen), "I'm a nervous wreck.' And he asked me what I was afraid of. I told him I was afraid of no-heighting. I was afraid of missing the Olympics."
Dragila tells the story and laughs, as if to tell you the anxiety is over now, that her visualization sessions with Jansen have left her relaxed and confident, that her dream of being the first woman to win a gold medal in pole vaulting at the Olympics remains firm.
Today, we get to see. For the first time, women's pole vaulting joins the Olympic trials with prelims. Already it is one of the most popular events on the track. Consider this: Despite the pending Michael Johnson-Maurice Greene showdown, despite Marion Jones, the quickest section of bleachers to sell out Sunday was the area where the women's pole vault will be held.
Why? Dragila will tell you it's the risk factor of the event. Others look at the skimpy outfits (who let the beach volleyballers on the track?) and say no, it's the risque factor. Maybe Dragila herself is part of the reason.
You'll like her. She's funny and honest, and she has traveled a strange enough road to get here. Once, she was naked on a calendar (she posed for a calendar that gave much of its proceeds to a fund dedicated to Florence Griffith-Joyner). Once, she was on horseback, thundering across the rodeo in some strange event called goat tying (which is pretty much what it sounds like). Now, she is a world record holder.
No, it is not the way Sergey Bubka did it.
On the other hand, it isn't as if Dragila could have started competing in junior high. For the longest time, women weren't allowed anywhere near the pole vault. Remember three-on-three women's basketball? Remember no women hockey players allowed? This wall was bigger.
Even in junior college (Yuba in Marysville, Calif.), when Dragila was a heptathlete, she can remember asking about the pole vault. A vaulter who was about Dragila's size looked at her (5 feet 7 1/2, 140 pounds) as if she had wondered if she could fly.
"He told me, "Women don't pole vault. They don't have the physical strength for it,' " Dragila remembers. "I took him to heart. I just thought it was one of those things women didn't do."
But a couple of years later, her coach at Idaho State told the heptathletes that pole vaulting was going to be an event. Several of the women left. Dragila asked for the pole.
The first time she looked down the track, some 60 or 70 feet away, with a shortened pole in her hand, she felt "a little terror." But she was good at it. Then she was better.
She has jumped 15 feet, 5 inches. She talks of 16 feet as if it's due any day. Eventually, she said, women may get to 17 feet, which she compares with Bubka's world mark of 20-13/4.
"On a good day, I could do 16 feet, and it wouldn't be a big deal," Dragila said.
Oh, yes, it would. Pole vaulting is one of the trickiest events. Ask Bubka, who crashed at the Olympics in 1992. Ask Jeff Hartwig, the American favorite who bombed earlier in these trials. It is such an event of coordination, of speed down the lane, power at the takeoff and agility at the top. Put it this way: It's a lot tougher than tying knots around the feet of a little goat named Fluffy.
(Maybe it isn't as tough as a Visa commercial, though. For that one, Dragila had to take some 50 jumps, double a normal day's practice. At the end of the day, it wasn't everywhere she wanted to be.)
Dragila says her doubts are gone. "I stomped on them," she said. "I wadded them up in a big old ball and threw them in the garbage. I tried to visualize myself jumping 16 feet and standing on top of the podium."
Competitors, be warned. Dragila is up off the floor.
Today, she heads for the sky.