Reaching New Heights
Jan. 29, 2008
by Jeff Smith
Wisconsin junior Amy Dahlin compares the thrill of pole vaulting to that of horseback riding and graduation. Let me explain. Dahlin says her track and field event relates to graduation because it is the one time in her life where she has felt everyone looking at her. To some degree, high school graduation is also a time when one gets over the proverbial bar and looks to reach new heights.
As far as horseback riding goes, Dahlin was a performer in horse shows when she was younger and often felt like she was being watched. Ironically, sometimes one will fall off a horse and be encouraged to hop right back up. In pole vaulting, Dahlin has to go up, before she can fall down.
The Arlington Heights, Ill., native has spent the last two seasons at Wisconsin focused on setting the bar high. OK, enough with all the cliches, but for a pole vaulter, several of these phrases really do fit.
This past week at the Wisconsin Elite, Dahlin won the event with a personal best of 12'-5.5", a height which tied for the third highest indoor vault mark in school history. Her performance was impressive for school annals, but Dahlin is looking to clear a much higher mark when it comes to the Big Ten Championships, March 1-2, at Minnesota.
"I want to jump way higher; I want to jump 13 feet," she said. "Jumping 12'-6" puts me at 10th place at Big Tens. I am definitely looking forward to jumping higher."
Last season with a clearance of 12'-2" at Big Tens, Dahlin finished tied for 10th overall, over a foot shy of the winning height of 13'-5.75", cleared by Purdue's Mallory Peck. But this year Wisconsin assistant coach Will Wabaunsee, who oversees the pole vaulters, purchased bigger poles for Dahlin and the results are starting to be seen. Typically with bigger poles, in this case ones that measure 13'-7", Dahlin will be able to reach higher marks.
Pole vault as an event requires a great deal of discipline and technique. Not only do longer poles enable a vaulter to clear a higher mark, but having runaway speed prior to planting the pole is also a must. Dahlin says that is one element in her technique that is among the strongest.
"Speed is a huge thing on the runway, which enables you to get thrown up there," she said. "Every pole vaulter has something they are really good at and speed is mine. There is so much technique involved in pole vaulting. You can't just count on the pole."
Dahlin says that often times during practice she is off to the side by herself. Rarely is anyone watching, which calls for her to have an increased amount of discipline. She says she goes about her business in practice and says it takes every ounce of energy to vault.
Wabaunsee says this season his quiet leader vaults with a determined focus.
"She is a little quiet, but she has extremely high expectations of herself," he said. "If it's an off day, it's tough for me to get her to drop down in height and focus on something else."
Wabaunsee says he would like to see Dahlin score in the Big Ten meet this season and find consistency in her attempts around the 12'-6" mark.
"She is in her junior year now and really wants to help out her team," he said.
Ironically, pole vaulting was never a top choice for Dahlin when she was growing up in the Chicago suburb. She was a cross country runner and a swimmer, who also liked competing in soccer as well. She has three brothers, two of which competed athletically at Big Ten schools. Oldest brother Danny, now 27, pole vaulted at Iowa for one season, while 24-year-old Chris recently capped off his soccer career at Michigan State.
Initially Dahlin was more prone to follow brother Chris to the soccer field, but since the indoor track season was scheduled before the soccer season at her high school, she was persuaded to try out pole vaulting.
"I definitely got started through my brother Danny," she said. "I didn't even want to pole vault as a freshman because I was playing soccer a lot and wanted to follow my brother Chris."
But Dahlin soon fell in love with pole vaulting and began running at shorter lengths to enhance her runway speed. She went from running several miles as a cross country runner, to running sprint races in order to develop the technique pole vaulting required.
She looked at conference schools Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as Virginia, during her recruiting process. She first traveled to Minnesota and then fell in love with Wisconsin while on her trip to Madison. She says Wisconsin felt like home right away, and the fact that her actual home was just two hours away was an added bonus.
Dahlin has always been a special recruit for Wabaunsee, as the two came to Wisconsin at the same time.
"She was part of my first recruiting class I put together," he said. "She has really been part of the foundation and has started to develop into a great vaulter. I have been waiting for her to blossom."
Wabaunsee also points out Dahlin's academic success, which he says makes her a model student-athlete. The finance major was named Academic All-Big Ten last season.
"I think she really came here for the school too; that was the big lock," he said. "She came in for a visit and really liked the business school here."
Since changing paths and following in her brother Danny's footsteps as a pole vaulter has worked out so well, Dahlin says she hopes to continue to follow his lead. She has a summer internship lined up at Motorola, which is headquartered near her hometown and is also Danny's employer.
"My whole family has gone into finance, and after interviewing with companies, I want to do something with corporate finance," she said. "Motorola offers that and they have a lot of people my age working there."
The "real world" life is still over a year away for Dahlin, so she remains grounded at Wisconsin - to a degree - with hopes of turning in a successful junior season. Throw in another consistent campaign as a senior and it would seem Dahlin would be set to ride off into the sunset of her athletic career.
To graduation, of course, where everyone will once again be watching.