Carolina Carmichael finally broke through in April.
A sophomore pole vaulter at Memphis University and a former IHSA state champion while at Lake Forest High School, Carmichael was competing in a meet at Auburn.
For years, she had been fixated on one height. She’d tried countless times in practice and succeeded. But in meets, she’d failed to clear the bar.
“I never made it to 13 feet. As soon as the bar went up, I would change something (in my routine),” Carmichael said. “I tried making excuses, but it was all in my head.”
At the Auburn meet, she easily cleared 12-foot-7 on her first jump. The bar was raised to 12-10. She leaped over it. Next would be 13-1.
“This is where I usually have a bad block,” Carmichael said.
But the familiar feeling of tension that before had overwhelmed her body was replaced by tranquility. Her mind free of anxiety, she sprinted down the runway and leaped over the bar. She had done it. She had eclipsed 13 feet.
“Two and a half years of frustrating times, and at that moment, it clicked,” Carmichael said. “I was screaming.”
For Carmichael, clearing 13 feet represented more than a personal record. She conquered what can typically be the heaviest burden for an otherwise high-performing athlete: mental inhibition. And as the rest of Carmichael’s season proved, once that hurdle is scaled, the next one often becomes easier.
At the American Athletic Conference meet in May, Carmichael’s vault of 13-4.5 was good for first place. Then, at the NCAA Division I Regional Championships, she vaulted a spectacular 13-9.25. It broke the school record she had set just a few weeks prior. As a top-12 finisher, Carmichael qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships held in Eugene, Oregon, in June. There, she earned second-team All-America honors with a 10th-place finish (13-7.25). Only six women in the NCAA field cleared a height better than Carmichael, with 14-4.35 winning.
As stunning as the progression was on paper — Carmichael increased her best vault by over a foot in less than two months — her Memphis pole vaulting coach, Tyler Frazier, said he was not all that surprised.
“She’s a really good athlete. One of her best attributes is her speed down the runway,” Frazier said. “But we always say pole vault is 90 percent mental. It can be a stressful, frustrating event. Her mental toughness, being patient and training with some great teammates, finally this year it started paying off.”
Carmichael is not resting on her spring accomplishments this summer. She is spending time in Lake Forest and in Texas before heading back to Memphis in August. Her mother Toni runs a club track team based in Mundelein that recently competed in the USATF-sanctioned Junior Olympic national meet near Houston.
Carolina said she’s learning a lot about her sport by teaching.
“I can tell them what helped me fix a part of my vault,” she said. “It helps me as a pole vaulter to say words a certain way.”
Carolina said she hopes to be invited to the USATF women’s camp next summer. There is much to accomplish between now and then, but she will enter the next college track season armed with the memories of last spring, when she broke through a previously unreachable milestone and never slowed down.
“I still have a whole lot to improve on. Now, I have set more goals for myself so I don’t become complacent,” she said.
WOMEN’S POLE VAULT
World record — 16-7 cleared by Yelena Isinbayeve (Russia) on Aug. 28, 2009
2012 London Olympics champ — 15-5.825 by Jennifer Suhr (USA)
American record — 16-5.5 by Jennifer Suhr on March 2, 2013
NCAA Division 1 champ — 14-4.35 by Annika Roloff (University of Akron sophomore)