Kayla Caldwell poses for a photo after being named the Next Olympic Hopeful for weightlifting on July 30, 2018 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Kayla Caldwell gathered on a recent Saturday night with around 20 friends and family members in her hometown of Tuscarawas, Ohio, all of them waiting to see the former pole vaulter on national TV.
Every time Caldwell appeared on screen, trying to showcase herself to various sports officials as a potential U.S. Olympian, the crowd at her watch party cheered. Caldwell, on the other hand, cringed as she listened to herself make one silly remark after another to a national audience on NBCSN.
“I just keep waiting like ‘Oh gosh, what’s the next goofy thing that’s going to come out of my mouth?’” Caldwell recalled, laughing.
Caldwell had another dozen friends and family members with her Sunday to watch the two-hour season finale of “Milk Life presents, Scouting Camp: The Next Olympic Hopeful,” this one airing on NBC.
Those watching saw the first step on Caldwell’s unlikely journey from former track star to aspiring weightlifter on Next Olympic Hopeful. The 27-year-old Caldwell was selected as one of the show’s eight winners invited to join the national team camps for their respective sports.
“I’ve dreamt of going to the Olympics since I was 5, since I discovered gymnastics,” she said. “I had VHS tapes of the Olympics Games, of gymnastics, and I would literally sit in my bed every night and watch one of the Olympics or even an Olympic Trials. I had Olympic trials tapes, too.
“That’s what I’d do.”
Dan Bell, who coaches Caldwell as the head coach at Rubber City Weightlifting, said she’s the fifth pole vaulter he has known who has transitioned into a weightlifter.
Kayla Caldwell trains during Scouting Camp: The Next Olympic Hopeful on July 29, 2018 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Despite being 5-foot-3 and new to the sport, Caldwell has picked up the fundamentals of weightlifting and has shown she can easily add muscle and get strong. She recently set personal bests in training, lifting 83 kg. in the snatch and 97 kg. in the clean & jerk.
“Pole vaulting is sprinting and then upside gymnastics with only half a mat,” Bell said. “So there’s no doubting her courage about going under heavy weights. There’s no doubting her athleticism, and she’s track-athlete fast.”
Caldwell is a jack of all trades athletically with her combination of strength and explosiveness to go along with her intense personality. She was a perfect fit for Next Olympic Hopeful.
Growing up she competed in gymnastics until she suffered an injury in the eighth grade. She then decided to start running track, mainly because it gave her an opportunity to hang out with her older brother, Mike, who was a sprinter.
Caldwell immediately began breaking records as a sprinter. A coach then told her, “You’re fast, and you’re a gymnast. Why don’t you pick up a pole vault pole?”
Caldwell set the Ohio high school record in girls pole vaulting as a sophomore, clearing 12 feet, 9 inches. She then became the first woman in NCAA Division II history to clear 14 feet in an outdoor meet as an All-American at Hillsdale College.
However, Caldwell admitted she was exhausted and ready for a change after competing professionally in pole vault from 2013-17. She had gone to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials but finished 15th, falling short of qualifying for the Rio Games.
“I applied for the (Next Olympic Hopeful) because after the 2017 U.S. championships I was burnt out,” Caldwell said. “I went through the trials in 2016 for pole vault. I didn’t make the team. I don’t know. Something was missing.”
Caldwell wanted the show’s coaches to evaluate her talent and tell her whether she should continue competing in pole vault or train for a new sport.
When the coaches recommended that Caldwell develop into a weightlifter, she immediately loved the idea. She had always lifted weights, and she consistently lifted more than her training partners.
“She just needs time in the sport. She just needs a lot of repetitions. It takes time to get strong,” Bell said. “I mean she’s obviously much stronger than the average person, but to reach the elite level, she needs to be quite a bit stronger.”
At the same time, Caldwell feels her 5-foot-3 frame is better suited as a weightlifter than a pole vaulter.
“Most pole vaulters are tall and thin, and I’ve always been stocky and muscular,” Caldwell said. “And so I never felt like I quite fit in as a pole vaulter, even though I jumped as high as everybody else.
“I was always a little bit different because of my build.”
After training in Arkansas as a pole vaulter, Caldwell has moved back to Tuscarawas to continue her development as a weightlifter. She’s balancing her training with her job in cardiac rehabilitation at a hospital.
Still, it might be a few more years before Caldwell’s friends and family members get to watch her again on national TV.
“Realistically we’re making a push for (the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020),” Caldwell said, “but we’re prepared more of training for the 2019 world championships and 2024 Olympics.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.