DES MOINES, Iowa – Only lightning could keep pole vaulter Sandi Morris earthbound Sunday.
Morris had already clinched her second straight title at the USATF Outdoor Championships with a height of 4.80 meters (15 feet, 9 inches) when she asked officials to raise the bar to 4.94 meters (16-2 ½).
With a clearance, she would vault above world leader Jenn Suhr in the rankings by half an inch.
Morris, the 2016 Olympic silver medalist, and the other competitors contended with swirling winds all afternoon and knew inclement weather was heading their way. But with the elimination of runner-up Katie Nageotte (4.70/15-5), the U.S. indoor champion, and Suhr (4.60/15-1), only Morris was left.
“One person was telling me go ahead and go, so I’m rushing and grabbing my pole,” said Morris, the world indoor champion and American record holder at 5.00 meters (16-4 ¾). “And I did sneak in one jump at that world lead, but wasn’t able to take my next two.”
The public-address announcer at the meet, which is part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity, told the crowd to evacuate. Morris couldn’t wait out a thunderstorm and nearly 3-hour rain delay. She had a plane to catch.
And although Suhr, a two-time Olympic medalist and 10-time national outdoor champion, was disappointed with her lowest finish at nationals in 13 years, she remained the world leader.
“I was really getting on a roll there,” Morris said, “so I was a little bit disappointed at the end they had to shut us down because of lightning and thunder, but I guess I take that over getting struck by lightning.”
After all, everything about a pole vault event, from the bar, to the standards to the poles themselves are giant lightning rods.
Morris, 25, would rather attract attention of a different sort. You can’t miss her on the runway.
With knee socks and a headband that are “about as bright pink as it gets,” she jokes, “I want to be seen from outer space.”
Actually, there’s a practical reason beyond a personality that’s bright and colorful.
“It helps my coach to catch my steps if he can see my feet easily,” said Morris.
She entered the competition at 4.55 meters (14-11) and had an uncharacteristic miss, though she had plenty of room. After clearing that height on her second attempt, she sailed over the next four heights on her first try.
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Nageotte made her first podium at the USATF Outdoor Championships after her breakthrough performance in winning the U.S. indoor title in February, when she defeated both Morris and Suhr. Nageotte cleared 4.70 meters (15-5) on her third attempt and then missed on one attempt apiece at the next three heights.
“Finishing top two is pretty good on the world stage,” said Nageotte, 26, so I’d like to think that going forward we can bump that up higher. It’s cool kind of being disappointed in a height that last year was a PR at this point – a big PR.”
Last year she finished seventh at nationals after clearing 14-11.
She had only one question as she greeted reporters during the rain delay.
“Do you know where I get my medal?” she asked. “I might as well get the hardware for it, right?”
Suhr, 36, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist, made her 13th straight podium at outdoor nationals, a record for an active track and field athlete. However, it was her only third-place after winning from 2006-2010, earning the silver in 2011, and winning from 2012-2016.
Nageotte is still getting used to seeing her name above Suhr’s in the results. “It’s cool to say you finished higher than the (indoor) world record holder,” she said, “but she didn’t have one of her great days and as an athlete you want to be able to beat people when they’re on. So obviously I feel for her. We’ve all been there.”
At 15-5, Suhr had a miss so bad that she didn’t even land in the pit but dropped into the hole where vaulters plant their poles.
Morris is inching up in the head-to-head vs. Suhr, now trailing 8-7.
They had already met twice before in Des Moines earlier this year. Suhr won an indoor event in a local mall while Morris won at Drake Relays. Suhr then won the Prefontaine Classic, with Morris third.
Of the head-to-head, Morris said, “I really don’t keep count to be honest. I focus on my own performance and my own jumps and if I execute what I’m supposed to do, then that should end up winning.
“I respect Jenn so much. She has been a role model for me growing up and it’s really cool to just be out on the same stage with her and all my other fellow American competitors. To have three women from one country that have jumped 16 feet or higher is pretty incredible.”
Morris, who has practiced on longer poles, didn’t get a chance to try them out Sunday.
“Today was all about just staying patient, waiting on the wind to kind of die down,” she said.
But Morris has no regrets about how the season has gone.
“This year’s been phenomenal,” she said. “I’ve had no disappointing days this year. I would say the most disappointing day I’ve had was Prefontaine, where I got third. I think that I’ve got even bigger things in the bag for the year. I’m healthy and hopefully this will carry right on over for the next couple of seasons.”