The coronavirus pandemic postponed the Tokyo Games, where U.S. pole vaulter Sandi Morris hoped to upgrade her 2016 silver medal to gold. It’s delayed the start of the Diamond League season, too, not to mention her training at her alma mater, the University of Arkansas.
One thing the pandemic hasn’t done is stopped Morris.
The two-time world championship silver medalist, one of only two women to clear 5 meters, competed for the first time since February in last week’s Inspiration Games, where she won the virtual women’s pole vault competition from a facility in Bradenton, Florida.
Now this week she’s competing again — from a facility she and her dad helped build.
When the pandemic hit, Morris and her dad, Harry, joined a group in building a regulation pole vault pit near his home in Greenville, South Carolina. On Wednesday they’ll host an elite international competition there called the Acadia Invitational. It’s the first USA Track & Field-sanctioned women’s pole vault competition since the Tokyo Games were postponed.
“Myself and him and three of his buddies, we built it,’’ said Morris, who turned 28 last week. “It took about four weeks and a few thousand dollars of our own money to build this thing. And now we’re just really excited to get to put it to use Wednesday. I’m just excited because it turned out beautiful. The facility is awesome. The runway is super fast and smooth. My dad is obsessive about making this facility perfect.’’
Among the other competitors are fellow Americans Katie Nageotte, who finished seventh at the 2019 world championships, along with 2017 and 2018 NCAA champ Olivia Gruver, as well as an international field that includes Canada’s Alysha Newman, who is ranked between Morris and Nageotte as No. 4 in the world.
The competition will be open to approximately 150 socially distanced fans. All have to wear masks, while groups will be required to stand 12 feet apart due to the virus. The competition will be shown Thursday on ESPN’s YouTube page.
This month’s competitions bring a small amount of normalcy to a year that’s been anything but so far. Another major milestone in the track and field world would be the continuation of the Diamond League schedule, with nine events scheduled from August through October across Europe, China and Qatar. Morris is hopeful she’ll be able to continue her season in those meets, though travel restrictions leave her status unclear.
“Most of those competitions take place in Europe so my big concern is if I am even able to get to those competitions if they have it,’’ she said. “Because right now the travel ban for Americans (to Europe) is still in place and there is talk of that not being lifted. So it would be a big concern if we could get exemptions as professional athletes to go compete. The season is still in question.’’
Soccer has restarted in Europe as well as in the U.S., with other sports planning to follow domestically later this summer. However, with cases continuing to rise across the country sports are still figuring out how, or if, they might be able to return in 2020.
Morris said she’s been tested negative for the virus and does not have it, though she’s been grappling with the uncertainty like everyone else.
“Everybody has their days where it can get a little depressing not knowing the future. Not only my future but the future of my sport, the future of society,’’ she said. “But you can’t let yourself get too bogged down on that. I will try not to look at my phone for a couple days and just focus on myself, focus on my training. You have to have a healthy balance, between knowing what’s going on in the world, how to help, how to play your part. But then you can’t be too absorbed in it where you let it affect your mental health.
“And so, I’ve been doing my very best to play my part, wear a mask, do all the precautions. I’m at my house and I need to make sure I’m sleeping well. I’m eating well and still training because I do have high hopes that some day, I don’t know when, but some day my season will begin and the world will come full circle and conquer COVID-19.’’
She also has been able to do a little pole vault training at a friend’s backyard in Fayetteville, Arkansas, but not too much because there is no runway for it. Morris also has weights in her garage where she can do weightlifting now.
Morris, whose parents competed track and field at Western Illinois, got started in running when she a very young and then got into the pole vault when she was in eighth grade.
Following a standout career at Arkansas she made her Olympic debut in 2016 in Rio, where she nearly won a gold medal despite having had a serious wrist injury.
“2016 was a rough year for me because I broke a pole in a competition eight weeks from the Olympic trials and I had a wrist fracture,’’ she said. “So I basically couldn’t pole vault for six weeks prior to the Olympic trials. Breaking my wrist and breaking a pole, and everybody thought I wasn’t going to be a contender for the Olympic team. And I was able to prove them wrong.’’
Morris ended up not only going to Rio but winning a silver medal, matching the result she earned at the 2017 and 2019 world championships. Between those she won an indoor world title in 2018.
After the thrill of medaling in Rio, Morris says she’s motivated to do even better in 2021 in Tokyo.
“I’m going to remember that feeling. I want to chase that feeling,’’ she said. “That’s what I’m chasing. I know it’s possible. That is what is driving me to be better and better every day to go out and go for that gold medal in Tokyo.”
Jim Caple is a former longtime writer for ESPN and the St. Paul Pioneer Press based in Seattle. He has covered sports on six continents, including 12 Olympics and 20 World Series. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.