TOKYO – After missing twice at her opening height in the Olympic women’s pole vault competition, Katie Nageotte was feeling frustrated and nervous. The last thing she needed was to add guilt to the equation.
“I know my family got up very early to watch me,” said the native of Olmsted Falls, Ohio, “and I would have felt very bad if I made them get up at 6 in the morning to watch me no-height. So that was definitely going through my head.”
It was the wake-up call Nageotte needed. On her third attempt at 4.50 meters (14-9 ¼), Nageotte cleared the bar. She then missed at 4.70, before making that height on her next try to move into third place. The 30-year-old sailed over 4.80 and 4.85 and cleared 4.90 (16-1) on her second try.
At that point, the only vaulter left was Anzhelika Sidorova of the Russian Olympic Committee, who was perfect on four straight heights, including 4.85 meters. But Sidorova missed twice at 4.90 and made the strategic decision to take her final attempt at 4.95.
When Sidorova hit the bar, Nageotte knew she had won.
“It’s surreal,” said Nageotte, the U.S. Olympic Trials champion. “I couldn’t really believe it at first. It’s everything that any one of us here has ever dreamed of. It’s a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck and I’m so grateful that it went my way tonight.”
Like c'mon 🥲pic.twitter.com/7beSWCbZSM— Team USA (@TeamUSA) August 5, 2021
Nageotte joins Stacy Dragila (2000 Sydney) and Jenn Suhr (2012) as Team USA pole vault gold medalists. Sandi Morris, the American record holder and Rio Olympic silver medalist had a rough outing in the preliminaries - including a broken pole - and did not make the final.
Holly Bradshaw of Great Britain, who also cleared 4.85, won the bronze medal.
Afterward, Nageotte went into the stands to hug her coach, 2007 men’s world champion Brad Walker, and then asked for the bar to be raised to 5.01 meters, which would be a new American record.
However, after making a start down the runway, Nageotte abandoned the attempt and waved to the sparse crowd of coaches, officials, athletes and media. Nageotte said it was as if “the adrenaline rush of elation” had “crashed down to earth.”
“I really tried to get back in the right frame of mind,” she said, “but as soon as I pushed out, I didn’t have the same power output and it was going to be dangerous to try. So I just called it because there’s a lot more that I want to do in this sport and there will be another day.”
For now, the Olympic gold medal is enough.
“I feel like this competition was kind of a good representation of my year so far,” Nageotte said. “My year started off really rough, (contracting) Covid and side effects of Covid.” She also was shocked to discover broken poles arriving at an airport baggage claim and had to scramble to get new ones.
“And then there was just this upward trajectory,” Nageotte said.
Well, first there was another dip. After the Diamond League meet in Monaco, Nageotte became very sick with what she thinks was food poisoning. She even had to take a trip to the emergency room and then had a reaction to the medicine she was given.
All in all, Nageotte lost a week or two of intense training.
“We didn’t have the prep we wanted to,” Walker said. “She didn’t have a lot of reps.”
They used Nageotte’s Tokyo practices as well as the preliminary round to continue getting ready. Nageotte also vaulted on smaller poles.
During her warmup for Thursday’s final, Nageotte noticed that the quad on her takeoff leg was really tight. That also delayed finding her rhythm.
“She was just not really looking like herself,” Walker said.
Once Nageotte cleared 4.80, “that’s when it clicked,” she said.
After such a stressful competition, Walker said, he was “totally relieved.” “I need a nap,” he added.
Five years ago, Nageotte finished fifth at the Olympic Trials. “I’m very happy I did not make that team in 2016,” she said, “because if I had, I probably would have been complacent and just happy with that, being an Olympian.
“I had been told from a young age I had the potential and the talent (to win a gold medal), but I just never would have realized that back with where I was in 2016.”
Nageotte’s placement spurred her to change coaches and she began working with Walker in 2017. She was the Pan American Games silver medalist in 2019 and was seventh at the 2019 worlds.
Nageotte got Covid-19 last December, and after feeling better was left with “brain fog.” Most of the lingering effects are now gone, but she said she can’t train in a facility that is so dimly lit “I just go to sleep mentally.”
Under the bright lights of the Olympic Stadium, Nageotte had no such problems. “The lighting was not the issue the first couple of heights,” she said. “I was the issue.”
And then suddenly Nageotte was the Olympic champion. She’ll go home to Olmsted Falls for a meet and greet with the town of about 9,000 people on Aug. 13.
“I’m so excited to see everyone,” Nageotte said. “Olmsted Falls is the best little town. I’m so proud to be from there.”
She said after her father passed away when she was 16, the community helped raise her and her sister and brother. “They really banded around my entire family,” Nageotte said. “I felt their support from Day 1 of his passing. I know they’re all rooting for me, so it just means that much more to do it for them.”
Especially the ones who got up early to watch her compete.
Nageotte also plans to take her aunt up on an offer to spend some time at her beach house.
“I kind of said to myself, ‘It’s going to be a lot more fun to lay on the beach if I have a medal than if I don’t,’” Nageotte said, “which is one way I motivated myself.”
Teammate Morgann Leleux Romero was not so fortunate, no-heighting at 4.50.
In other finals on Thursday, Team USA just missed the podium in three events.
Will Claye was fourth in the men’s triple jump with a season-best jump of 17.44 meters and Donald Scott was seventh at 17.18 meters.
Michael Cherry placed fourth in the men’s 400 meters with a personal best time of 44.21 seconds, while teammate Michael Norman, the Olympic Trials champ, was fifth at 44.31.
Garrett Scantling was fourth in the decathlon. He scored 8,611 points to finish 38 points behind the bronze medalist. Zach Ziemek was sixth with 8,435 points - improving on his seventh-place finish in Rio - and Steven Bastien was 10th with 8,236.
In the heptathlon, Kendell Williams was fifth with 6,508 points, followed by Annie Kunz in sixth (6,420) and Erica Bougard in ninth (6,379).
Nick Christie was 50th in the men’s 20K race walk with a time of 1 hour, 34 minutes, 37 seconds.
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo2020 to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.