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Varsity Q&A with Westminster pole vaulter Alex Howell

By Katherine Dunn, The Baltimore Sun

2:02 PM EST, January 9, 2014

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As a little girl, Alex Howell dreamed of becoming an Olympic gymnast, but in her freshman year at Westminster she decided to take on a new high-flying sport, pole vault.

Two weeks ago at the Frostbite Invitational, she vaulted a school-record 11 feet, 1 inch. That height would have won the state title in three of four classifications last winter.

At the Frostbite meet, the junior also set a school long jump record of 14 feet, 4 inches to finish seventh and matched her personal best in the 55-meter dash.

Howell, who has a 3.89 weighted GPA, wants to pole vault in college. She has qualified for the New Balance Nationals Indoor meet March 14-16 at The Armory in New York City.

How did you start pole vaulting?

I used to do gymnastics and my coach Cathy Phillips, when I was thinking about quitting gymnastics, recommended that I should try pole vault.

What intrigued you about trying it?

I was running track at the time, and a lot of gymnasts when they quit, they get into pole vaulting. It takes a lot of upper body strength, and that's the same thing with gymnastics.

Why did you quit gymnastics?

It was just getting to be too much. It was 20 hours a week, and that was a lot with school. And I had injured my knee in gymnastics, and I didn't want that to happen again. I wanted to try something new.

What happened?

I was doing a skill on floor. It's like a back flip where you do a full twist, and I dislocated my knee cap. I had to be on crutches for a while, and I did not like that at all.

What do you enjoy most about pole vaulting?

It's just a lot of fun flying through the air.

Why did you decide to run track as a freshman?

During middle school when we'd have the races in gym class, I liked doing that because I was one of the faster kids, and I wanted to try track because some of my friends are doing it. Then I saw pole vault, and I was like, "Oh, wow. That looks like a lot of fun."

What's your goal for this season?

My goal was 11 feet, so now that I've reached that, it's 11-6.

What do you have to do to get better in this sport?

It's just a lot of practice and upper body strength.

Do you do a lot of lifting?

Not weight lifting, but I do a lot of things where you use your own body weight for resistance, like push ups and pull ups. It's just a lot of practice and muscle memory involved.

When you start down the runway, what are you thinking about?

I count my steps as I'm running down the runway, so that helps me focus. Then I know once I get to two, that's when I have to shift, and then once I shift for my plant, it's all muscle memory from there. As I run down the runway, I just think I have to run faster and get ready for the jump.

Do you get coaching outside of school?

I go to VaultWorX in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. It's near Harrisburg. I try to go there twice a week, but I get there at least once a week.

What do you there?

Before a meet, we'll practice with a bar. If there's no meet coming up, we'll do a lot of bungee. My coach usually videotapes us, and he'll watch the video and see where there are frames we have to work on. That helps a lot when you can see yourself.

How often do you vault in practice during indoor season with Westminster?

We don't do it at all, because at our school, we really don't have any poles here that I can use.

What's the difference between vaulting indoors and outdoors? They always go higher outdoors.

I like vaulting indoors better, because you don't have to worry about the sun being in your eyes, or the wind pushing your pole around. People might jump higher in outdoors because you've had indoors to prep yourself for it, so then when outdoor comes around, you have a better chance of getting a PR because you've had that previous season.

Do you go to meets in the summer?

There were a couple. I went to Beach Vault at the Jersey Shore. We actually got to vault on the beach, and that was a lot of fun. I went to pole vault camp at Virginia Tech, but it wasn't associated with the college. I want to go back to both of them this year, and I'm hoping I'll make outdoor nationals. That's usually the beginning of June.

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

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