It has taken Kentucky’s Olivia Gruver only seven (relatively) quick years to transform herself from a track and field neophyte at Franklin High School into a two-time NCAA pole vault champion. Though not the type to doubt herself, even the Reisterstown resident is a little startled at where her path has taken her.
“Even after this national championship, I was like, ‘Did that actually happen? Did I make it back in time for that?’ ” she said. “It can be surreal at times, looking back at how far I’ve come.”
Toby Stevenson, who recruited Gruver to Kentucky, said she had all the physical attributes he was looking for in the athletes he trains in vertical jumps and multisport events. But he conceded that he did not anticipate her mental composition.
“The thing you can’t see when you’re recruiting is the mentality, the competitiveness, the psychological strength, and that’s where she definitely far exceeds kind of where I thought she was going to be this early,” said the Wildcats assistant coach, who was the 2004 Olympic silver medalist in the pole vault. “She’s tough as nails and just getting tougher by the day.”
On June 7, Gruver capped her junior year by becoming the first woman to capture back-to-back NCAA crowns in the pole vault since former Indiana State standout Kylie Hutson did so in 2009 and 2010. In her victories in 2017 and earlier this month, Gruver defeated 2016 Olympian and Arkansas junior Lexi Jacobus.
Those wins have prompted Gruver to begin considering competing to represent the United States in the 2019 International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships in Doha, Qatar, and the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“She made it to the next level, which is where I want to be,” Gruver said of Jacobus. “So knowing that I can be right up there with her is awesome. It shows that all of my hard work is paying off and that I can take this to the next level.”
ESPN track and field reporter Jill Montgomery, who has covered the past six NCAA championships for the network, said Gruver has the tools to compete internationally.
“I think she’s already knocking on the world stage door, for sure,” said Montgomery, who competed in the indoor pentathlon and the outdoor heptathlon at Washington State and Kansas State. “I think she’s definitely in that conversation. I think her and any of the women that were jumping at nationals will be at that next level.”
Since regularly clearing 13 feet at Franklin, becoming The Baltimore Sun’s 2014-15 All-Metro indoor track Performer of the Year and winning the high school pole vault crown at the 2015 Penn Relays, Gruver has added two feet to her vaults, setting a personal record of 15 feet, 3¾ inches at the SEC indoor championships in February.
But in the week leading up to the start of the outdoor season, Gruver took off for a practice vault, landed on her right foot and rolled her ankle. Further examination revealed a fractured ankle.
“At first, we thought it was just a sprain, but the pain just kept getting worse and worse,” she said. “And once we got the X-rays, we saw that it was a fracture.”
Rather than have surgery, Gruver wore a walking boot and maneuvered on crutches for six weeks. Her first competition of the season was the Kentucky Relays on May 5, which gave her only four weeks before the NCAA championships.
“I had my days when I didn’t want to do anything,” she said. “But I had my coaches and my athletic trainers to push me the entire way. They were behind my back, saying, ‘You can do this. You know you can do this.’ It really helped me.”
After placing fourth at the SEC championships and third in the East Regionals, Gruver cleared 14 feet, 11 inches on her first attempt at the NCAA championships and did not need to take another vault.
“Knowing that I can come back from that in that short amount of time and still be as strong as I was, it meant everything,” she said. “It gave me a lot of confidence.”
Jacobus cleared 15 feet, 5 inches at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials to earn the bronze medal and the final spot for the Olympics. So Gruver has some work to do, but Stevenson said he expects Gruver to exceed 16 feet.
“I think she’s got a good shot,” he said. “I just don’t know when. It’s not a matter of if she’s going to be good. It’s a matter of when.”
Montgomery said Gruver’s technique has improved under the watchful eye of Stevenson, whom she called “the ultimate technician.” Montgomery said she has noticed Gruver’s emotional maturation over the years.
“I think her confidence has gone through the roof as well,” she said. “You can tell that when she’s out there, she’s in total control and she knows what she’s doing. The vault is a very mental sport. It’s extremely hard on you mentally because of the technical issues that are involved. … So she has become in my opinion a lot more mentally sound.”
Gruver, who plans to return home this summer and catch up on her sleep (“Just hanging out and being a little bit of a normal person,” she said.), laughed when asked if she could have envisioned her career taking off as it has.
“When I came in here, I wasn’t jumping very high,” she said. “But I knew that if I put all of my focus into it, I could do it because I’ve done sports my whole life, and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. So I want to be great and continue this throughout my life.”
Stevenson said he and Gruver have already discussed her objectives for her final year of college eligibility, which includes trying to become the first female athlete to win three straight pole-vaulting titles at the NCAA level.
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“I think she’s a very special individual as an athlete and a human being, and if she puts her mind to it, she’s going to be good,” he said. “I hesitate to say that the sky is the limit for anybody because you just never know, but if she wants to, I fully see her definitely becoming one of the top female jumpers in the country.”