Pole vaulter Olivia Gruver’s season didn’t end quite as she had hoped.
On the heels of breaking the NCAA outdoor record in pole vaulting in late March and posting the sixth-best mark this year by any woman, the Reisterstown native and Franklin High graduate missed out on an unprecedented third consecutive title in the NCAA Division I meet last week, finishing third.
Next up for Gruver, a University of Washington senior who is considered one of the top outdoor pole vaulters in the world, is the USA outdoor track and field championships in about six weeks.
Gruver could qualify for the International Association of Athletics Federations world championships in Qatar in late September and early October if she can finish in the top three at the USA championships. And then there is the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo on the horizon.
“That’s the goal, and it’s always been the goal,” she said last week of the Olympics. “But I’m going to take every competition as it comes. I don’t want to get too ahead of myself. I think if I keep working the way I have been, there’s a good chance I’ll make it. But you never know what’s going to happen down the road, and I just want to take every competition as it comes.”
Her height of 15 feet, 6¼ inches at the Stanford Invitational in March not only set an NCAA outdoor record, it shattered the school record for women by more than a foot and eclipsed the Pac-12 conference mark by over five inches. And it came just two weeks after Gruver failed to clear her opening height at the USC Trojan Invite.
“I always knew I had the ability to do it, to break the collegiate record,” she said. “I just didn’t realize that it was going to be that meet. But when you go into meets, you always strive for it, but when it happens like that and you’re not expecting it, it’s just an amazing feeling because the meet before that, I no-heighted. I didn’t jump the bar. And then going into the next meet, I was hungry for a bar. I wanted to open up my outdoor season high, and it just so happened that I broke the collegiate record.”
Gruver claimed NCAA crowns as a sophomore and junior at the University of Kentucky, adding two feet to her heights after regularly clearing 13 feet en route to 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.
When Toby Stevenson, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist in the pole vault who recruited Gruver to the Wildcats, left the Kentucky program to become the associate head coach for the Huskies, Gruver quickly followed.
Only one woman, 2012 Olympic gold medalist and 2016 world indoor champion Jenn Suhr, has cleared 16 feet this year, but if there is anyone else who can join her, it is Gruver, according to Franklin track and field coach Paul Hannsen.
“She’s tall, strong, her technique is getting there,” said Hannsen, who has been coaching the Indians for 10 years. “You’re only talking about six inches, which is a lot at that level, but it’s not a foot-and-a-half or something like that. So that is realistic.”
I’m going to take every competition as it comes. I don’t want to get too ahead of myself.— Olivia Gruver, about her Olympic aspirations
Gruver revealed Friday that she has been bothered by a left hamstring strain she initially suffered before the Pac-12 championships a month ago.
“I am ready for a break to rest my body up a little bit,” she said with a tinge of relief in her voice. “It’s been very long, but I think the best thing I can do right now is rest up and bring my body back up to 100 percent.”
Gruver, only the second woman to ever win back-to-back outdoor pole vault crowns, sat out the Pac-12 meet and said she had jumped only at the NCAA Division I West regionals and at one practice before finishing third with a height of 14 feet, 7¼ inches at the NCAA meet in Austin, Texas.
Gruver acknowledged that dealing with the strain has “been hard,” but cleared her first three heights on her first attempts before missing three times at 14-9½.
“I did a lot better than I thought I was going to do actually,” she said. “Warmups were OK, and I was a little rough, I felt. But I knew that I wanted to do the first attempts to try to keep that pressure off of my hamstring and not get it as tired. So I’m very proud of the way that I competed.”
ESPN track and field reporter Jill Montgomery, who has covered the nine NCAA championships for the network, said she fully anticipates that Gruver will rebound quickly.
“I think she’s a consummate pro, and you have to have moments like this in your career in order to grow you to that next level,” said Montgomery, who competed in the indoor pentathlon and the outdoor heptathlon at Washington State and Kansas State. “Now the next level for her is the world stage. So you have to be able to handle those kinds of failures. Everybody is banged up, and whether you’ve got an injury or you don’t, you have to be able to go, ‘OK, how do I go back to the drawing board and fix what I need to fix?’”
Gruver said she likely needs only two weeks of rest to heal her hamstring and then prepare for the USA championships in in Des Moines, Iowa. Montgomery said the layoff will not hurt Gruver.
“You’re not going to lose too much in four weeks of time,” she said. “If Olivia rests right now and rests that hamstring for a solid 10 days and it heals, her technique is not going to flounder that much at all. I just think she’s at a level now where you really have that next push-through.”