Franklin star pole vaulter Olivia Gruver likes her space prior to taking flight -- a place where she can keep to herself and focus.
She will seek that solitude before the Class 3A state outdoor track and field championship at Morgan State on Friday, but finding it wasn't so easy in Philadelphia on April 24.
On the day she competed in the prestigious Penn Relays for the first time, Gruver woke up bothered by a cold. After sleeping most of the way, the junior arrived at historic Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania and couldn't find her high school coach, Paul Hannsen.
Afterward, she walked out of the stadium and wasn't allowed to return because she didn't have her pass. It took 30 minutes and a lengthy walk around the stadium to get back in.
With 21,000 spectators on hand that day in addition to the hundreds of athletes competing in various events, Gruver finally managed to find a tiny corner of the field she could call her own for 15 precious minutes.
And then, at 1 p.m. under windy conditions, she cleared 12 feet, 3.5 inches on her first vault to better 17 competitors and win the Penn Relay's High School Girls Pole Vault Championship.
Big-meet pressure? Sure. And Gruver loves it.
"It was really awesome. I work better under pressure and that's what I tell myself," she said. "I just feel better in that environment because I feel like I have to do better. So it just pushes me more."
In just three years, Gruver, who also competes in the high jump, long jump and an occasional relay race for Franklin, has gone from being a novice pole vaulter to one of the best in the country. In her breakthrough indoor season, she set a Maryland record when she vaulted 13 feet to win the Class 3A state championship.
At the New Balance National Indoor meet in New York City in mid-March, she finished tied for second when she cleared a personal-best 13 feet, 4.5 inches. It was the third-best effort in the country this year. Last Saturday, she placed first in the pole vault and long jump, and took third in the high jump to qualify for the state semifinals in each event.
Gruver was a competitive gymnast for nine years before a growth spurt in eighth grade put her at 5 feet 9 and looking for something new.
Track and field — particularly pole vaulting — has been the ideal fit. Her DC Vault Club coach, Eddie Luthy, saw immediate potential when she walked through the door as a freshman. Gruver arrived naturally athletic, fast, powerful and fearless thanks to her gymnastics background. She was also willing to learn.
"Her physical ability — she's a great athlete all around — as well as, and more importantly, a motivation to train hard and take instruction and do whatever coaches ask of her — that combination is kind of rare in an athlete," Luthy said. "Olivia is very humble, so she really takes instruction well and she's really dedicated, so she works hard to do whatever she is told to do. All around, she's an ideal athlete to work with. Those personal elements she possesses — in conjunction to the training environment she is fortunate to have — has a lot to do with why she has accelerated so fast this year."
Just how far has Gruver come?
Her best effort as a freshman was 9 feet, 5.78 inches during the outdoor season and she reached 10 feet during the indoor season last year. After she missed her sophomore outdoor season with a broken ankle, disrupting her development, she returned in the fall and quickly began exceeding expectations. With the progress Gruver made after her return, Luthy expected her to jump 13 feet by the outdoor season. Now, he sees a chance at her clearing 14 feet sooner rather than later.
"I couldn't even imagine if you would have told me I could do 14 feet when I first started," Gruver said. "It definitely takes dedication. And you're going to have those meets when you do terrible. But you just have to keep think that it's just one meet and the next one will be better."
Gruver also couldn't imagine what arrives at Franklin's guidance office on a more and more regular basis: letters of interest from top colleges. She has heard from UCLA, Notre Dame, LSU and Georgetown, among others. Almost embarrassed and only after some prodding, she describes the stack of letters she keeps at home as "pretty deep."
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"We've been totally amazed," said her mother, Beth Gruver. "She has the feeling that she's amazed that she's been able to accomplish this in such a short amount of time to receive this attention. A few years ago, she knew she wanted to go to college, but she had no idea where she may want to go. Now, two years later, she has several good schools interested in talking to her."
It makes the commitment worthwhile. She trains at DC Vault up to three times a week from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., doing her homework (she's an A student) while her mother drives. When the traffic is reasonable, it's an hour, 15 minute trek from Reisterstown.
This is the time of year when all the hard work pays off. For Gruver, it's a thrill every time she starts her determined run, plants her pole in the box and takes off. Doing it in a big meet is even better.
"It feels like you're flying when you're coming down," she said. "You're not really thinking when you're doing it — you're just going for it. And once you have the experience, it becomes natural and you glide right through it. It happens in a split second, but it's so amazing when it does happen."