EUGENE – History was made in the women’s pole vault at the NCAA Championships as young mom won a dramatic competition between the two best female vaulters in collegiate history.
Demi Payne of Stephen F. Austin and Sandi Morris of Arkansas traded the lead back and forth on Thursday evening just as they have traded the collegiate record back and forth several times this season. The pair, who did not even start vaulting until most of the other vaulters had already been eliminated, look like they could be the future in this event for the U.S.
Payne and Morris easily cleared several heights, and eclipsed the previous meet record of 14-7 ¼ with ease. The first separation came at 15-1, when Payne cleared on her first attempt but Morris needed two tries to get over the bar. At the next height, 15-3, Payne again cleared on her first attempt, while Morris once more needed two attempts to get a clearance.
At 15-5, Payne, still with no misses in the competition, again vaulted first and again cleared. After Morris missed, she passed her next two attempts and the bar went to 15-7. Despite several close attempts, neither woman could get over the bar, and Payne took the victory.
Payne was attending and vaulting at Kansas University in 2013 when she found out she was pregnant. She eventually transferred to Stephen F. Austin to be closer to her family, and gave birth to her daughter, Charlee, in October 2013. Four days later, she began vaulting under the guidance of her father, former world-class vaulter Bill Payne.
Admitting that she had not been fully committed to her athletic career, the new mom got her life in order and began training more seriously. Her improvement came quickly, as she has improved by more than a foot and a half since resuming her career. Her best mark of 15-7 came indoors, and her coach has said that he thinks Payne is capable of not only clearing 16 feet, which only four women have ever done, but also claiming the world record one day.
Dramatic swings of momentum ruled the day in the race for the women’s team title on Thursday. several of the top contenders took a hit or two in qualifying action on Thursday. While Oregon’s Jasmine Todd failure to qualify for the 100 meter finals appeared to be a huge blow for the Ducks, Oregon made up for it with unexpected points elsewhere, notably in the 10,000.
Favorite USC also had some issues. The sprinter-laden Trojans were not able to qualify anyone for the finals of the 200 or the 400, which will cost them some points, and, unlike the Ducks, they were not able to compensate even partially by scoring elsewhere.
Arkansas and Florida also dropped off on projections in an event or two, but both were able to compensate for those losses by coming through better than expected on points in other events.
One of the biggest individual favorites here is Arizona State senior Shelby Houlihan in the 1500. Houlihan is the defending meet champion, winning here last year in 4:18.10, and has won three Pac-12 titles in the 1500.
Houlihan won her semifinal race on Thursday in a time of 4:16.87, leading virtually the entire race, as she often does. She said she is not comfortable letting the pace lag and having it come down to a frantic sprint at the end.
“I just wanted it to be an honest race,” Houlihan said. “I don’t really like leaving it to being strategic so I just took it out. I’m comfortable doing that. It was fine – it felt good.”
While Houlihan is heavy favorite to repeat in the 1500 meters, she wasn’t comfortable running just one event here. She decided to double in the 5000 meters, which is also on Saturday afternoon, and is the only woman attempting the difficult double. Houlihan will have just an hour and 40 minutes between the two races on Saturday.
“It was kind of a last minute thing,” Houlihan said with a laugh when asked about her challenging double.
“I was looking at the schedule and I thought it is my last national meet, so why not, we should just do it. My coach was like why not, if you want to do it let’s go. So I am going to try it out, and we’ll see how it goes.”
Houlihan has experience in doing the unusual double, and has admirable range. She has run – and won – both races at the last two Pac-12 championships. Plus, she said, she just loves to race at any distance.
“I really love to race,” Houlihan said with a smile. “I don’t really care if it’s the 400 or the 10K it doesn’t really matter. I love racing and I just wanted to double up this last year.”
Her coach, Louie Quintana, has faith in Houlihan’s competitive spirit.
“Whenever she laces it up, whether she’s running cross country or a 4 x 400, she’s going to give you everything she has and think she can win.”
As a child, Houlihan had her spleen and gall bladder removed due to a hereditary blood disorder. Perhaps because the disorder requires her to closely monitor her health constantly, Houlihan has remained remarkably healthy throughout her running career.
The diminutive 22-year-old said that whatever happens on Saturday afternoon, her season will continue at least through the U.S. national championships, which will take place at Hayward in two weeks. Houlihan said she will try to make the U.S. team for the World Championships in the 1500 meters.
“I think I have a pretty good chance at (US Nationals),” she said. “I can PR by a lot I think. My PR is 4:10 and I ran 4:11 at Pac-12s, and it felt like just a jog so I know I can run a lot faster. ”