by Jordan Roy-Byrne
It is often said that big-time college athletes give their life to a sport in their quest to become professionals: 'Basketball is my life,' an athlete will say, or baseball, or soccer.
Yet these athletes speak figuratively - their sports, for the most part, do not offer a true life risk.
Welcome to the world of pole vaulting, where athletes trust their lives to a fiberglass pole and their own wits. If the pole breaks, or the athlete becomes disoriented while twisting and flipping in mid-air, disaster can ensue.
It can even happen to the best of pole vaulters - a fact UW junior All-American Kate Soma knows first-hand.
Sitting in seventh place at last year's NCAA Championships, Soma's pole snapped on her final attempt at 13 feet, 9 1/2 inches. Fortunately for Soma, the break occurred early in the vault when her momentum was still mostly forward, carrying her safely onto the mat. An instant later and her momentum would have been vertical, bringing her straight back down to the ground.
"You are putting your life in the pole's hands," Soma says. "You have to have some element of trust. When I got up, I saw blood all over my leg, and there was a huge cut on my hand."
The injury forced Soma out of the meet, and also kept her from competing at the U.S. Senior National Championships a week later. Ironically, Husky vaults coach Pat Licari believes that until the pole snapped, Soma was on track for one of her best career jumps, the video of the vault showing near-flawless form in both her approach down the runway and her plant. To this day, Soma and her coach continue to be clueless as to the cause of the snap in the pole.
Fortunately, Soma's seventh-place standing was enough to earn the sophomore All-American honors, a fitting end to a season which saw the Portland, Ore., native shatter her own UW records indoors and out, and climb to sixth in Pac-10 Conference history.
It has been said that in pole vaulting, height is crucial to success, as a taller athlete has more leverage over the pole. The five-foot tall Soma has thus far defied such thinking, and adds some of her own.
"I actually did my own research project on height," she says with a smile. "Let me just say that the women's world record holder is 5-foot-3. It's not true that you have to be tall. It's not so much how tall you are, but how fast you are running for the jump."
She's been working hard to prove her own point, and having now recovered from the injury last spring, she is excited to enhance an already impressive resume of accomplishments.
"My goal this year is to qualify for the Olympic Trials," she says.
In addition to her own drive and confidence, Soma will have the help of a pair of America's top young vaulters, including 2003 NCAA Indoor Champion Brad Walker, her teammate, and longtime friend Becky Holliday, who last year set the NCAA pole vault record in a national-championship performance for the University of Oregon.
"It gives me great people to talk to for advice," she says. "They can quickly offer a suggestion if I'm struggling with something."
Although Soma has at times made success look easy, her teammates laud her work ethic.
"Kate is really focused and is one of the hardest working people you will ever meet," says junior distance runner Lindsey Egerdahl.
Fearless, focused and driven to succeed, Soma has put her mishap at the NCAA Championships behind her and is focused instead on greater accomplishments to come.
"I feel like I've been given a gift from God and I'm hoping to glorify him through my competition," she says.
You see, Soma knows that pole vaulting is not - in fact - life.