May 13, 2005
by Alisa Brandle
For athletes in most sports other than football and basketball, the ultimate goal at the end of one's career is as simple as it is complex -- the Olympic Games. The reality of most achieving this goal, however, is rare.
Timing is everything when it comes to the Olympics, and the details are crucial -- you must peak at the right time, be healthy at the right time, and also make it through the most pressure-packed Olympic Trials. Husky junior pole-vaulter Ashley Wildhaber is not intimidated by this lofty goal, and is realistic and straightforward about her dreams.
"My goal is to go to the Olympics," she says. "I have pretty much put all my eggs in one basket for that goal, and that is where all my priorities lie."
Wildhaber enters this week's Pac-10 Championships with the conference's third-best mark in 2005, a clearance of 13-9 ¼ at March's NCAA Indoor Championships that earned the Husky a fifth-place finish and her first-career All-America honor.
That Wildhaber would even have the opportunity to compete for national honors, and international fame, is a credit to a family friend who encouraged her while in high school to pursue the then mostly-male sport of pole vaulting, which was not added in women's competition at the NCAA Championships until 1998.
A multiple-sport athlete at W.F. West High School in Chehalis, Wash., who also lettered in volleyball and basketball, Wildhaber proved dynamic in the new discipline, ascending to the Washington State 3A championship as a sophomore in 2000, and adding a second crown at the 2002 Junior Olympics Regional.
Wildhaber's prep pole vault success led her to the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where a full scholarship and a new environment waited for her to talent to grow to Olympic potential. As a freshman, Wildhaber's list of accolades was extensive -- she crushed the UNCW outdoor record with a best of 12-feet, 6-inches, set a meet record in a victory at the 2003 Colonial Athletic Association Championships, and placed 23rd at the NCAA East Regional.
Despite her apparent success, Wildhaber returned home to Chehalis with the sense that to reaching her true potential would require a change in her training regimen, and a coach who believed in her goals and would provide her the necessary tools to achieve them.
As it would turn out, Wildhaber needed only to look up the I-5 corridor to Seattle, where University of Washington assistant coach Pat Licari was rapidly earning a reputation as one of the premier coaches of collegiate pole vaulters. In Licari's eight years at Washington, Husky vaulters have combined for two NCAA championships, three Pac-10 titles, 10 NCAA All-America honors and one U.S. senior national championship. In every way, the Washington program provided Wildhaber with exactly what she was looking for.
"There were other places for me to transfer to, but I could not have hoped for a better coach or better situation," Wildhaber says "The coach makes such a huge difference, and Pat is awesome."
It didn't hurt that Wildhaber was quickly surrounded by some of the best vaulters in the country. Training alongside two-time NCAA indoor pole vault champion Brad Walker, Pac-10 pole vault champion Kate Soma and what has become, statistically, the most accomplished women's pole vault unit in collegiate history, Wildhaber found exactly the environment she was looking for.
"Training with some of the top vaulters in the country has helped by really keeping me on my toes at all times," she says. "There is no time to sit back and relax and think that you are on top of the world because there are people around you who are right on your coattails or right above you."
The new environment gave Wildhaber a new sense of self-confidence, and the results began to show right away. She added more than seven inches to her career best in 2003, her first season in the purple and gold, and just missed an NCAA Championships berth with a seventh-place finish at the NCAA West Regional.
Her clearance at 13-9 ¼ indoors in 2005, combined with teammate Stevie Marshalek's clearance at 13-7 ¼, made Washington the first school in NCAA history with four women's vaulters over 13 feet, Washington is the only school in NCAA history to boast four women's vaulters over 13-5 in the event. Senior Kate Soma boasts a best of 14-2, while Carly Dockendorf has cleared 13-5 ¾. Freshman Kelley DiVesta, meanwhile, has cleared 12-11 ½ in her debut season at Washington, putting UW on the cusp of being the first school ever with five 13-foot vaulters in one season.
All five will compete this weekend at the Pac-10 Championships, the first of three postseason competitions for the Huskies in 2005. Currently tied for sixth in the West Region, and for 12th in the nation entering the season's home stretch, Wildhaber continues to look upward towards higher bars, and higher goals.
She is in the right place, with the right coaches and right atmosphere. Perhaps soon she will trade in the purple and gold for the red, white and blue.