It took all of one meet for Diamara Planell Cruz to make a name for herself in the Husky recordbooks, as the junior college transfer soared over 13-feet, 11.25-inches at the UW Indoor Preview on Jan. 18, jumping to No. 2 on the UW Top-10 list that’s full of All-Americans. A native of Puerto Rico, Planell Cruz moved to California at the end of high school, having just recently taken up the vault. After winning two California State Community College titles at San Jose City College, Planell Cruz became a Husky. She’s currently tied for 14th in the NCAA heading into the Husky Classic this weekend, with the top-16 making it to NCAA Indoors next month. Planell Cruz talked about her great start, and how she has already changed a lot of minds about her sport back home in Puerto Rico.
GoHuskies.com: How has the transition been to working with Coach Licari? What sorts of changes have you made so far in your time here?
Diamara Planell Cruz: The transition has been good; it’s been different. Pat and I have worked on changing some stuff here technique-wise. We have been jumping a lot which is something that is new to me. I usually go into preseason with more running and endurance. We don’t have an indoor season in California so that is when we start jumping. Before I came in my expectations were I thought this year was going to be more technical, and maybe I’d set some PRs, and just try to be a competitor. Now that I have seen what I can do with Pat, and we have made the changes that we have, I’m definitely in more of an in-it-to-win-it mode. I want to finish high at NCAAs, if not win it. I think it is a real possibility. We go into every week with a mentality of ‘this is what we worked on and let’s try to execute it in the meet,’ and if it works we say ‘okay we have got that down, now what do we have to do for the next meet?’ Monday we come in and it’s back to the drawing board. That is kind of the approach we have every week. It seems to be working so we are going to stick with it.
GH: The first meet, going just under the 14-foot mark, did you surprise yourself at all?
DPC: After that meet I definitely saw that I could get big PRs. More times than I can count, I’ve been confronted with that mark of 4.17 which was the original (Puerto Rico) record before I broke it, and I always came up short, I was always close but not close enough. And just to see that I could make it that easily, and go back to the videos and see that I still was only doing half the work. I saw that I could go a lot higher and that I wasn’t stuck. That was a huge weight lifted and a sign that this season could be a lot bigger than I thought. The original goal was to break that record and hit 14-feet. Now that I see that it’s there I can see that there is a lot more to do.
GH: Apart from vaulting, how has the change been just with the move and new campus and classes?
DPC: It’s been good. It has been just a slow, progressive thing. I’m still getting used to the weather. It’s definitely not December on an island. Besides that I like the school, I like the teachers, I like the learning environment, and I like my team even more than I expected from when I first visited. Everybody seemed like a nice person as an individual but as a team I thought we were kind of separated. I’m really glad to say that our jumps team is really close. All the high jumpers and long jumpers all get along really well and we are more of a family, so that is kind of a bonus.
GH: The women’s vaulters have been doing really well as a group so far this season. Four girls already over 13-feet or right under. How is it different for you having all these people to train with?
DPC: I started vaulting as a junior in high school when I first moved here. I was literally by myself. I was the only vaulter. Then I went to my college for the first year and it was just me and this other girl. My sophomore year we added one more freshman, but it was always kind of a small group. Competition-wise we all had different PRs so it was a little bit lonely. Last week at New Mexico someone from Kansas approached us and asked us ‘How many vaulters do you guys have?’ and I understood how many vaulters did we bring, so I said six. They were like ‘Six? Did you bring all of them?’ and I said ‘Six is what we brought, there are like six more back home that we didn’t bring.’ It was really cool to see that we have this competitive team that everybody saw and said I can’t believe that all those girls are vaulters and all of them can go over 13 feet. We are at four so it is a really good start to the season.
GH: How and when did you first take up the pole vault? Is it an uncommon sport in Puerto Rico?
DPC: I was originally a gymnast, then around the transition from seventh to eighth grade I had a knee fracture and it was never the same. I couldn’t compete at the same level and so I was forced to pull out because they said I needed surgery if I kept going. I was young, I was only 13, and my parents did not want me to get surgery at that age so they pulled me out. For a while it was a little depressing because since I was seven years old I had known nothing but sports so I kind of didn’t know what to do with my life. I started getting into volleyball, but that was just a hobby. Then I started doing track seriously around ninth grade. Then in 10th grade I realized I wanted to go to college in track. I wanted to go get an athletic scholarship and go to school in the U.S. because it was something that wasn’t really done in Puerto Rico. It was a really rare thing for people to leave but I wanted to do that.
I came out here and I was originally a multi-event, I was a sprinter, hurdler, long jumper, and high jumper. One day I said to my coach, ‘I want to do pole vaulting’. I wanted to do pole-vaulting because it is as close to gymnastics as you can get. I really liked it and it turned out that I was pretty good at it because of the gymnastics background and the fact that I was a sprinter and a long jumper just gave me huge advantages. It is really a mental game too and I was just determined to make it work. In high school in Puerto Rico girls can’t vault; it’s just a boy’s sport. If you want to vault you have to go to a club team or go to a college.
I wanted to break that barrier because I was tired of people saying we couldn’t do it. When I first started people were saying that I was too young and didn’t have the experience because the original girl who held the record was 26, and the former record-holder was also 26. So, me being 19, and 20 now, and saying that I wanted to complete these goals, and people said that I didn’t have the experience but I went out there my freshman year and competed in the junior division at a Central American Game and brought home the gold. I jumped 3.95 and went to Barcelona (for the World Junior Championships) and that is when they saw that maybe there is something here. Especially after jumping 4.25 now they are watching my meets all the time. Last week at New Mexico I got a text (from a representative of the Federation) saying ‘Congratulations, there is so much more ahead for you.’ It is good to see that develop from them telling me I was too young or to be more realistic. It is nice to see that support, and then I go back this past summer to compete in the senior division and there were about ten girls that were competing, where the last time I competed there were three of us. A lot of these girls were gymnasts as well with me so it was good to see that something was being done and that there was this awareness going on that we could do it and that we could elevate the level of competition. There are a lot of talented athletes in Puerto Rico, but it is tough to get the support. It is good to see that there is a change that can be made and that I could be a part of that.
GH: Was it always your goal to eventually become a Division-I athlete?
DPC: When I first moved here I didn’t really know how the college system worked. You only know of the famous schools like the Ivy Leagues. You don’t really know what other schools are out there that are good, especially in pole vaulting which I was so new at. I had only been vaulting for like a year when I graduated high school. I wanted to be at a D-I because I didn’t want this to just be a college thing. I want to go as far as I can go, whether that is just college or be a professional. I just keep aiming for that. I had good schools recruit me: Nevada-Reno, UCLA was kind of interested but there was no scholarship. Hawaii was interested but I just felt like I could do better. I had talked to Pat and they said he was the best. If the best coach out there is interested in me that means there has to be something there. Coming here was just a dream come true and that can be crossed off the list. Now we can keep moving on to bigger and better things.
GH: How different is it competing in junior college meets compared to the Dempsey?
DPC: Oh yeah, there is a huge difference. Coming here is like coming to the Olympic Training Center for me. It’s an amazing experience. It’s great to be at a D-I school and with Pat who I’ve been talking with for so long. It is just such a different atmosphere to have an indoor season, have all the poles that I could possibly need, and just to have that luxury is a privilege and I am trying to take full advantage of it. Just to have this level of competition where girls jump equally as good or better than you. You just have to go in saying ‘I can do better than that’. It’s an atmosphere that pushes you to be better every day.
GH: What technical aspects do you need to work on to go even higher?
DPC: It is a lot of consistency work. My run and take-off has been the focus this week. Every week we focus on something different and we build on the blocks from the week before. This year has been just adjusting my take-off and making sure it is consistent and every jump is just as good, if not better than the last one. That way I can move on to the bigger poles we have in storage that we just got in. It is just working a lot on that. I just make sure that every single time my run and take-off are the same. From there you start thinking about the other stuff like getting your arms up, getting upside down, getting your shoulders next to the pole, and all that kind of stuff. Every week we look at videos and see what the focus for the week will be.
GH: Do you know what you want to major in?
DPC: I am about to declare a Biology major with a focus in physiology. From there I hope to go to med school and become a radiologist somewhere in either sports medicine or muscular or pediatrics. I have gotten a lot of x-rays and stuff which intrigued me to look at the MRIs and find what’s wrong and where the tear is or what’s going on. I really like that so that’s what I am leaning towards now and hopefully that works out.
GH: You probably don’t get a ton of “free time” but how do you like to relax when you’re not training or studying?
DPC: Free time, what’s that? Definitely a lot of our time goes in here. It kind of comes with the territory. At the end of the day we don’t always love every moment but we couldn’t picture our lives any other way. It pays off in the end when you get to go to these big meets and bond and just have the experience. Besides catching up on sleep, we’ll just watch TV and catch up on all the episodes. If we have a meet and are free on Friday, we all go grab dinner and hang out and be regular people. We are kind of spontaneous. If it is football season we will all watch the game at someone’s house. Usually the activities are pretty relaxing because we have just had such tough weeks with studying. I live with two throwers. I’ll get home and we will all be crawling because we are sore from the day.