Stacy Dragila, American pole vaulting pioneer
The USA’s Stacy Dragila blazed the trail for women pole vaulters at the end of the last millennium, claiming the first ever IAAF world indoor and outdoor titles, before taking gold when the event made its Olympic debut at Sydney 2000
Blazing a trail
An accomplished high school athlete who excelled at volleyball, sprinting, hurdles and long jump, Stacy Dragila (née Mikaelsen) eventually gravitated toward the heptathlon, and her promising results in the multi-event discipline saw her offered a scholarship by Idaho State University. The university’s athletics coach, Dave Nielsen, himself a former pole vaulter, encouraged her to try her hand at the sport, which at the time – the early 1990s – was still awaiting recognition as an official event for women. As competitions gradually began to spring up, the adaptable Californian made rapid progress, setting a new American record of just over 3m in 1994, though she only became aware of her achievement after reading about it in a magazine!
In 1996, Dragila became the first-ever American women’s pole vault champion (indoor and outdoor), and she followed this up by capturing the inaugural indoor world crown in 1997, captivating the Paris (FRA) crowd with an effort of 4.40m at the culmination of an enthralling battle with Australia’s Emma George and China’s Cai Weiyan. After the International Olympic Committee added the women’s pole vault to the programme for the Sydney Games in 2000, she tested herself against the planet’s best at the 1999 IAAF World Championships in Seville (ESP), which also featured the discipline for the first time. Recording a world record vault of 4.60m at her second attempt, Dragila added the global outdoor title to her burgeoning CV.
During the US Olympic trials in Sacramento, held on 23 July 2000, Dragila broke her own world record by clearing a height of 4.63m. On 25 September 2000, in front of 110,000 fans packed inside Sydney’s Stadium Australia, which was still vibrating from Cathy Freeman’s iconic 400m victory, she went head-to-head with another home favourite, Tatiana Grigorieva (AUS) for the first women’s Olympic pole vault title.
The Australian moved into pole position by clearing 4.55m at the first time of asking, a height at which Dragila initially failed. Once the bar was raised to 4.60m, however, only the American athlete proved up to the task, landing the gold medal and entering the history books with an Olympic record vault. “I remember being on the podium with the medal around my neck and had a flashback to different situations where people doubted that the pole vault would ever take off and make it to that level,” she recalled. “And to people cheering me on and to those who told me I could do it. There were a lot of emotions going through my mind at that time, but mainly I felt pure joy at having accomplished the task. My coach and I had been through a lot together; it was a good day.”
At the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton (CAN), Dragila retained her title – the only female pole vaulter to ever achieve such a feat – with an effort of 4.75m. She would go on to improve on her world record several times, extending it to 4.83m in 2004, before Yelena Isinbayeva (RUS) decisively made it her own in the years that followed. Dragila also broke her world indoor record, which peaked at 4.78m in 2003, with similar frequency. Injured prior to Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, Dragila unfortunately failed to qualify for another Olympic Games. At 38, she competed in her last Worlds in Berlin in 2009, before bringing her sporting career to an end. In 2014, she was inducted into the American National Track and Field Hall of Fame.