Placer County’s frequent fliers

Well after Dragila’s Olympic glory, the pole vault is thriving all over the foothills
By: Todd Mordhorst Journal Sports Editor
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Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on pole vaulting in the foothills. For Part II, see Sunday's Journal. Mackenzie Landry heard the calling from an early age. Cale and Robbie Simmons couldn’t avoid the pull of the pole vault. Derrick Hinch was drawn to the runway like a moth to a flame. From Roseville to Colfax, the foothills are now teeming with pole vault talent. But why? What is it about this area that is so conducive to this unique skill? Is there something in the water that prompts these athletes to project themselves over horizontal bars the height of small buildings? A combination of factors has combined to produce a legitimate hotbed for pole vaulting. Placer’s pioneer of the pole vault Stacy Dragila won’t take credit for the foothills’ many pole vault success stories, but it’s tough to ignore her impact. Most of today’s high school stars have heard the name, but some don’t realize Dragila was the first Olympic gold medallist in the history of the women’s pole vault. The 1990 Placer High graduate dominated the sport for the better part of a decade and owned the world record for several years. Dragila made the CIF State Championship finals in the 300-meter hurdles in her final two seasons at Placer. She went on to compete at Yuba College where her strength and speed made her an excellent heptathlete. Coach Dave Nielsen recruited Dragila to Idaho State, where she first picked up a pole. As a junior at ISU, she cleared 10 feet in 1994 — establishing a new national record. After graduation she dedicated herself to the event and quickly cemented herself as a pioneer in the sport. Five years after clearing 15-9.75 — her personal best — Dragila is still at it. She’s at least 10 years older than many of her peers, but she is training hard in San Diego, preparing for next month’s U.S. Championships in Eugene, Ore. Dragila has battled injuries in recent years and just missed out on making her third U.S. Olympic team last summer when she placed seventh at the U.S. team trials. She has said this will be her final year of competition. “But if I end up doing really well, who knows?” Dragila said. Her legacy is already well established, especially in and around her hometown. “It’s fun to be that first one, but now there’s a second and third generation that have a role model,” Dragila said. “Now to see (women’s pole vaulting), it’s amazing. It’s done so well and it’s still progressing.” Passing the torch It didn’t take long for local athletes to follow Dragila’s lead. Paul Litchfield was a junior at Bear River High when he got a dare to compete in the decathlon. That same year, he ran into Dragila and Nielsen at a street vault in Sacramento shortly after he had won a decathlon. “They saw my name in the paper and came and talked to me about Idaho State,” Litchfield said. “They showed interest and I came out (to Pocatello) and checked out the school. It turned out to be a really good fit.” Litchfield’s been in Idaho ever since. He’s now competing professionally and serving as a coach for the Bengals’ vaulters. He’s seen the foothills develop into an epicenter for vaulting, but it didn’t happen overnight. “It wasn’t big in the area when I was in high school,” Litchfield said. “A jump of 14-6 was a really good jump then. Now they’re going 16 and 17 feet in high school. I hope I’ve been an influence because it’s such a great event.” Dragila has kept close ties to the area. She tried to convince Del Oro sophomore Mackenzie Landry to give pole vault a try years ago. Landry resisted then, but once she got into high school, she jumped on the runway and hasn’t looked back. “Stacy’s a family friend and she tried to get me to do it a long time ago,” Landry said. “Women’s vaulting is growing so much. It’s getting more popular and it’s pretty competitive in this area, so that makes it fun.” Placer senior Dylan Swisley is a distant cousin of Dragila and, not coincidentally, an excellent vaulter herself. Like Dragila, Swisley’s specialty at Placer is the hurdles. But she’s also cleared 11-3 in the pole vault, which is the 19th best mark in the state this season. “I think once someone has done something special and had success, I think that just kind of breeds more success,” Dragila said.