Tuesday, June 14, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> History-making freshman

Leader sports editor

University of Arkansas freshman Lexi Weeks has already experienced an historic six months. On Monday, she turned her sights to making more history as she prepares for the United States track and field Olympic trials.

Weeks just got back from Eugene, Ore., where she made history for the third time this year by becoming the first freshman to ever win the NCAA Outdoor national championship in the pole vault.

In three weeks, she will try to become the youngest-ever female pole vaulter from the United States to become an Olympian.

Weeks, a 2015 graduate of Cabot High School, is still five months away from her 20th birthday. She spent her entire high school career, along with twin sister Tori, breaking state and national high school records in the pole vault. But even that high school success didn’t prepare her for her surprising collegiate dominance.

“I had no idea, honestly,” said Weeks of her unprecedented success.

She admits that before the season, she would’ve been happy just to qualify for nationals. “My first goal was 15 feet, next was to just make it nationals,” Weeks said. I just wanted to be there for the meet. I had no idea at the end of this year I’d have two national championships.”

In her first-ever collegiate meet back in January, Weeks cleared 14-feet, 9-inches, which was the required height to qualify for the Olympic trials, to win the indoor Razorback Invitational.

She is undefeated as a collegiate in indoor and outdoor competition. She is the only freshman in NCAA history to win a pole vault national championship, and the only one to win both indoor and outdoor. The same is true for her two Southeastern Conference championships.

With no freshman ever achieving such success, Weeks was able to cruise through her early achievements without much pressure. By the end of the season, that had changed. There was pressure going into the outdoor championships.

The Razorback Women desperately wanted to rebound from a disappointing second-place finish in the 2015 outdoor championships. They had won the 2015 indoor title and were favored to take outdoors as well, but fell short.

Weeks knew she would be a critical part of that achievement of turning that around this season.

“I did feel pressure,” Weeks said. “I went into the meet ranked No. 1, so my teammates and coaches expected a lot from me. I think, through the whole indoor season and SEC meets, I gained of lot of experience and I was able to handle the pressure.”

Tori Weeks has always been a driving force for the ultra-competitive Lexi. For the most part, Lexi Weeks stayed a couple inches ahead of Tori, but the results were close enough to keep the competition fierce. Tori even eclipsed Lexi’s high school national indoor record last summer, though Lexi regained it several weeks later.

That driving force continues. In any previous year, Tori’s heights this year would have been considered phenomenal for a freshman. She finished second in the SEC indoor championships and placed sixth at nationals, but had a disappointing outdoor finish.

On Monday, only Lexi and 2015 NCAA national champion Sandi Morris remained at the UA training center as they prepare for the trials.

Morris, who graduated from Arkansas last year, won the United States Indoor championship this year with a jump of 16-3, and continues to train at the UA’s Randal Tyson Track Center.

“She is great,” Lexi said of Morris. “She’s so encouraging. It’s nice to practice and train with one of the best vaulters in the world. Now it’s just her and me training together since we’re both going to trials.”

Morris is considered an almost-shoe-in to get one of the three spots on the Olympic team. Another is 2012 Olympic champion Jenn Suhr.

They are the only two American jumpers to clear 16 feet this year, though both were achieved indoors.

Demi Payne of Stephen F. Austin, who was injured most of this collegiate season, also cleared 16-0 indoors last year, and has a personal record of 15-1 outdoors.

She returned from her thumb injury to finish third in the USA indoor championships behind Morris and Suhr.

Two others, Megan Clark of Duke University and Alysha Newman of the University of Miami, have cleared 15-feet this season.

“I think Sandi Morris and Jenn Suhr are the heavy favorites, but that third spot is going to be up for grabs,” Weeks said. “I’ll probably have to go 15-6 or something like that. I’m going to have to PR for sure.”

The Olympic trials run July 1-10 at the University of Oregon. The women’s pole vault qualifying round is July 8 and begins at 1 p.m. CST.

The pole vault finals will begin at 12:30 p.m. on the final day of competition.