Tuesday, July 12, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Personal best hurls Weeks into Olympics

By RAY BENTONLeader sports editor

Lexi Weeks grew a little teary-eyed when she met the Olympic trials standard in her first-ever collegiate meet back in January. She struggled to contain her emotions entirely once at the trials.

On Sunday, the 2015 Cabot graduate cleared a personal best 4.70 meters in the pole vault to qualify for Team USA in the Summer Olympics at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, becoming the youngest American Olympic pole vaulter in the short history of the sport. Women’s pole vaulting has only been an Olympic event since the 2000 games in Sydney, Australia.

Weeks, who had already put together a remarkable freshman year at the University of Arkansas, joins former Razorback Sandi Morris and defending Olympic champion Jenn Suhr on Team USA.

“It is so surreal I’m still not even sure it’s completely sunk in,” Weeks told The Leader on Tuesday. “After it was over, we did a victory lap together around the track and it took us like 20 minutes to make it around from all the people stopping us and congratulating us, and cheering. Just being in that moment with Sandi and Jenn Suhr, I just can’t describe it.”

Even the usually surly and tough Razorback Women’s field event coach Mike Compton couldn’t contain his joy.

“He’s one of those coaches who is really tough and demanding perfection,” Weeks said. “He’s never super giddy or anything like that, but he was just so ecstatic that two of his athletes had made the Olympics.”

It is a bit ironic that the first meet Weeks lost all year was her greatest achievement.

As a freshman Razor-back, Weeks picked up right where Morris, a 2015 graduate, left off. Weeks won two conference and two national championships, and was the first freshman in NCAA Women’s history to win any of them. She won the SEC Indoor, SEC Outdoor, NCAA National Indoor, and NCAA National Outdoor championships.

Her personal best coming into the Trials was 4.62 meters, or 15-feet, 2-inches. She could have continued jumping after clearing 4.70 (15-5) and gone for second or even first place, but she and Compton decided to shut it down and enjoy the achievement of making the Olympic team.

Suhr won the Trials, which was also the U.S. Outdoor Championship, with a jump of 4.8 meters, or 15-9. Morris, who beat Suhr at the U.S. Indoor Championships with a jump of 4.93, was second at Trials with a 4.75 (15-7).

At just 19 years old, Weeks put no pressure on herself to qualify for the Olympics this year. She jumps on shorter poles and her personal best coming into the meet was far short of the top three jumpers. Suhr has the highest mark in the world this year at 16-5. Morris and recently graduated Stephen F. Austin senior Demi Payne had both gone over 16-feet.

But when Payne, who suffered a thumb injury and had not competed since April, failed to advance past last Friday’s preliminary round, that’s when it began to occur to Weeks that she had a chance.

“Demi has gone 16, but we didn’t know what she would do because she’d been hurt and hadn’t competed in so long,” Weeks said.

“But I still just wasn’t expecting to make it at all. After prelims, Sandi said to me, ‘Do you realize how serious of a shot you have?’ I think she believed in me more than I did. But I was like, ‘Sandi, I don’t know.’ I just wanted to kind of put it out of my head and not put any pressure.”

Weeks raced to a personal best 15-3 without a miss. She cleared the first five bars with ease, missing only on her first attempt at 15-5.

The prelims were hindered by heavy rain, and qualifying jumps were not high ones. But she did not enter finals until 14-6. When she cleared it with ease, she felt like it could be a good day.

“I had never come in so high,” Weeks said of the height she chose to start with on Sunday. “I went over and it felt pretty good. There was definitely some adrenaline going in that atmosphere.”

Much in the same way she approached the Trials, Weeks is not raising expectations very high for the Olympic Games. Worldwide, there are several athletes with higher PRs, including who is sure to be crowd favorite Fabiana Murer of Brazil.

Murer has the highest outdoor vault in the world this year at 4.87 meters. Ekaterini Stefanídi of Greece, Yarisley Silva of Cuba, Morris and Suhr round out the top five this year in outdoors competition.

Weeks, in her relative inexperience, uses a shorter pole than most of her Olympic competitors will use.

“I’m using one that’s 4.3 meters,” Weeks said. “Sandi uses 4.7s and many of them use longer ones than that. Coach and I talked about moving up to longer poles, but that’s something that we will wait and start training with next season. It changes everything about the jump to switch, so I’m just going to stick with my little poles and go out there and do the best I can do.”

Medal or no medal in 2016, Weeks is excited about the Olympic experience, especially since it’s with a friend and training partner.

“This being both our first Olympics, we want the whole experience,” Weeks said. “We’re going to leave here on (Aug.) 2. Stay in Houston for a night and leave the next day for Rio.”

Opening ceremonies will be Aug. 5. Prelims for the women’s pole vault are Aug. 16, qualifiers will compete in the finals on Aug. 19. Closing ceremonies will be Aug. 21.