Friday, July 01, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Weeks to make international debut

Leader sports editor

FAYETTEVILLE – This summer, Lexi Weeks will pole vault internationally for Team USA.

Now which USA women’s team the University of Arkansas freshman from Cabot vaults for will be determined July 8 and 10, at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore.
Odds are Weeks will vault at the North American/Central American/Caribbean 23-under Games in July in El Salvador, rather than the Olympic Games in August in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

As the USA’s top two U.S women’s vaulters under 23, Weeks and Duke senior Megan Clark have been pre-selected for the NACAC meet.

Only the top three performers advance to the Olympics, and three competitors have gone higher than Weeks this year.

Sandi Morris, a 2015 University of Arkansas grad and former NCAA Indoor champion and NCAA Outdoor runner-up, jumped 16-feet, 2-inches to win the U.S. Indoor Championships this year. Demi Payne, who just graduated from Stephen F. Austin and missed the entire 2016 season with an injured thumb, was the 2015 NCAA Outdoor champion, and has hit 16-feet. There’s also 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jenn Suhr, who Morris beat in the U.S. Indoor Championships, but has since turned in the highest jump in the world so far this year at 16.6.

But if one or two of the top three “slips up,” then Compton calls Weeks, the 2016 NCAA Indoor and NCAA Outdoor champion with a personal record 15-2 1-4, and former Razorback All-American April Steiner-Bennett, 36 but an Olympian, among the capable.

“Lexi is right there with everybody behind Jenn, Sandi and Demi,” Compton said. “I think she is going to be right there in the mix with the group behind them. And April is jumping well and you never count her out. She has been there and done that and made that (2008 U.S Olympic team) in Beijing.”
Weeks likely would feel conflicted if she gained an Olympic spot at the fourth-place expense of Morris or Steiner. She idolizes both, especially Morris, who is still training with Weeks under Compton.

“It’s incredible, jumping with someone of that caliber on top of the world every single day,” Weeks said. “She is such an inspiration I look up to.”

Every young woman vaulter in Arkansas it seemed grew up admiring April Steiner, Compton’s first great UA vaulter who periodically commutes back to Fayetteville to train.

“I trained with April for about a month when I first got here,” Weeks said. “She is also someone I look up to. Training with an Olympian is incredible.”

Training for the first time ever without her identical twin sister, Tori, is “a little sad,” Lexi said.

Tori’s Razorbacks’ season concluded at the NCAA Outdoor June 11 in Eugene.

If not for her sibling, Tori would have been college track’s outstanding freshman vaulter for 2016.

For while Lexi won the SEC Indoor and Outdoor and NCAA Indoor and Outdoor for Arkansas’ team SEC Indoor and Outdoor champions and NCAA Outdoor champion and NCAA Indoor runner-up and surpassed the Olympic standard 14-9, Tori indoors and outdoors vaulted a personal best 14-5 1-2. Tori placed third at the SEC Indoor, second at the SEC Outdoor and an All-American sixth at the NCAA Indoor.

“Every jump we ask each other, ‘How did that look?” Lexi said. “We always are encouraging each other and it will be strange not having her there. If I weren’t there everyone would say, ‘She’s had an amazing season for a freshman!”

Compton concurs.

“There are girls that pole vault for five years and never become an All-American,” Compton said.

The Weeks sisters conceivably could vault together at the 2020 Olympics, Lexi’s goal beyond what she and Compton regard as this year’s Olympic Trials bonus.

“I am not putting pressure on myself to go out and make the team,” Lexi said. “I am just excited that I can be there and compete with all the other top women in the country. I know it will help get me prepared four years from now in 2020. I think that will be my best shot at the Olympics.”

Morris doesn’t count out the freshman this Olympic year.

“She has jumped a little bit over 15 feet,” Morris said. “Let’s say she goes out and makes that same bar on her first attempt, that could make the Olympic team.”

Morris calls Lexi “amazing.”

“There are so many kids out there who have so much talent but they don’t know how to utilize it,” Morris said. “ Or they don’t care enough to utilize it. So it’s so amazing to see a kid at the very, very beginning of her college career already embracing the talent that she has been blessed with.”