Katie Yeager jumps over her competition.
by Danielle Hunt
photography by Ryan C. Gann
One can feel the competitive tension in the cool morning air as Katie Yeager focuses on a distant spot. She pauses, draws a breath, tightly hoists her 13-foot fiber glass pole and sprints wildly toward the pit. Her mind is calculating her steps. She needs to launch with her left foot at the right angle at the right speed. Then muscle memory will do the rest. It is complicated, demands perfection and takes an enormous amount of energy. If all goes right, she will successfully transfer velocity to lift and sail more than 12 feet in the air. This is the mindset of Katie Yeager, University of La Verne co-captain of the Women’s Track and Field team, on spring Saturday mornings as she competes to be the best in the nation. “The straightaway is always the most nerve racking part of the entire event,” Katie says. “As I begin my sprint, I am so concentrated on my movement and technique because the way I run and place the pole into the pit will determine how well I vault.”
Katie is a La Verne pole vault champion—she shares the La Verne women’s record at 12 feet, 2 1/2 inches—and is known outside of the La Verne track and field circles because of her top vaulting ability. “Pole vaulting, generally speaking, is a new event for women, and it is very special to be part of this team and really bond and work with the girls as we strive to do the best we can and show that women can compete at the same level as these men,” she explains.
Katie, a junior studying anthropology at ULV, did not grow up yearning to be a pole vaulter; she had no idea what the sport was until high school. “Growing up, my life was gymnastics and nothing more. Everyday, I would go into the gym and practice for at least two to three hours a day, and I loved it. I thrived with gymnastics, and I was able to compete at a very high level. My parents were always very supportive of my gymnastics, and they would take me wherever I needed to go for competitions and would never complain but instead see it as a time to bond as a family.” At South Hills High School in West Covina, she was faced with a dilemma. There was no gymnastic team. “I am honestly a very competitive person; I knew I needed to be active somehow even if there were no gymnastic team. I think my dad saw my struggle, and he encouraged me to check out the track team, thinking with all the different events there had to be one I liked.”
The beginning of an era
She started by running the 100-meter dash and 300-meter hurdles. Her sophomore year, she tried pole vaulting. “My parents always encouraged me through the process; they knew South Hills didn’t have a pole vaulting coach so they sent me to clinics to learn the basics. I am forever grateful for that.” Encouraging Katie to start pole vaulting was Jared Manke, friend and classmate at South Hills and then at ULV. Jared is a pole vaulter himself and holds the La Verne record for the men’s vault at 16 feet 2 inches, which he set his freshman year. “I knew that she used to be in gymnastics, and that in itself is a definite advantage to vault,” he says. “I told Katie she should try it, but she hesitated, understandably, since pole vaulting is the most technical and dangerous event of track and field.” After much “taunting” and joking, Jared says he finally cracked Katie, and she could not say “no” any longer. “I would often tease her in a way that I knew would light a fire under her; she is one who never backs down from a challenge.” By Katie’s senior year, she was captain of the track team and competing at the CIF level for the second year in a row.
Several colleges were interested in Katie; she received a scholarship offer to attend Cal Poly, Pomona to compete at the Division II level; nevertheless, Katie felt La Verne was home. “The small class size and the friendly atmosphere really drew me in; the head coach also promised Jared and me that we would have a pole vault coach if we committed to going to La Verne.” At ULV, Katie wasted no time preparing for track season. She spent the fall lifting weights and staying in shape. “Honestly, during the off season I do not vault a lot but instead I focus on my core and my body, to make sure that it is in the best shape possible.” Indeed, she came to La Verne to compete. As a freshman, Katie placed third out of 16 athletes at the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships with a vault of 11.5 feet, which was her best of the year. She was named first team All-SCIAC as a freshman.
After a great first year, Katie hoped to only improve, and she delivered. Her sophomore year, she placed first at the SCIAC championships with a season best of 12 feet and named first team All-SCIAC once again. She also set a new conference meet record, and with that record she qualified for Nationals. “I will never forget—I got a text from my coach Josh—‘Congratulations Katie Yeager, you will be a participant at the 2012 Division III National Championship.’ I cried because I could not believe that all my hard work had paid off, and that I was actually going to Nationals.” She ended the year ranked 22nd in the nation. At Nationals, she placed 15th out of 22 pole vaulters.
A leader is born
During the 2013 season, Katie earned the honor of being one of five captains for the La Verne track team. “I am so grateful to be one of the captains this year. I know I am only a junior, but I think I can help the team in many ways, and I hope to be a good role model for the younger athletes and also just a friend to anyone who needs me.” The respect is mutual with teammates. “I look to Katie for advice on anything and everything. Whether it be the training we do in the weight room or my study habits, I know Katie is there for me and the rest of our team,” says teammate Jessie Harsen. The team captain leadership role has inspired Katie to take her vaulting to a new level. “Now that everyone looks to me as an official leader, I do not want to let anyone on my team down, and I am now not vaulting just for myself, but I am vaulting to make my team proud.” And it has been a great year for Katie. At the last meet of the year at Azusa Pacific University, she matched a school record held with co-record holder teammate Taylor Bernhard. The record is also shared with alumna Chelsea Sherier who reached that mark in 2005.
Katie entered the 2013 National meet ranked 10th in the nation for all Division III pole vaulters. “It is inspiring to see Katie perform; she is tough, determined and always looking for ways to improve,” Jared explains. “When she is in a meet she is competitive and out to win, but as soon as the competition is over her entire mindset changes, and she goes from being a serious competitor to a fun loving laid back college girl, and I love that about her.” Even though the 2013 National meet did not go totally her way—she exited it ranked 15th in the nation—Katie knows she is vaulting at this high level because of the help from her coaches and colleagues. “I mostly owe everything I know to Josh. He is the best coach out there, and he pushes me to be the best athlete and person I can be.” Says Josh Linker, La Verne pole vaulting coach, “The most rewarding aspect of coaching Katie is her eagerness to learn and her coachability skills. Her first year at La Verne, it took a lot of trust for her to understand my coaching techniques. I approached her and told her the many things wrong with her vault, and, in order to make her one of the best, she had to break her bad habits; yet, as a result she made tremendous improvements throughout her college career.”
Katie is not only a national star, but she is also an excellent student and an active member in Sigma Kappa sorority. “Coming to La Verne, I never would have thought that I would join Sigma Kappa, but it has given me so many opportunities, and it is so nice to be able to take the leadership and skills I have learned in Sigma Kappa and apply them out on the track field.” She currently volunteers as an intern at the California Wilderness Coalition, which strives to protect wild landscapes through public education, legislation and advocacy. Katie is working on the San Gabriel Mountains Forever campaign, which is lobbying for expanded wilderness and wild and scenic river designations for the San Gabriel mountains. “My parents always took us camping; whether it was by the river or in the desert, my parents always made sure my brother and I were spending a good amount of time outdoors. This internship has allowed me to expand my horizons and to branch out to do things that I didn’t think of before. That to me sums up college as a student and athlete: push yourself as much as you can, and you will be surprised by how much you can accomplish.”