A freak accident and broken bone are no match for a dream. This is how American pole vaulter Sandi Morris's refusal to give in led her to heights she never imagined.
“You know what, I can do this,” Sandi Morris told herself, wiping away the tears.
She was sat in her car outside her doctor’s surgery in Arkansas, digesting a diagnosis the former Razorback had not expected. Three days had passed since her pole had shattered mid-vault at the Ostrava World Challenge meet in the Czech Republic. A section of splintered pole catapulted into her shoulder.
“I couldn’t lift my arm,” Morris, 24, says. “It was black and blue and had a big cut on it. I thought I had torn something.”
Not so. She had actually broken her wrist, a hairline fracture to her left ulner styloid.
“I was shocked,” she says. “I really wasn’t in much pain.”
The tears were for the prognosis: no vaulting for six weeks. The US Olympic Trials were seven away. “I didn’t know how I was going to overcome that,” she recalls.
It was a crushing blow for Morris who, up to that point, had been flying in her first full season as a professional. Indoors she had taken the American title with a huge 4.95m personal best. A week later she won her first senior global medal with world indoor silver in Portland.
Outdoors there was no let up. She was unbeaten going into Ostrava, notching three consecutive personal bests, including a 4.83m world lead in Doha to record her first Diamond League win.
Without student commitments, Morris had “been able to put my whole heart, soul and mind into the pole vault”, and the benefits were obvious. The shattered pole killed that momentum; the broken wrist left her with a race against time.
“We had to figure out a way to do drills without my left hand,” Morris says. She and her team at the University of Arkansas (where she still trains) modified everything. “I could run, I could do plyometrics, I could stay in really good shape.”
But she couldn’t vault.
Her single full approach vault practice before heading to Eugene for the US Olympic Trials came five weeks after the diagnosis. The wrist hurt “as much as a shin splint” – she had to trust the doctor’s assurances that the bone was healed, and remind herself that she owned the best season’s best of the field.
The challenge was mental. Ostrava was the third time Morris had broken a pole mid-vault, the wrist fracture was her first ever bone break. It’s hard to put that out of mind so quickly.
“As long as I don’t lay off, hit it with everything that I’ve got, I can do this,” she told herself before prelims. A second attempt clearance at 4.40m put her in the final.
There, her clinical performance gave no hint of the tumult that had dogged her prep. First time clearances from 4.50m to 4.75m gave her a second place finish and booked her ticket to Rio. Cue relief.
“I was just happy I was on the team,” Morris says. “It was an emotional rollercoaster.”
With just one failure up to 4.75m, Morris' nerveless Trials performance gave no hint of her lack of practice
There was a little over a month to prepare for Rio. Morris was healthy but lacked competition readiness. In 2015 she competed 28 times in a nine-month season. A comp every ten days ranging from the American collegiate circuit to the Diamond League to the Beijing World Championships.
“Taking seven weeks off from vaulting, some people are fine, but for me, the more frequent the vaulting the better,” she says. “That’s just how I am.”
“It was about me getting my jump back,” she adds. “It wasn’t about my wrist any more.”
She got it back at a tiny meet in Houston, Texas. Vaulting virtually on her own, Morris cleared a PB 4.93m. It was the best outdoor mark by any American vaulter in history, and the best clearance by any athlete all year. Cue belief.
“That was the first day that I felt like myself,” Morris says. “I had my feet under me, my jump was back. It gave me a ton of confidence.”
A week later she cleared 4.80m at another small meet. “All the negative emotions that came from the wrist were gone. I had overcome it.” She was ready.
Good job, because it was the most high quality pole vault final in Olympic history: the first ever to see six women to clear 4.70m or more. Each of the sextet had never stood on an Olympic podium before. Morris was among them, her parents Harry and Kerry – former multi-eventers – and sister Jami watching on in the crowd.
The final then became the first in Olympic history to see four women clear 4.80m. Morris was there.
“I thought I had it in the air. I was screaming.”
With the bar at 4.90m there was only two standing: Katerina Stefanidi, 2016 Diamond Race winner and the season’s most consistent performer, and Morris. She had matched Stefanidi’s 4.85m, but sat second because she had one failure more than the Greek athlete.
Then Stefanidi fouled her three attempts at 4.90m. Morris fouled her first two but had one chance to steal gold.
She clapped, and the crowd obliged by joining in. Then a look of focus before picking up her bar and hurtling down the runway. Perfect plant, strong drive and straight up she flew, before pushing from the pole and arcing over the bar. You’d never know she’d been injured. The vault looked good.
“I thought I had it in the air. I was screaming. I thought I’d just taken the competition.”
So did SPIKES. But she hadn’t. The tiniest clip with her chest on her way over brought the bar down.
“For a split second I was about to be disappointed,” Morris admits. “Then I thought about everything and a few seconds later I was like ‘you idiot!’. I smiled and knew I was a silver medallist. I’d overcome everything.”
It didn’t end there. In her last meet of the season, Morris cleared 5.00m to win at the Brussels Diamond League. It is an outdoor American record, and she becomes only the second woman (behind retired world record holder Yelena Isinbayeva) to have gone above the magical mark outdoors.
“In Rio I was so close to something I really wanted,” she told reporters there. “Today I did more than I expected. Sometimes you lose, sometimes you win.”
Her sense of perspective is typical of the all round composure Morris brings to the game. Still just 24, she knows that more will come.
“I was so close,” she reflects on Rio. “But I think it’s good that I didn’t win gold. It will drive me to higher heights in the coming years.”
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