US pole vaulter Katie Nageotte has a secret. It's a secret that helped her win her first national title, make her first international team, and finish fifth among the best pole vaulters in the world.

At 26 years-old, Katie Nageotte has finally figured out her key to success in competition. Her coach, multiple world medallist Brad Walker, played a huge role in her change in attitude towards the pole vault.

"I feel like I have this secret with how simple he's made it. It's just the same thing every time. I feel like I can get on any pole. It's a really cool feeling to come down and feel that confident. He has absolutely instilled that in me," Nageotte tells SPIKES.

Her new approach started to take shape after Nageotte made a drastic decision to fully commit to reaching the next level in her professional career. At the 2016 United States Olympic Trials, she finished fifth with a then-career best jump of 4.60m and two spots separated her from the Olympic team.

At that point, she was still training at Ashland University in Ohio, where she won two Division II NCAA titles back in 2013. She was comfortable in her home state, training in the same familiar facilities, but Nageotte believed she had the potential to represent her country on the international stage one day.

"I felt that I had a lot more in me to be better, but I knew that I needed to get out of my comfort zone and make a change. I knew that where I was, I wouldn't be able to do that," she says.

Nageotte started to look around for different training options around the country. Eventually, she found Walker, who began working as an assistant coach at Washington State University in 2015. Walker is a nine-time United States champion, his career best mark of 6.04m set at the 2008 Prefontaine Classic still stands as an American record.

Nageotte had never met Walker, but she reached out with the hope of receiving guidance from a legend in the sport. She sent him some competition videos and as soon as he watched her jump, Walker invited her to train in Pullman, Washington.

"It was either a testament to how bad I was, or how much better I could be,” she laughs. “I don't know, but it was a compliment nonetheless."

"We always joke: look good, feel good, vault good"

She arrived in Washington around Thanksgiving 2016. After just a few quality sessions with Walker, Nageotte knew she had found her ideal training situation. Initially, her plan was to stay in Ohio and receive training plans from afar, but eventually the self-described "homebody" decided to pack her bags and move across the country instead. 

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of her move. Looking back, Nageotte credits the decision as one of the most rewarding commitments she's ever made.

"Brad, more than anything, has changed who I am mentally as a vaulter. I was a very emotional vaulter. The littlest thing would throw me off. I had to feel really good or I had to have a lot of adrenaline to jump and I would just come down the runway, kind of afraid of the pole vault – honestly – and just throw my hands up and hope for the best," Nageotte recalls.

"He made it so that it was nothing emotional. It was just executing the same couple of things every time. When I'm coming down the runway now, I'm exponentially more confident, and I'm trying to actually do something as opposed to just hoping I clear the bar. He has completely changed me mentally into a really tough pole vaulter."

As a result, Nageotte shocked the crowd at the 2018 USATF Indoor Championships with no misses at 4.76, 4.81, 4.86, and 4.91m. She kept the momentum going with three attempts at a 5.04m world record height., which she missed, but walked away as the national champion over Rio Olympic silver medallist Sandi Morris and 2012 Olympic champion Jenn Suhr. Prior to the championship, Nageotte had held a 4.76m PB.

From there, she went on to compete in her first national team at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Birmingham where she placed fifth overall.

Nageotte's world-leading 4.91m clearance at USATF Indoor Championships

The desire to chase greatness was instilled in Nageotte from a very young age by her late father Mark. Before he passed away from a heart attack in 2007, he was her biggest fan. He would drive her to private lessons over long commutes, learnt everything he could about the pole vault – a sport that he was unfamiliar with – and encouraged his daughter to be great at whatever activity she chose. To this day, Nageotte carries those fond memories with her. She has the word “Dad” written on the inside of her spikes, and taps them before every big jump in a competition.

"When I do tap my spikes, I think 'alright, let's go, dad. Let's do it.' He's always in the back of my mind, and I like to think he's chilling off to the side somewhere watching."

With an entirely new approach and a series of breakthrough performances to show for it, Nageotte can't wait to see what kind of improvements she can generate for the outdoor season. Going "all in" is finally paying dividends, and the gradual improvement has made her appreciate her slightly unconventional journey.

"Some people are just able to come right out of college and kill it. I wasn't one of those people. I had to keep working and working and working, little by little. I'm excited to show people that if it doesn't come immediately, it doesn't mean it won't happen.

“If you really believe in your ability and you've got good coaches, and you're not afraid to get out of your comfort zone, then good things will happen.”

Words: Taylor Dutch