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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

USATF preview: Pole vaulter Katie Nageotte built up her gold medal potential under Washington State coach Brad Walker

Gold medalist Katie Nageotte, of the United States, poses during the medal ceremony for the women's pole vault at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Tokyo.(AP Photo/Martin Meissner)  (Associated Press)
By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

In 2017 at the age of 25, Katie Nageotte uprooted herself from her Ohio home and moved cross-country to Pullman with the idea of forcing herself outside her comfort zone.

And that’ll certainly do it.

OK, Pullman is as welcoming as the next place, and many fine athletes have been recruited to enjoy its comforts. But this meant cold calling a coach and relocating some 2,000 miles to a place where she had no particular connection – with the idea that just maybe it was a stop on the road to Olympic glory.

And what do you know?

They didn’t throw her a parade in Pullman after Nageotte won the gold medal in the pole vault in Tokyo last August. The fun stuff mostly happened near where she grew up in Cleveland – throwing out the first pitch at Progressive Field, addressing the Browns, being introduced at a Cavaliers game. But there’s no disputing that the two years she spent in Pullman working with former Washington State assistant Brad Walker – the American men’s record holder for 11 years – was a jumping-off point for the achievement that earned her those perks.

Now Nageotte gets to show off her talents in her coach’s hometown, as Spokane hosts the USA Track and Field Indoor Championships at The Podium on Saturday and Sunday.

From University High School, Walker went on to win NCAA vaulting titles at the University of Washington and two world championships before his segue into coaching at WSU. Finding herself at something of a crossroads, that’s when Nageotte reached out.

“When I didn’t make the Olympic team in 2016,” said Nageotte, twice an NCAA Division II champ at Ashland (Ohio) University, “I knew I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing. I had a lot more potential and I needed someone who would push me – who I’d let push me out of my comfort zone.”

One meeting with Walker was all it took to convince her to she’d found that someone – and to not settle for getting her coaching by swapping videos via email.

“I had to create new habits – everywhere,” she said. “If it was anywhere that was familiar, it wasn’t going to happen. I looked at it like this was my last shot. If it didn’t work with Brad, I’d move on to real life, or whatever you want to call it.”

So she rented a spare bedroom in Walker’s house and subsisted on whatever she could collect in prize money and loans from her mother. She stayed for two years – Walker left WSU in 2019 to set up shop in Georgia – and let him break her down and build her back up.

Or maybe the building up came first.

“I was always afraid to vault,” Nageotte confessed. “There really is a fear factor. For so long, I’d kind of just use my speed, run down the runway, throw my hands up and on sheer adrenaline hope for the best. That could get me through competitions, but I really didn’t practice well. Brad was able to change my mentality and keep the anxiety out of it – because without getting that out of the way, you can’t make many technical changes.”

That first spring, she was runner-up in the USATF indoor. A year later, she won her first national title and got over 16 feet, then repeated in 2019.

In 2020, of course, COVID-19 nearly wiped out the season, though Nageotte still managed a personal best 16-1¾ and managed to avoid the virus – until December. The effects – not so much physical but what she called a “brain fog” – lingered on for months and messed with her confidence, if not her training.

And yet there she was in June, atop the podium at the Olympic Trials in Eugene after scaling 16-3.

“That meet is more stressful than the Olympics,” she said, a not uncommon refrain. “You can only screw it up. That term ‘Olympian’ is what we all strive for. When you tell someone what we do, their first question is always, ‘Are you going to the Olympics?’ To be able to say yes is the dream, and so it’s very nerve-wracking.”

Then again, Nageotte managed to make the Olympics just as angst-sodden. She missed her first two tries at the opening height of 14-9, making it on her last try. She missed again at 15-5 – still working out the bugs after a tight quadriceps had hindered her from doing that in warm-ups.

Unwittingly, she was putting her family back in Cleveland through the cruelest watch party ever. But Nageotte found her groove over the next three heights – “suddenly, that first bar didn’t exist anymore” – and her clearance at 16-¾ won the gold medal.

“Ironically, that was the best day of my life in terms of my career – after the worst feelings you can imagine,” she said. “To this day, it makes me want to throw up when it’s brought up. My fingers go numb.”

But mostly, it’s a happy – an ecstatic – hangover. Yet now, at age 30, she grapples with gearing back up – admitting that there are days when the motivation well is empty and yet with no desire to stop.

“I have to find a new way to frame the vault in my mind,” she said, “that this is something fun I get to do, not something I have to do.”

Sounds like someone in search of a comfort zone. Or not.

USA Track and Field Indoor Championships At the Podium Saturday’s session 9 a.m. – Women’s pentathlon Noon – Men’s heptathlon 1:15 p.m. – First field event 2:04 p.m. – First track event Sunday’s session 9:30 a.m. – Men’s heptathlon 11 a.m. – First track and field events Tickets: TV: 2-4 p.m., CNBC and Peacock 9 a.m.-2 p.m., USATF.TV