Women’s pole vaulter is a pioneer for Gophers

Michael Dougherty

With the Winter Olympics beginning this week, it’s not very practical to look two years down the road to the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia.
But like the NCAA, the Big Ten and the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL), the Olympic Committee is feeling pressure to use the 2000 Games as the inaugural event for women’s pole vaulting.
“(The MSHSL) just added it this year,” Gophers pole vaulting coach Phil Johnson said. “We just passed it a couple of weeks ago. We led a fight where we had to threaten them with Title IX. We got a lawyer and some irate parents, so that did it.”
Minnesota became the 15th state to add the event to its high school agenda, which will be helpful in generating interest in the sport.
“That will help us so we have a recruiting base here in the state,” Johnson said.
The fact that the NCAA has added the sport, and that the Big Ten will add it next season, has led to the pressure on the Olympic Committee.
“They vote later this year and the world record holder is Australian,” Johnson said. “It’s not like (Australia) has many world champions, so we figure they are pretty motivated.”
Seeing the event near Olympic status excites Johnson. It does mean he has the unenviable task of getting athletes to compete in a new event. But Johnson and Gophers women’s head track and field coach Gary Wilson found just the person in sophomore Christine Gulbrandsen.
Gulbrandsen, a German and women’s studies major from Kristiansand, Norway, is the self-appointed guinea pig in Johnson and Wilson’s experiment.
“I asked (Wilson) if I could do it because I like new events,” Gulbrandsen said. “I just realized how many opportunities there are in a new event, and you get to experience a lot of fun stuff. So I asked him if he could buy me some poles and he was like, ‘Hey, yeah, sure.'”
Gulbrandsen considers herself a thrill-seeker and accepts the ground-breaking attributes that go with being the first pole vaulter to compete for Minnesota. Along with that comes a tremendous drive to succeed.
Part of that is a competitive drive that develops from the good old fashioned battle-of-the-sexes.
“If the men can pole vault, I want to pole vault,” Gulbrandsen said.
Her thrill-seeking nature is echoed by Johnson.
“Part of it is good strength in the shoulders and the abdomen, but it’s also courage and craziness,” he said.
With a personal best of 10 feet, 8 inches, Gulbrandsen needs five inches to reach the provisional qualifying mark for the NCAA Championships. Johnson sees no reason why she can’t make that.
“I hope she can get close to 12 feet yet this year. She’s going to read this, so I don’t want to say too much or too little,” he said. “I think eventually she’ll be a four-meter vaulter before she leaves the University, which is 13 feet, 1 1/2 inches.”
Despite what Johnson says about Gulbrandsen’s goals, she refuses to set them for herself.
“I’m not doing that any more. I used to do that in the triple jump, and I just got disappointed,” she said. “I’m just taking this a day at a time and enjoying it.”
Ironically, the triple jump is what brought Gulbrandsen here. In Norway, she recorded her country’s best performances every year between age 13 and 18. Although she has had considerable success in the triple jump, she is invigorated by her new challenge.
“I am very tired of the triple jump at the moment, so I definitely like the vault more right now,” she said. “But the triple jump will always be my best event.”
When the subject of goals was brought up again, the Olympics somehow made their way back into the conversation.
“It’s not like I’m aiming for the Olympic Games in 2000,” she said. “I mean, I might go there but I’m not going to think about it and waste my energy.”
Nonetheless, Johnson sees Gulbrandsen’s Olympic chances as a reality.
With Olympic aspirations come a need to draw inspiration from someone or something. For that, Gulbrandsen sets aside the gender rivalry she’s confessed and surprisingly relies on a member of the men’s track and field team — her fiance, Wil Kurth.
She also has Wilson as a partner in her rivalry with the opposite sex. He sees the addition of the pole vault as a way to close the gap between the women’s and men’s teams.
“We want to be as good as the men,” Wilson said. “This is our first real push to have a real vaulter, and it’s something we believe in.”