By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Sarah Bell is, by all accounts, the most accomplished pole-vaulter in Vanderbilt track and field history. The senior holds school records in both indoor (13′ 11.25”) and outdoor (14′ 0.50”) pole vault events, and she is set to represent the Commodores at the NCAA Track & Field Championships in Eugene, Ore. this week.
But amid her success, Bell still must answer one tough question: does a pole-vaulter ever get scared of heights?
“I get that question a lot,” said Bell, who first became hooked on the pole vault as a seventh-grader in Bloomington, Ill. “When you start [pole-vaulting], you start at like six feet. Then it’s so gradual, you don’t really notice a difference. Jumping 14 feet is different than six feet, of course, but your body gets used to it, the awareness of being upside down, etc.”
Fearless in the sky, Bell is one of two Vanderbilt track and field athletes poised to venture to NCAAs this week. Senior Courtney Clayton joins her teammate in Eugene as a qualifier in the 800 meters, an event for which she holds the Vanderbilt record in both indoor (2:04.24) and outdoor (2:04.12) competitions. The pair of student-athletes punched their tickets to the NCAA Championships with qualifying performances at last week’s NCAA East Regional in Lexington, Ky.
Bell and Clayton, both seniors, don’t plan to take their trip to Eugene lightly. Neither student-athlete has ever clinched a spot at the national championships. Thus, they now covet a chance to represent Vanderbilt under a bright spotlight, all while closing their outdoor careers on high notes.
“We’ve been training for this moment since August, the preseason,” Clayton said. “So to go [to regionals] and do super well with my teammates, it was an amazing feeling.”
Added Bell: “Every year at the regional, I’ve always been one bar short, or a couple of people out. It was always kind of a letdown. This year, I wanted to finally make it, and I was able to. It felt so good. I could not ask for a better place to finish out my outdoor career.”
In Lexington, Bell was one of just eight athletes to clear the bar at 4.20 meters. Clayton, meanwhile, turned in a qualifying time of 2:04.15 in the 800, just short of breaking her outdoor school record of 2:04.12.
Clayton’s string of success in the 800 has occurred almost by accident. In high school, the Roscoe, Ill. native preferred the 100, 200 and 400 events and only tried the 800 on her father’s off-hand suggestion. The marriage of student-athlete and event has been a stellar one for Clayton, who still feels driven despite her record-breaking tenure on West End.
“That’s kind of what keeps the fire going in me,” Clayton said. “I know I have a lot more to offer, even if I have the school record and have had success at Vanderbilt. I have desires to run after college, and that keeps my fire going.”
Another factor motivates both Bell and Clayton as they prepare for NCAAs: Steve Keith, Vanderbilt’s longtime head track and field coach who missed last month’s SEC Championships in Columbia, S.C. due to treatment for leukemia. The Commodores wore orange wristbands in support of Keith at SECs, all while fielding pep talks from Keith from afar on FaceTime.
Keith isn’t able to travel to Eugene alongside Bell and Clayton, but his student-athletes plan to keep him in mind as they compete among the nation’s best.
“Coach Keith is such an inspiration,” Clayton said. “He’s a great coach and really holds his team together. It was really sad him not being at SECs. But to have him there in essence, it was great to see our team come together and wear the wristbands. We knew we were rooting for him back home.”
“We go out and fight on the track, but he’s the ultimate fighter,” Bell said. “He’s going through so much but he wouldn’t show that to you, he always has a brave face on.”
Bell and Clayton arrive in Eugene on Tuesday for the NCAA Track and Field Championships that run June 7-10. Check back at VUCommodores.com and @vandyxctrack on Twitter all week for coverage. The full broadcast listen of the National Championships, including live coverage of each field event on ESPN3 can be found HERE.