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Vaulting to the top

Junior Megan Clark set the Duke program record with a vault of 14 feet, 9  inches at the 2015 NCAA Indoor Championships.
Junior Megan Clark set the Duke program record with a vault of 14 feet, 9 inches at the 2015 NCAA Indoor Championships.

Junior Megan Clark began the 2015 season with two goals in mind: breaking the 4.60-meter barrier and finally making it to the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore.

Claiming the silver at the indoor national championships March 14 was an unexpected and welcomed bonus, but Duke’s star pole vaulter is focusing on the process of improving rather than on meet outcomes this season.

“Coach [Wilbourn] and I decided last summer that we were going to work towards ‘project four-60’, as we are calling it,” Clark said. “That and getting to Eugene. Hopefully this year is the year. I’ve shifted a lot from an outcomes mindframe to a process mindframe.”

And her change in mindset is already paying off as she is overcoming many of the hurdles of her early collegiate career.

Clark arrived at Duke with high expectations for herself but knew she had a lot of work to do. Moving to Georgia—a weaker state for pole vaulting than her former home state, New York—for her senior year of high school, she claimed the state title but picked up a few bad habits in the process.

For much of her first two seasons as a Blue Devil, she took off “under”, meaning she took off too close to the pit, and the bending of the pole lifted her off the ground rather than her own jump, which can have dangerous consequences. Many pole vaulters have suffered back injuries with this takeoff, and although Clark has stayed healthy, she suffered a handful of scares with poles breaking mid-jump.

During her freshman and sophomore seasons, she snapped four poles in big competitions—including the Pan America Championships in Colombia in August 2013 and the 2014 NCAA East Regional Championships.

When the fourth pole snapped and cost her the opportunity to advance to the national championships in Eugene last outdoor season, Clark looked into switching pole brands and learned that the poles she had broken were made from a faulty batch of carbon.

On new poles this season and with many hours put into improving her takeoff technique, she is vaulting with confidence and a new attitude.

Clark has not been concerned about outscoring the competition this season. She just keeps thinking about what it will take to clear the next height.

“Freshman year we all come in and want to be the best, but I’ve realized over time that it’s not really about winning meets,” Clark said. “It’s about getting better. And if I get better and focus on my technique, focus on the process, I’ll win meets.”

She showed steady improvement throughout the course of this indoor season. Opening the season with a win at the Carolina Cup in January with a clearance of 13 feet, 3 ¾ inches, Clark jumped a foot higher a month later at the Virginia Tech Elite Meet—clearing 14 feet, 4 inches and recording the nation’s then third-highest vault. She secured her first conference title Feb. 27 with a mark of 14 feet, earning her third ACC Field Performer of the Week honors.

But she was still short of her indoor personal best and program record—14 feet, 5 ¼ inches—which she had set at the 2014 Indoor ACC Championships, claiming the silver to wrap up a sophomore indoor season highlighted by personal best marks at nearly every meet. She also opened the 2014 outdoor season with another program record, clearing 14 feet, 7 ¼ inches at the Carolina Relays.

“That was a crazy season because I PRed every week of indoor season but two,” Clark said. “The goal was 14 feet. Coach and I had no idea I was going to jump higher that soon. It was awesome because I qualified for NCAAs only three weeks into the season, so it was pretty relaxed after that.”

Heading into the 2015 NCAA Indoor Championships March 14, nearly a year since her last personal-best vault, Clark’s main concern was ending that drought.

“I hadn’t PRed since the first week of outdoor last season, so it had been 51 weeks,” she said. “I really wanted to jump higher. That was the goal, and I had no idea how I was going to place.”

She made steady progress through each height, clearing two of her first four heights on the opening attempt and gaining confidence. And when the defending national champion, Kaitlin Petrillose of Texas, and event-favorite Demi Payne of Stephen F. Austin were not able to clear their opening heights, Clark realized she had a shot at the title.

“I thought, well, the door is open,” she said. “I started making first attempts and competing to win.”

After clearing her three final heights on her first attempt, including a new program record of 14 feet, 9 inches, she secured the silver. Sandi Morris of Arkansas won the event with a clearance of 15 feet, 1 inch—4.60 meters, Clark’s goal for the season.

With first-team All America honors indoors, Clark enters the outdoor season poised to achieve her two goals. “Project four-60”—four meters and 60 inches—is well under way and could give Duke’s best pole vaulter since Olympian Jillian Schwartz her long-awaited ticket to Eugene.

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