Pole vaulting mum Demi Payne has proven a standout performer in the early US indoor campaign. SPIKES chats to the 23-year-old athlete who recently catapulted her way to a world leading mark and number three on the all-time US lists.
It was February 2013 when University of Kansas student and pole vaulter Demi Payne received the gobsmacking news she was pregnant. Aged 21, the news came as a bolt from the blue, leaving the 4.25m college pole vaulter feeling “scared to death”.
“My initial reaction was I was going to lose my scholarship and also that I'm not going to be able to pole vault any more,” she says.
Fast forward 23 months and Payne – now mum to 16-month-old daughter Charlee – caused a ripple in the track and field world last month by clearing a world-leading vault of 4.75m at the Convention Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was a performance that elevated her to number three on the all-time US rankings behind Jenn Suhr and Stacy Dragila.
Hers is a happy, if unexpected tale of an athlete who has used the power of motherhood to inspire her to reach unexpected heights.
Raised in New Braunfels, Texas, Payne grew up with a pole vault pit in her back garden – her father, Bill, was a 5.86m vaulter and US representative at the 1995 World Championships – but was initially resistant to the event. She preferred to play volleyball and basketball until in her high school freshman year her dad sat her down and told his daughter she had the tools to be a pole vaulter.
Payne has posted four of the top five jumps in NCAA history, including this 4.62 last Friday
Turns out dads do know best: she caved in and was a natural from the get go.
“On my first try I jumped 10ft 6ins [3.20m] and that was the moment is which was like 'wow, I might be good at this',” she says.
She won a scholarship to attend the University of Kansas and achieved her first 4m jump in 2011. Under the coaching of Tom Hays and mentored by her father, whom she describes as her “number one inspiration”, she continued to make steady progress.
In 2012 she cleared 4.22m and then edged out to 4.25m in January 2013. But then her whole world froze the following month with news of her pregnancy. She first broke the news to her mum, Dana Macfarlane, a former Baylor University basketball player, before having the “difficult” conversation with her dad.
“He is a man who probably wants pole vaulting success for me even more than I do,” Demi explains. “I remember I wasn’t intending to tell him until after the Big 12 meeting.
“He called me the night to ask how I was feeling and I said ‘I feel good’, even though on the inside I was falling apart. He then said ‘I know [about the pregnancy]’ and he cried. It was not a cry of disappointment, but it was a cry that everything will be okay.
“I knew from that point everything was going to be alright.”
Payne after she cleared her world-leading NCAA record 4.75m in New Mexico, which improved her PB by 0.5m
Payne worked hard to stay fit during pregnancy, running up until nine months. Charlee was born in October 2012 and, despite finding the initial adjustment to motherhood hard, just a month-and-a-half later she made her competitive return with a 3.80m leap.
In early 2014 she met up with pole vault coach Jeff Erickson, a family friend who she had known since she was young. In August, after a couple of coaching sessions, the 6ft-tall vaulter transferred to study and train with Erickson at the Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, near to her family and support system. She now lives in a two-bedroom house close to campus with her fiancé, Thomas Taylor.
It has proven an inspirational decision: with Erickson’s help Payne has reconstructed her technique and her mindset.
“Jeff's been amazing in that he has changed the way I think and my attitude going into pole vault practise,” she says.
“He has completely changed the way I plant. I used to overplant, but by changing it has allowed me to get on bigger poles, which has allowed me to jump bigger heights.”
Payne with daughter Charlee: “She is the reason why I am pole vaulting right now”
Payne has moved from using 13ft 6ins (4.11m) poles to practising with 15ft (4.57m) poles. In her 2015 season opener in Belton, the Texan improved her lifetime best to 4.50m. Two weeks later in College Station she cleared 4.63m. Then came her eye-catching 4.75m in Albuquerque.
“I had an expectation this year that I wanted to jump high, but the fact it has happened so early in the season has blown my mind,” she explains. “To clear 4.75m was the craziest moment. To go third behind Jenn Suhr and Stacy Dragila on the US all-time lists is humbling. It doesn't even feel real.”
Her dazzling early season form has swelled her confidence. The next big goal is the NCAA Championships, and her sights are now also fixed on the Beijing World Championships in August and the 2016 Rio Olympics.
There is one element in her astonishing progression that should not be overlooked, and that is her daughter, Charlee.
“She is the reason why I am pole vaulting right now,” Payne adds.
“Charlee has completely changed my focus. I want her to grow up and be proud of her mom not only in pole vault, but in every way. I've also changed my focus in the classroom and last semester I had my highest ever points average of 4.0.”
“Looking back, it is hard to put into words. I went from thinking my whole life was over to being on top. It is so amazing the path that God has sent me on.
“Incredible. I went from being an okay vaulter to one of the best. It is crazy to think about.”
Photograph: Hardy Meredith/SFA Athletics and New Mexico Athletics