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Senior Alex Whitford is a pole vaulter for the women’s track and field team. She is a marketing and management major and is pursuing a minor in Spanish. Whitford earned a personal record over the weekend at Hilltopper Invitational at Western Kentucky University vaulting 13 feet 6 inches, ranking her second in Division II. (Photo: Hillsdale Athletics / Courtesy)

What was it like for you to PR by about a foot this weekend?

For the past three years for track, I’ve been kind of stuck at the same height. About 12’6” is about where I’ve been jumping my whole career, and so, I’ve been hoping for a PR but did not expect it to be that big. That was a really exciting time. I actually jumped three different heights over my meet, so it was very exciting to have that final breakthrough, definitely.

And now you’re ranked second in the nation. What was your reaction to that?

It’s really exciting. I’m usually barely squeaking into nationals or not qualifying at all, and so, to have an auto-qualifying mark for nationals is very exciting going into the rest of the season. It kind of opens up some opportunities to focus on technique and less on making bars to qualify.

How have you grown since your freshman year?

My first few years as an athlete at Hillsdale, I’ve had some physical roadblocks, but also a lot of mental ones. Some injuries set me back a couple of months, but the mental setbacks then with just not believing in my training, not believing in my abilities, or letting outside factors muddle my focus. I think those definitely have been struggles that, going into this year and having a new mindset with help from my coach and my teammates, I think that’s helped to clear the pathway mentally, so I can do the things my coach tells me to do.

What was that new mindset you brought with you this year?

This year, I think, just a lot of trust in my coach and trust in God that he’s going to carry me through. Just that whatever happens is supposed to happen for a reason and that I’m not going to change it no matter how much I stress about it or how much I worry. I’m just more open about it and less scared, I think.

Freshman year, you had an injury. How did that happen and how did you move forward from there?

I actually had two different injuries. In my freshman year, I fell from the top of my pole to the ground, broke my foot in three places. That was the day before nationals my freshman year. That was a very tough mentally, and it put me out of track for about two months just with therapy and being immobile. I was out for all of outdoor season and coming back in the fall, I was just still very mentally scared to jump because that’s what I did to get hurt and also just mentally feeling like I couldn’t do things I had done before I got hurt.

This past year, my junior year, I tore my meniscus in January, which was a smaller injury, and I got surgery right away, and I was only out for a couple of meets. But I think it set me back training-wise. I wasn’t as strong or as fast.

However, I think just a lot of my coach understanding how the body works and how to fix those things and change how I lift and how I run in order to prevent more injuries has helped a lot.

Since you are returning to the Chargers to compete for a fifth year next year, what are your goals?

I kind of get to do the thing most Hillsdale students wish they could, which is to do track without the school part. I’m very excited to see what track looks like without the side distractions. I guess goal-wise, it’s tough to say. Our school record is very high, because there was a professional pole vaulter here before me, but I would love to get as close to that as I can and to see what is my full potential. I just don’t know yet and to foster some more relationships on the team, to be the grandma on the team with some other fifth-year girls. It’s going to be really fun, just being more of a mentor.

How did you get into pole vaulting?

It’s kind of a funny story. I did gymnastics, when I was younger, very competitively, loved it and spent 20-25 hours a week doing it and traveling. Got to freshman year of high school and had a huge growth spurt. I’m 5’9” right now, and that’s way too tall for a gymnast. I just kind of felt like Shaquille O’Neal on a balance beam. It was not working out.

My mom and I had a lot of conversations and decided it would be best to be done with gymnastics. I don’t think a lot of people know gymnastics and pole vaulting are very similar. But I started with diving first, which is also another sport that falls into that triad of athletics. I did diving, liked it, and then moved to track because I liked running, but I definitely did not want to try pole vault because it looked terrifying. I was like, “Heck no.”

I had some friends and a coach who just kept pushing. That first time we went out onto the field, it was a rainy, muddy day, and we were just sticking the pole in the mud and hoisting ourselves over not very high at all. We were just running around and having fun with it. I think that light-hearted, exciting, fun aspect of the sport was what drew me in. I was obviously hooked from that day. I’ve been doing it since my sophomore year of high school and have enjoyed the close-knit community of pole vaulters because it is such a small sport as well as just the fact that the thrill is really addicting.

Do you have any pre-meet rituals?

My coach has this book called “From Beginner to Bubka,” and Bubka is a world-champion pole vaulter. This isn’t something that I’ve done for a long time, because I don’t typically do anything pre-game, but me and one of my teammate, Kathryn Bassette, were reading through the book and how to approach these things, just getting really technical with it —  kind of a Hillsdale way, I think, reading about a sport. That was really fun, and I think we’ll continue it in the future. It put us in a good spot.