To watch Alysha Newman vault nearly 15 feet in the air, she seems like a natural.
After all, the 19-year-old University of Miami sophomore is one of the world’s best pole-vaulters in her age group and has a strong chance of making Canada’s Olympic team in 2016.
But don’t let the stunning visual of an airborne Newman fool you.
She’s just about as petrified as you might be if you were to try this daredevil event in track and field.
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“I’ve never had such a good vaulter be almost deathly afraid of the pole vault,” UM jumps coach Jerel Langley said. “It makes for interesting practices.”
Newman admits she is at times momentarily intimidated by her event, but she insists she loves it, too.
“They call pole-vaulters crazy,” said Newman, who is hoping to make a splash at the NCAA Outdoor Championships June 11-14 at Eugene, Ore. “You are launching your body in the air — who does that?”
“It’s unique. The excitement and the adrenaline — from the first day I tried it, I knew this was going to be my thing forever.”
Langley coached Newman at Eastern Michigan last year. He then accepted an assistant coaching job at UM in September, and Newman decided to transfer here, too, arriving in January.
Newman’s fear of the vault stems to her senior year in high school in Delaware, Ontario.
“She went straight up, and [the pole] came right back in the box,” Langley said. “I don’t think she got hurt — it just rattled her a bit.
“But, as a competitor, I don’t think I’ve ever coached anyone as fierce as her. When the bar goes up, and it’s time to perform, she has that refuse-to-lose attitude.”
Perhaps Newman is apprehensive at times because she had a major athletic injury before even trying the pole vault. When she was 13, Newman fractured vertebrae in her lower back and was forced to retire from gymnastics.
Inactive for a year while she recovered from her injury, Newman said she felt depressed because most of her social interactions revolved around the 30 hours a week she poured into gymnastics.
A fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, she had tried hockey but found Canada’s national pastime “boring” for her as an athlete.
“I can skate, and I could score,” Newman said, “but I’d rather watch the boys fight.”
Newman, who at 5-8 also grew too tall for gymnastics, thought about becoming a diver but ultimately chose track. And once her coaches found out she had a gymnastics background, they pointed her to the pole vault.
“I believe God put me in gymnastics so I can be a great pole-vaulter,” Newman said.
Five years later, Newman is a first-team All-American in the pole vault, earning that honor in March in the recently concluded indoor season.
She also holds all of Canada’s junior records, and her best-ever vault was 4.40 meters — which translates to 14 feet 5 inches — at the 2013 Pan American Junior Games in Medellín, Colombia, where she took the gold medal.
Newman was an immediate hit at UM, breaking the school record by clearing 12-7 on her very first vault. The previous record was set in 2003.
Numbers, though, are not Newman’s primary motivators. She is all about winning.
At this year’s ACC Indoor Championships, Newman vaulted 14-2 and finished third, which made her mad.
“I’m not a third-place athlete,” she said.
On March 14, Newman again vaulted 14-2, finishing tied for fifth at the NCAA National Indoor Championships.
“I was a little disappointed in fifth place,” she said. “It just shows that I still have work to do.”
Confident and determined, Newman aims to become the first Canadian woman to medal in the pole vault.
Coach Amy Deen, who has been running the UM track program since 1990, said Newman brings “intensity” to the Hurricanes.
“She’s such a perfectionist,” Deem said.
Langley, though, said Newman has to learn that perfection doesn’t exist in the pole vault.
“In the end,” he said, “the bar always beats you.”
It might surprise nontrack fans to know that Newman doesn’t vault every day. She actually gets off the ground just twice a week. The rest of her training time is spent doing speed development, lifting weights three times a week, doing vault drills and running her second event, the 100-meter hurdles.
Newman just missed qualifying for the ACC finals in the hurdles, but all of that work on her speed and power are highly beneficial to her main event, the pole vault.
If anything, Deem said, Newman has to guard against overtraining.
“She has to continue to work hard and work smart,” Deem said. “In her mind, more is always better, but that’s not the case.”
“She’s an overachiever, and that’s great. But your greatest strength can sometimes be your greatest weakness.”
Newman, who is majoring in exercise physiology with a minor in nutrition, said that another of her goals — besides the Olympics — is to become a head track coach at a major U.S. university.
But that accomplishment is a long way off in Newman’s mind.
“Pole-vaulters don’t peak until age 32,” Newman said. “I’m hoping to compete in about five Olympics before I become a coach.”