Four years ago, professional pole vaulter Mary Saxer found herself at the Olympic processing center sitting with three of the top female pole vaulters in the world. Each from the United States, each had cleared the 4.50-meter qualifying height and each were headed to the 2012 London Olympic Games. But Saxer, who placed fourth, was an Olympic alternate—narrowly missing out on a shot at representing her country by the smallest of margins.
“In my opinion, fourth place is as good as last place at the Olympic trials,” said Saxer.
With a jump of 14 feet, nine inches, Saxer had tied for the third and final spot to represent the United States in the pole vault. But Lacy Jansen jumped an identical height. The tiebreaker and the last spot went to Jansen, who had made the jump in one less miss than Saxer.
“On the days where I’m having trouble getting motivated, getting out of bed, and I don’t really feel like going to the gym, I think about how I felt that day and how I never want to feel that way again,” said Saxer.
From that day forward, Saxer vowed that she would be back and better than ever for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. As the 2016 United States Track and Field Olympic Team Trials quickly approach, Saxer’s chance at redemption does too.
Setting the bar high
With the help of her longtime coach Danny Wilkerson, the University of Notre Dame alumna has improved on her personal record every year since becoming a professional in 2009.
“She’s done it the right way from the beginning, taken the time to learn what she needed to do, learn from mistakes and just kept progressing,” said Wilkerson. “She just keeps moving forward in a positive direction, and we’re not ever taking any shortcuts.”
Wilkerson coaches Saxer in addition to coaching track and field at Bethel College in South Bend, Ind. He describes Saxer’s career as different than most pole vaulters he has seen. Despite her decorated college resume, Saxer becoming a professional athlete was not always in her life plans. She did not begin pursuing the idea of pole vaulting as a day job until the end of her time at the University of Notre Dame
“Coming out of college, she was not the most sought after,” said Wilkerson. “From that point on, she just kept plugging away and kept pushing forward, and it’s been a steady improvement since then.”
He explained how many pole vaulters have one amazing jump to hit a new personal record, but every jump after that will never again come close. Wilkerson relishes the fact that Saxer is not one of those athletes.
“She’s constantly within a couple inches of her personal record almost everyday she goes out there,” said Wilkerson. “That’s pretty much the difference and what makes her special compared to some other athletes.”
Saxer began pole vaulting the summer before her junior year at Lancaster High School in Lancaster, N.Y., about 15 miles outside of Buffalo, N.Y. She grew up with her mother Ann, father Don and brother Alex. Formerly a gymnast growing up, Ann says her gymnastics training laid the foundation for her work ethic as a pole vaulter.
“Elements like I need to get my homework done first because I know that’s the most important thing, and then I can go to practice,” said Ann. “Those foundations were laid a long time ago.”
The blond-haired track and field celebrity in upstate New York is a huge fan of going to country music concerts.
“When I’m there I just feel genuinely happy, and it’s something I can do that can get my mind off some things,” said Saxer.
While Saxer said she has to be cautious, she is always up for a new adventure.
“Even down to the simple things, like if we go out to dinner, I always want to try a new restaurant,” said Saxer.
The country-music-loving adventure-seeker was an average teenager who happened to have a special talent for the pole vault.
“I was approached by a pole vault coach who insisted that I try it,” said Saxer. “He put a pole in my hand, and from that day forward I never looked back.”
Saxer had quick success with the vault and gained national attention for the numbers she was recording on her jumps. She became the first high-school girls’ pole vaulter to break 14 feet in the nation. She would go on to break the previous national high-school girls’ record seven times before her career at Lancaster was over.
Both of Saxer’s parents frequently had to remind themselves that Mary had a special talent and breaking record after record was not the norm for most.
“It was amazing because she just took to it, she was a natural,” said Ann. “It was one of those pinch-me things, because as we were progressing along we had to remember that this wasn’t everybody.”
Highly recruited out of high school, Saxer could choose wherever she wanted to go for college. After falling in love with the University of Notre Dame, Saxer decided to make the 450-mile move to South Bend, Ind., to represent the Irish for the next four years. It was there she met her now-husband, Justin. The two wed in the spring of 2014.
“I wanted to go to a school that I knew I would get a great education and love my experience regardless of anything that might happen with track,” said Saxer.
During her time at Notre Dame, Saxer became and still is the school record holder with a jump of 4.30 meters in the NCAA Championship in 2009. She is a three-time Big East Conference Pole Vault Champion and a two-time NCAA All-American, and she recorded a third-place finish in the 2009 NCAA Outdoor National Championship.
Not all smooth sailing
Despite her decorated college resume, Saxer struggled acclimating to the collegiate level of track and field.
“I had some mental struggles there (at Notre Dame). I second-guessed myself,” said Saxer. “I wasn’t confident. I actually almost quit track and field altogether my junior year of college.”
Saxer said pole vaulting was slowly becoming more like work, and less like fun. After heavily working with her coach and a sports psychologist, she found her love for the sport again by remembering why she did the sport in the first place.
“I had to take a step back and think, ‘The first day I pole vaulted, I was like that was so much fun,’ and I need to get back to that,” said Saxer.
Ann said that Mary has never quit anything in her life. So when she called home saying she was thinking about quitting the team and losing her full-ride scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, Ann knew something was not right.
“It’s not so much that I remember her asking us if it was OK if she quit, but it was us telling her ahead of that, ‘Do whatever you need to do to become whole again. This is not worth you becoming destroyed,’” Ann said.
Then, the comeback meet happened—a meet that Ann said she will not soon forget.
It was a spring conference meet at Villanova University. Saxer, who had been recently struggling, finally had jumped 13.5 meters. A jump she regularly would hit prior to her struggles. Ann recalls that when the meet was over, all of the athletes would come up into the stands to meet family and friends in attendance. Somehow it had gotten out that Don and Ann were Mary’s parents.
“These girls form Villanova or whatever school in the conference, were saying, ‘We are so happy to see Mary back where she belongs,’ and it just made me cry happy tears,” said Ann. “These were competitors and here they are saying they’re glad to see Mary back where she belongs. That speaks volumes about the track and field community.”
Saxer graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in marketing in 2009. She accepted a job in Chicago ready to begin her post-college life. But with the support of her college coaches, family and husband, she quit the job she never even started and began her life as a professional pole vaulter. Seven years later, at age 29, her day job still consists of jumping over a bar.
“I just feel so lucky to be able to do this for my job right now. I truly can chase my dreams everyday. Its pretty awesome,” said Saxer.
An Olympic-sized dream
Saxer says she is able to do what she does because of the support she receives from her friends, family and coach. Wilkerson has been through all the ups and downs of Saxer’s career with her.
“For a lot of people, were dealing with a sport that you’re always going to fail in,” said Wilkerson. “In an event that every time these athletes leave the track they fail, you always end in a miss.”
The following year after Saxer’s disappointing Olympic trials, she once again finished fourth at the world trials in 2013. But between Saxer, her coach and her entire support system, she has been able to shake off those fourth-place finishes and continue to be in the category of elite American pole vaulters.
“It becomes really easy to say let’s not talk about it,” said Wilkerson. “But we’ve come to the conclusion that we address it, and we’ve looked at it head on, and it is what it is.”
Saxer is no stranger to wearing red, white and blue across her chest. In 2014 she was the Indoor United States National Champion. That same year she finished eighth in her second Indoor World Championships. She would finish the 2014 season ranked 11 in the world.
“These were extremely special to me, and I valued every second of being on those teams and wearing U.S.A. across my chest,” said Saxer.
Saxer says the World Championships and the Olympic Games consist of the same competition, but that the Olympic Games have something special.
“It’s such a special event. It only happens every four years, which makes it that much more sweet,” said Saxer. “I just envision what it would be like to be a part of the opening and closing ceremonies.”
At 29 years old, Saxer is at the peak of her career. With the Olympic trials quickly approaching, she can only stay calm and continue to train like the world champion she already is.
Don and Ann are anxiously awaiting the trials as well. But the two of them constantly remind themselves that Mary is a professional and knows what she is doing.
“The balance that parents have to take is that we are not the professionals,” said Don. “As parents of any person competing in sports, you need to step back and you need to let the professionals take charge and do what they will.”
Olympic qualifications for the women’s pole vault begin July 8 at the University of Oregon.
“To wear U.S.A. across my chest at any point, but especially the Olympics, is what I work every single day for and is my ultimate dream,” said Saxer. “It would just truly be a dream come true.”