Hometown: Buffalo, NY
Profession: Pole Vaulter
College: University of Notre Dame
Sponsor Team: Nike and New York Athletic Club (NYAC)
Favorite Inspirational Female: Stacey Dragila
So, how doe gone get into pole vaulting? If you are Mary Saxton, a persistent coach at track camp persuades you, “I was at a long jump tryout, and the pole vault coach came over and just kept insisting I try pole vault.”
After participating in a private club for about a year, Saxer realized a NCAA Division I scholarship was within her grasp. She broke into the sport with conviction. Saxer set the American junior record in the pole vault and the world record for a female under 17. By the time she was a senior at Central High School in Buffalo, NY she had beaten her own state record a total of nine times. She was also the first high school female to clear 14 feet.
While her entry into pole vaulting may have brought her to great heights rather quickly, Saxer struggled to find her footing as she transitioned from high school to college. While Saxer struggled to adjust privately, her track performance didn’t seem to suffer at first. In her freshman year with the University of Notre Dame, she posted a 3.95m (12-11 1/2) vault, tying her for best jump in program history. Saxer then set a school record at the Notre Dame Invitation, recording a leap of 4.05m (13-3 1/2) and winning event by more than a foot.
By her junior year, Saxer considered leaving the sport, “I started to lose my confidence on the pole vault runway.” She felt as though her sport was no longer fun. With the sacrifices athletes make to train, to compete and to be able to afford all that is need for their sport, it can be a huge challenge when sport feel less like a passion, and more like a chore.
“I had to really dig deep,” recalled Saxer, “I had to really just decide what I wanted to do going forward. In that really hard time, I was able to take a step back and remember, when I first started pole vaulting, how it felt.” With the help of a sports psychologist, Saxer found her way back to the mental and physical performance befitting her potential. The mental shift she was able to make sparked a new goal – a career in track & field.
While Saxer only planned on giving a professional career a year or two, she is now eight years into her chosen post-graduate profession. When asked about some of her biggest challenges in the pro circuit, Saxer stated the financial commitments and sacrifices are tough. On the one hand, Saxer must find a job that helps pay bills. However, the likelihood that a flexible part-time job will pay enough and keep her off her feet is slim to none. “Sure, you might make good money bartending,” said Saxer, “but it’s not conducive to training if you’re up and on your feet until three in the morning every night.”
Therefore sponsorships and winning are crucial to maintaining the appropriate balance. In 2011, Saxer secured a sponsorship with the New York Athletic Club (NYAC). However, both are somewhat dependent on world rankings. USA Track & Field offers scholarship money to professional athletes, but only as long as they place in the Top 20 in the world rankings. Therefore, any off tournament, or long-term injury can greatly impact Saxer’s financial stability.
Due to an injury she sustained during 2016, Saxer is currently outside of the Top 20 and competing without money from USA Track & Field. There are grant opportunities, but the money game is still about stringing together small pools of money. However, the only guarantee is to win, and keep winning. “It’s really challenging unless you are an Olympic medalist, there’s not really that stability within the sport.”
Short Term Memory
Thinking about how to pay bills with such uncertainly can be overwhelming. So, how does Mary focus on competing at her best? By having a short-term memory.
Things in life are bound to stray from the plan, but Saxer works hard to forget the challenges or disappointing results so she can focus on her next goal.
Competition by competition, and sometimes jump-by-jump is how Saxer stays focused. “Sometime you just need to take a step back, refocus, and remind yourself what you’re capable of,” said Saxer. Every time on the runway is a fresh start for Saxer, or at least that is what she works hard to remind herself.
Growing the sport
The United States is home to the 2012 Olympic gold medal pole vaulter (Jennifer Suhr), the 2016 Olympic silver medalist (Sandi Morris). Team USA has such depth in pole vault that jumping the Olympic standard is the minimum; only exceeding the standard can get you to the Olympics. “Despite an exciting showing in Rio and consistent top performances by USA women, Saxer is concerned her sport might be on the verge of extinction.
The lack of large sponsorship deals, and television airtime isn’t necessarily helping, “Most countries, you jump the Olympic standard, you automatically go to the Olympics,” shared Saxer. She constantly questions why her sport, and athletes like herself don’t have more of a platform to compete.
“Our sport is really cool and exciting, and people are drawn to it. But, I don’t understand why most of us are living at the poverty line,” said Saxer. She wants to see the support and exposure of her sport grow so USA athletes can have all they need to continue to compete for the country. While she added that USA Track & Field does a good job with equality, she would like to see a similar pay structure for sponsors, “ If you were to compare [contracts] of the last person in the [5,000-meter] and the 4th ranked person in the pole vault, the 4th place person in the pole vault is barely putting food on the table, and the last person in the 5k is living very comfortably.”
In addition to more balance among sponsors, Saxer would like to see more comprehensive coverage. Often, the pole vault competitions are relegated to recaps – and even then, of only the top two competitors. She hopes that all track & field athletes can be given the opportunity to market themselves, and their sport.
However, despite the frustration, Saxer hopes to do what she always does, take a step back and remember why she began her professional journey. Despite falling short of her Olympic dream last year, Saxer is still finding the good. Additionally, Saxer encourages people to talk to others when things are going well, not just when things look bleak.
“Things aren’t going to go [well] all the time,” says Saxer, “So when you hit a rut and you’ve been talking about [the good], you open up the lines of communication and it makes the communication so much easier and more valuable in those hard times. “