March 10, 2014
By Christopher Walsh
It was an unlikely place to get into a discussion about track and field, but when one of the workers changing the oil in her car found out that Alexis Paine pole vaulted for the University of Alabama the question came naturally.
"How high can you pole vault?"
Paine's best so far is 14 feet, 7¼ inches, the Crimson Tide school record. When the worker estimated that was higher than the building, she looked on in disbelief while he proved it with a measuring tape.
"Once you clear like 14 feet it's like, `Oh my gosh, I cleared a whole building at one time'," Paine said. "It's pretty exciting. I never thought I'd jump 14 feet, like, ever. I wanted to. I didn't think it was possible."
Actually, the ascent of Paine (an All-American both academically and on the track) has been nothing short of remarkable considering that she is still rather new to the event. Originally a walk-on from Murphy High School in Mobile, she didn't start to focus on the pole vault until after coach Dan Waters took over the Crimson Tide in 2011.
In a way, she's like the movie character Happy Gilmore, who considered himself a hockey player, but used what talents he had in that sport to be a successful golfer. While Paine had competed in track and field since middle school she'd primarily considered herself a high jumper. "I loved track," she said. "It was the best part of my day in high school and I knew that I wanted to continue with it."
Meanwhile, the schools she had attended didn't even have a vault pit. When her father saw one of the makeshift setups for practice in high school he thought, "Oh my gosh," Joe Paine said. "If she just comes off a little to the left she's going to hang herself on the chain-link fence. It was sad."
Obviously, Alabama had good facilities and competed at the highest collegiate level, but pole vault remained a secondary interest. Little did Paine know, though, that she had already peaked in the high jump as her 5-foot-8 efforts, just three inches better than what she could do as a sophomore in high school, didn't compare to teammate Krystle Schade who was regularly clearing 6 feet. At that point, Paine's track and field career was close to being over as her weekly goal was simply to do well enough to earn a spot on the travel roster. What rejuvenated it was the hiring of the new coaching staff, which issued her equipment for one thing, and one thing only.
While most successful pole vaulters are tall and lanky with some upper body strength, Paine is 5-6 and might be the last person coaches would select to do a weight throw. But she had good footwork from playing soccer, developed a great approach from high jumping, and trusted that she wasn't going to hurt herself falling due to her gymnastics training.
"I didn't think that I was that good at it," she said about pole vaulting. "I didn't know the technique."
Enter volunteer coach Brad Smith, a 2005 All-American at Georgia who starting teaching her the fundamentals. At the time, Paine's personal best was just 11 feet, 8¾ inches, but pole vaulting is something that, to be really good, one has to be dedicated and constantly work at it because there may be no such thing as a perfect pole vault.
It's a lot like a golf swing.
"It's really frustrating because there's so much that goes into the technique and it's really hard to get different motions to click and come together all at once to get you higher," Paine said. "That's really frustrating for me because you'll fix one thing and then there's something else right after that you need to fix, and you fix that and then the thing you fixed before that might for some reason disappear."
When it does click, though, it's like that sweet drive off the tee when one gets to enjoy a sort of perfect moment.
"Every time you clear a bar it's an accomplishment," she said. "You're seeing your work pay off."
It did. She closed the 2012 indoor season with a 12-5½ clearance at the High Tide Qualifier in May. In 2013, she broke the school record for the first time by clearing 13-8½ while placing first at the SEC Indoor Championships, and then kept topping it, like with her 13-11¼ at the NCAA Indoor Championships. Paine then landed All-American honors with a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Championships (14-5¼).
"She definitely has taken leaps and bounds, especially since the first day I met her," Smith said. "The great thing about her is that she's still learning the event. A lot of kids who are jumping as high as she are much more technically sound and have way more jumps under their belt, with many more years of technical work than she has, which are all upsides for her future."
"There's a reason why people start pole vaulting when they're 11 years old and don't become really good at it until they're 28."
Despite all that, Paine still had the same mentality of when she high jumped, and her stress justifying her roster spot with each and every attempt. As Smith points out high jump and pole vault are the only events that always end with a miss, and it took roughly a year for her confidence to really start taking hold.
"I was really messed up ... I had a lot of mental-game issues," she said. "Coach Smith had to be, like, `Stop. It's not like that anymore'."
Instead, she's on the cover of the media guide, like AJ McCarron was for football and Trevor Releford in basketball this academic year.
"She has a lot going for her," Waters said. "First thing is she's a very gifted athlete. She's one of the fastest girls on the runway, so that alone leads into bigger jumps because it leads to bigger takeoffs. The second thing is that she absolutely truly believes in everything Coach Smith has her do. She's all in. The last thing is she's absolutely courageous, a fearless competitor who wants to win every competition. If everyone on the team was like her we'd already have a national championship."
With Paine's eligibility about to expire, she'll lead 10 Alabama track and field athletes to the 2014 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships in Albuquerque, N.M. on March 14-15 for her last meet. After that, she hopes to keep competing and challenging herself even more because Paine no longer considers herself a high jumper. Yet, she still shakes her head thinking back to when coaches first told her that.
They can now say, "I told you so," but she still had to figure it out for herself.
"I thought they were crazy," the champion pole vaulter said.