May 30, 2014
By Christopher Walsh
They call it the longest eight seconds of your life, and also the best eight seconds of your life, if you're into bull riding.
Lakan Taylor was not, but she has an appreciation for it since her father was into the sport. Maybe her version of conquering your fears isn't quite as elaborate, or potentially dangerous, but pole vaulting has its own appeals and adrenaline rush.
"I'm kind of a competitive person," the University of Alabama freshman said. "It's sort of in my nature."
While numerous Crimson Tide athletes are getting close to concluding not only the 2014 outdoor track and field season but also their careers with the upcoming regional and NCAA meets, it's also an important time for those following in their footsteps.
This is when the next wave begins to come forth, sometimes showing glimpses of enormous potential, or simply getting experience that will be quite valuable as they progress.
A perfect example is with the women's pole vault, where All-American Alexis Paine recently wrapped up her collegiate years with the Crimson Tide having set the school record of 14 feet, 7-1/4 inches. Taylor is considered the prodigy.
"I've really only done it for three years and my technique is not what it should be, so I think I have a lot of potential," Paine said before competing in her final collegiate meet and turning her attention toward the pro ranks.
She may not have known it, but Paine both directly and indirectly taught Taylor quite a lot and gave her something to aim for.
"It's really great having Alexis at practice," Taylor said. "It's better to have someone better than you at practice because you're trying to reach that kind of goal.
"I don't try and get a certain height at every single meet. I want to meet a certain expectation."
Actually, she didn't have any kinds of expectations at first. Initially Taylor was a gymnast, which she enjoyed for 11 years. But like with so many others in that sport things kind of ran their course and it came time to try something new.
"A lot of pole vaulters are ex-gymnasts," she said.
Taylor first attempted pole vaulting in middle school due to her coach insisting that everyone on the team try each event. However, the coach didn't know much about pole vaulting's nuances, and that initial attempt was a "big fail."
In high school, she gave competitive cheer a shot as a freshman, then tried her hand at basketball. But being just 5-foot-3 there wasn't much of a future on the hardwood, so Taylor went back to track and field as a sophomore. Aided by the upper body strength from all those years of gymnastics, she was a pretty good novice.
It was after joining a club and receiving some extra coaching her junior year that things "skyrocketed."
"I kind of decided, 'You know, I want to get better in this,'" Taylor said. "It went from being not very good, to being a lot better.
"I stuck with it and I love it."
Her junior year at Boswell High School in Fort Worth, Taylor cleared 13-3 in the Texas 4A state championships to place first, and a year later won again at 13-8. Her personal best in competition was 13-11, and she also captured back-to-back USATF National Junior Olympic Championships.
Meanwhile, Dan Waters, who had been an assistant coach at Texas A&M, was hired by Alabama in May 2011, and with an almost empty roster began rebuilding the program. While Sam Bailey Track Stadium received a much-needed multi-million dollar facelift, the head coach installed a more balanced approach, with the aim of having more people competing in more events and eventually having an overall roster of 96 student-athletes.
In other words, he wanted the Crimson Tide to be more of a complete team.
Taylor only visited two schools when being recruited. She liked Arkansas, but wasn't thrilled about the men's and women's teams being separate and not working together.
Alabama, she felt, was a "perfect fit."
Through her first season, Taylor has yet to clear 14 feet, but she's convinced that it's just a matter of time. Like with so many other athletes what worked in high school wasn't going to be enough for her to reach her potential at the top collegiate tier. She essentially had to start over.
Under the direction of volunteer assistant coach Brad Smith, who says "work ethic" is even more important than athleticism in the event because of all the technique involved and how everything has to come together, Taylor's pole vaults were completely deconstructed.
She had never done any sort of sprinting, so she had to learn the best way to have a faster approach. Weight training had also been foreign to her, and so on ...
"When I got here I was, 'Oh goodness. Hopefully I don't look like a little weakling,'" Taylor said. "But no, it was a good transition.
"Once I perfect everything I'm going to start going up like I want to."
Maybe that'll happen at the end of this first season. Maybe it'll take until next year's indoor or outdoor seasons, or even longer. Some days it feels like she's almost there, and other days not so much.
Like with so many elements in life, sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better.
"I have goals to get to certain heights," Taylor said. "Right now I'm just trying to do everything to get to that, I'm trying to work my way up."
"It's going to take me a while to get to what I want."