June 7, 2013
June 5 - Diondre Batson Feature
June 6 - Elias Hakansson Feature
EUGENE, Ore. - When the current Alabama track and field coaching staff came on board in advance of the 2012 season, they weren't sure what to make of Alexis Paine. That was just fine for the then-junior from the southern part of the state in Mobile. She also was unclear about her future, more specifically her event, and even had misgivings as to whether she would actually make the team in 2012.
Paine had competed primarily as a high jumper, with mixed results, during her first two seasons in Tuscaloosa, adding in some long jump and dabbling a bit in the pole vault. Feeling that she had maxed out her ability in the high jump and eager to excel - in something, anything - the 5-foot-6 junior transitioned full-time to the pole vault, due in large part to the arrival of volunteer assistant coach Brad Smith.
Two full seasons later, Paine's transformation has been impressive. After receiving no true pole vault coaching previously in her career (at the high school or college level), she has flourished under the tutelage of Smith, a 2005 pole vault All-American while at the University of Georgia. Paine will be looking to repeat her own All-America honor from 2012 this week at the 2013 NCAA Championships in Eugene, Ore. (she competes on Friday at 2:15 p.m. PT, 4:15 p.m. in Tuscaloosa), on the heels of a 2013 season that has included: winning the SEC Indoor title; setting school records both indoors (13-11 1/4) and outdoor (14-7 ¼); and finishing in a four-way tie for first at the recent NCAA East Regional qualifier.
She also recently graduated from Alabama with a 4.0 cumulative grade-point average - rounding out quite a collection of accomplishments to close her career as a student-athlete.
Brad Smith has done wonders for Alexis, building a great foundation and then directing her training," says Alabama second-year head coach Dan Waters. "Brad is a very patient and methodical coach, not super-emotional. He has helped Alexis develop tremendous confidence, and in the pole vault you have to believe in what you are doing, there can be no doubts. Her athletic ability continues to shines through, it's a tremendous accomplishment.
"A success story like this, happening in such a short time frame, does not come along very often."
During her days as a primary high jumper, Paine occasionally would feel as if she had some sort of "mental block" in executing her technique. That frustration would lead her to take a day or two off from the high jump, instead often taking a crack at the pole vault, but again with no real coaching.
When Waters and his experienced staff of assistants arrived prior to the 2011-12 academic year, Paine was at a crossroads.
"I had not done very well during my freshman and sophomore seasons, so I was not even sure if I was going to make the team in 2012," admits Payne, who had a personal best in the outdoor pole vault of 11-1 3/4 in 2010 and vaulted no higher than 11-8 3/4 in the 2011 outdoor season (her top high jump was a team-best 5-5 3/4, which was not significant on the conference or national level).
"I ultimately decided to focus on the pole vault during my junior year because it was a good opportunity with Brad Smithjoining the program, and there was not much more for me to get out of the high jump," Paine said. "I began to see that with hard work I could do better by competing in the pole vault."
The Alabama track and field coaching staff - bursting with accomplished individuals, each with a proven record of success - provides the Tide student-athletes with expert instruction in every event area. Hall of Fame coach Dick Boothoversees the various jumping events, although he gladly leaves the pole vaulting expertise in the capable hands of Smith.
Spanning a 40-year career that has included 27 total years at Arkansas, where they could use NCAA championship team trophies as doorstops, and most recently at Florida (2011 NCAA indoor men's champs), Booth has logged plenty of appreciation for the finer points of pole vaulting. But he says the first step to a successful pole vaulter is a simple concept: courage.
"Most of us would not be all that excited about getting upside down on a bent fiberglass pole," laughs the veteran Booth. "But Alexis is very fearless and also adventurous. She obviously has taken well to Brad's coaching and has been open to anything he might suggest, whether it be trying a new pole or making changes to her running approach.
"Alexis had a relatively quick transformation, but it by no means happened overnight. She has put it all together, but it took time for her to get stronger and refine some techniques. She has all the tools now to be one of the best in the nation. Still, the key always has been that she is a willing participant, and one with a lot of tenacity."
Paine's athletic background spans several sports, as she was the leading scorer on the 2008 Murphy High School soccer team and a state champion in USAG level 9 gymnastics (top pole vaulters often have a gymnastics background). That all-around athleticism has manifested itself on the pole vault runway, where Paine can sprint at nearly top speed, despite toting the wobbly fiberglass pole, before mastering proper techniques in the "plant and explode" phase.
Over the past two seasons, Paine has developed a takeoff technique that Smith proudly proclaims as the "best takeoff in college pole vaulting." That status is due to a key positioning of the left arm at the time when the pole is being planted for takeoff.
"I have a really high vertical leap, so this technique, which Coach Smith calls `jumping up and through the pole,' really helps me to go even higher," explains Paine. "A lot of girls tend to bend their left arm and kind of shrink into the pole when they jump; they get really close to the pole. I keep my left arm straighter for longer, so it helps me get off the ground better, with more explosion."
Payne's max velocity run-up at the point of takeoff, coupled with maintaining a straight left arm, is the perfect combination for generating more potential energy as she launches upward towards the bar.
Smith clearly has made a huge impact on Payne, converting her from an average high jumper into one of the nation's top pole vaulters.
Brad Smithknows everything about the technical aspects of pole vaulting. He made me faster, as we've worked really hard on my run technique as well as the takeoffs," says the appreciative Payne. "I knew I could trust what he was telling me and it obviously was better than any advice I'd had before. I've just taken everything he has told me, tried it and it's worked out very well for me."
Paine's primary enhancement from her junior to senior season has been in the area of confidence.
"Last year I didn't see myself as a pole vaulter, I was basically new to the event at that time," she says. "This year my confidence has built up more, and that really has helped with my performances."
The all-important courage element (or the "anti-fear factor") never has been an issue for Payne, who says she "actually was a lot more scared in high jump" than pole vaulting.
"When I am pole vaulting, I put aside the fear and don't really think about it when I'm running down the runway," she says. "I just push myself really hard and push any fear out of my mind. I try to do the best I can and am not scared of the things that I need to do."
Doing her best extends to the academic realm, as Paine graduated a few weeks ago with a 4.0 cumulative grade-point average. An English major, with a minor in journalism, Paine's postgraduate plans could include law school, but for now she is focused on closing her career with another All-America performance.
"I always really want to be perfect, whether it's in academics or on the track," says Payne. "If I'm going to put my time in, I might as well do really well at it or at least do my best."
The 2013 season played like a broken record for Paine, who continually did her best while setting and re-setting the Alabama pole vault records. She capped the indoor season with yet another record vault (13-11 1/4) while her outdoor record (14-7 1/4) was set at Georgia's Spec Towns Invitational.
Paine will be aiming to improve on her eighth place finish at the 2012 NCAA Outdoor meet, with only four of the seven who finished above her in 2012 being back for the upcoming competition in Eugene. Those top veteran contenders for the 2013 title include Georgia sophomore Morgann Leleux (the 2012 runner-up), Washington senior Logan Miller, and the University of South Dakota duo of junior Bethany Buell and sophomore Emily Grove.
"At the end of the day, Alexis deserves all the credit, she has not dwelled on any minor setbacks and has never taken a step backwards," says Booth. "The long jump is like the pole vault without the pole, but that pole is an added dimension. It adds more to the mix, and a lot more can go wrong.
"Alexis is an individual who truly understands what excellence is, both in her academics and athletics. She can't understand living with anything else. Why be a B student when you can get straight A's? Why not be an all-American if you put in all that work to get there? She is very meek and mild, soft-spoken, but's she's a true champion and a wonderful role model."
By Pete LaFleur for RollTide.com