Dragila looks to return to form
2000 Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion Stacy Dragila will compete in the women's pole vault May 20 at the adidas Track Classic, the first stop of USATF's Visa Championship Series. 2007 marks the first return to competition for Dragila since the 2005 World Outdoor Championships. Since 2004 the women's vaulting legend has battled Achilles problems and other injuries, but she is back on track and training hard. Below is an excerpt from Thursday's media teleconference with Dragila, hosted by the adidas Track Classic:
Q: Update us about what has happened with your career recently, and how you feel coming into the adidas Track Classic.
A: It's been awhile since I competed. I'm a little bit excited. I had Achilles surgery the first of June last year. I tried to rehab it [without surgery] through therapy but it just wasn't doing what I needed to do. 2008 was approaching and I thought I needed a good year to get in shape and get competitive. I had two large tears when they did open it up. They cleared out the scar tissue that was in there, and then fixed the tears themselves. I was on a very extensive rehab. I had a few setbacks here and there [recovering from surgery]. I'm starting to have a little bit of Achilles pain in my other leg, but I think that may be a glute [gluteus] problem that contributed to my first problem. I don't think any athlete is 100 percent, but I feel like we are narrowing down on things and trying to get through it and get ready for competition. My first two competitions [in 2007] haven't been stellar by any means, but things are coming along. I'm back in Idaho with [coach] Dave Nielsen, we've had some bad weather. But I have two and a half weeks of good training and I hope to build on that.
Q: Can you take us back from 2000 onward - it's been a long, hard period for you. Can you hit the highlights?
A: Since 2000, that was probably the highlight of my career, winning the Games. The next year I had a really good year, had IAAF Athlete of the Year, won the World Championships. 2003 was a time where I felt I needed a change. I had been with Dave Nielsen for almost 10 years, and I felt like I needed a change. I was kind of sick of playing the weather game up here. Talking with Greg Hull at an indoor meet, I was re-energized and he had some new philosophies. I needed a new stimulant, and he lived in Phoenix. I thought man, I'd like to have the heat. I was down there two years. We went into Paris [2003 World Outdoor Championships] knowing I wasn't going to be 'on', so there was a setback with holding higher on poles. I came back the next indoor season, in Budapest [2004 World Indoors] and placed second there and felt like things were on a roll. When we went outdoors I started to have this glute problem. I didn't think it was anything ... going into the '04 Olympic Trials, I went to a new jump shoe. I thought, it feels great, I helped develop it, but at that point, trying to peak, it wasn't the best decision I made. Both my calves got super tight and going into the Trials; that week is when I started using the shoes. My calves got tighter and tighter. Going overseas after that and not getting much treatment, it got worse. I didn't pole vault for two, two-and-a-half weeks, trying to do other therapy and staying off my feet. By then, my confidence was pretty shot. That's what happened at the Games [in Athens, where she did not make the final].
Going into '05, we tried to address that problem in the fall. We thought we nipped it in the bud, but as the season went on I kept having problems. It flared up again, and in '05 I hadn't had much training going into nationals. Luckily, I came out on top but I hadn't had much training. That's when the Achilles was at its height of pain. After Helsinki [2005 World Outdoors], I thought 'what am I doing? I don't want to be limping down the runway.' I came home and went to five different doctors and got five different opinions. That was disturbing because you want someone to pinpoint it and say here's how we fix it. It was up to me to make the educated opinion. I thought, 'let's do more therapy.' I probably should have been tied down to a bed or in a cast to keep it immobile. I think it kept tearing and aggravating. I finally met up with Dr. [Amol] Saxena after talking to a couple of runners who were staying in Chula Vista. He seemed like an interesting person to talk to. I went up and saw him, and he really felt that if I had the [2008 Olympic] Games in my mind, that surgery was the best way to go about it. He felt confident that I would come off it 100 percent. When I woke up, I said 'doc, we should have done both of them.' I had great rehab off of it. I'm just trying to take care of this glute problem. I'm not sure what it's stemming from. [Dragila's original Achilles injury was on her right side; the gluteus problem is on the left.]
Q: How many meets do you plan on doing this year, and what do you need to do to get ready for '08?
A: I have a pretty full schedule. Women's pole vault is in the Golden League this year. I wish I was 100 percent right now. The biggest thing is getting stronger this year and being competitive. I will do L.A., the PAA meet [in Eugene], then coming to New York [for the Reebok Grand Prix]. Then, if I'm feeling comfortable, I may head over to Europe and do two meets before nationals. I have Ostrava on June 27, Paris, Rome, Rethymnon, then I'll come home and prepare for Worlds. It's all tentative, but I like to have a schedule out in front of me. I need to be mentally prepared.
Q: For making a comeback, you have a busy competition schedule planned.
A: As I'm getting older, I'm learning more about my body than I care to sometimes. I feel like I'm very fit. I'm running well, and my lifting and conditioning are as good or better than it's been in the past. It's me getting on the runway to get some jumps now. I really feel I need to get into the mix to feel competitive. It will bring up my level of training and competitions as well and get me in a better frame of mind. Some of it we will play by ear.
Q: Why are you pushing yourself this hard to make it back? Why don't you sit back and say 'I won the first Olympic gold medal' and retire?
A: I'm just not ready for it yet. I don't look at my career as the media does. I don't sit back and go 'wow, I've accomplished all that.' That keeps motivating me to come out. I've never been at the top of my game to compete against her [Yelena Isinbayeva], and that eats at me a little bit. I'm a competitor and I want to see what I have left.
Q: The pole vault has developed rapidly the last few years.
A: It's definitely in a place where a lot of people never thought it would be. To see that now, I'm pretty pleased. It would have been awesome to be that person of what Yelena is doing now. Now it's part of the Golden League, when a couple years ago when I won women's athlete of the year, it took them a few more years to decide it was credible. It's kind of incredible. Even when I won my first world indoor championship, we got half the pay. Yelena has done an awesome job of carrying the torch, the two Polish girls have stepped it up, and Jenn [Stuczynski] has done well in Europe - she had some great meets over there. I just hope we keep developing our [American] women. We haven't had that next generation show consistency yet. I know we can do it. All and all, it's been an amazing journey. I think back and I remember when I was trying to jump 6 feet. I still think the sky's the limit for the women's pole vault.
Q: Are you coming into Carson [adidas Track Classic] as an underdog?
A: I think a little bit. I think I'm in a good position because nobody really knows, but everybody is going to be looking.
... My goal this year is getting my step out a little bit so I can move my hold up higher and get on some bigger poles. I can jump on a pretty small because I'm pretty technically sound, but I want to clean up my pole vault a little bit.
Q: What has changed in terms of your vaulting?
A: I like some of the cues Greg gave me, but Dave didn't feel that I changed much when I went with Greg. I trust him [Nielsen] wholeheartedly. Lots of people have said they're so glad I went back to Dave because we have some great chemistry. Dave has helped me work through some confidence issues, and falling back in love with the pole vault.
Q: Did you ever take a walk to decide whether you wanted to get back into the sport?
A: I've taken many walks. ... There were times I thought what am I doing this for? I should be thankful I can walk. I've had those questions. I know Dave knows I've had those questions. He has sat down with me and let me know I'm right on track. He gets me out of my 'Debbie Downer' moods and puts me back on track. It's good to have that kind of communication with somebody who knows me so well.
Q: What made you decide to return to Dave?
A: I felt like the train fell off the track down there [Phoenix]. There was some stuff I wasn't happy with. I was really eager when I went down there, but then there were things that weren't the same. As time went on, the nurturing side of Dave, or how well he knows me as a person and can get me out of a funk, he just knows me. I know he has a passion for the vault. There were times I thought I'm not making strides. I felt kind of scrambled there, not really knowing my direction. So I begged to come back, and he took me with open arms.
Q: Do you think about your age at all?
A: People around town are like, 'you're 36, we better start digging your grave!' I don't need them in my life. I never dwell on it, I don't.
Q: What has been your biggest contribution to the sport, and what will you remember most about the first part of your career?
A: In the infancy of the sport, in 1992, my coach asked the heptathletes to pole vault. Coming from that, and sticking with it to stick a stake in the ground to say women are to be reckoned with, women can do this. Dave, seeing the future, he saw women could do this and have a presence in the pole vault. If I had walked away and Melissa Price had been the only one at the time, I don't know if it would have taken off. It helps to have rivalries and not just one person doing well. In 1995 at the national championships, people got to see women pole vault for the first time. When we went oversees to Great Britain, people thought we were race walkers. We said, 'no, we're pole vaulters!' That fueled our fire. I am glad I contributed in that way. I don't know where it would have gone if we hadn't been stubborn and stuck with it.
For a bio of Stacy Dragila, visit http://www.usatf.org/athletes/bios/Dragila_Stacy.asp
photo Getty Images