Not many success stories start with hesitation.
The characteristic audacity that defines collegiate and professional athletes is no doubt built with hours of training, but there are nearly always seeds of boldness at the inception of promising careers.
When it comes to redshirt freshman pole vaulter Greta Wagner, however, she was almost reluctant in the beginning. It took a lot pressure and convincing from coaches, parents and peers for her to even get started.
“I had a lot of people telling me I should try it and I did not think I was going to do it,” Wagner said. “My parents basically forced me to (start).”
Her high school track and field head coach Ernesto Salinas said it was a community effort.
“It was me, it was the pole vaulters, it was her friends, it was her parents, I think her brother had a good influence on her,” Salinas said. “It was definitely a group effort. I had to have a sit-down with her and say, ‘Look, you really need to try this.’”
After that, though, Wagner immediately fell for the sport.
“Her and I actually had a wager,” Salinas said. “I told her if she had jumped 10 feet by December that that I’d run the two mile in an all-comer meet … and sure enough, in two months, she went up two feet and she won the bet with me and the next thing you know she’s jumping over 10 feet in a couple months.”
Two and a half years after that wager, she won the California Interscholastic Federation state pole vaulting title. Since then, she has gone on to finish third at the Pac-12 championships and has become the ninth best women’s pole vaulter in UCLA history – all in her first competitive collegiate season.
Wagner is now preparing to compete at the NCAA regional championships this upcoming weekend with the 36th highest vault in the country. But before she put in the time and effort to get to where she is now, she committed a significant amount of time to another sport.
She reached the ninth out of 10 competitive gymnastics levels over a 10-year career, something she said prepared her for the high-altitude adrenaline rush that can come with pole vaulting.
“I was used to doing gymnastics and doing those scary things already,” Wagner said. “(Pole vaulting is) almost a little less so than flipping in the air, so it’s not that bad.”
Many of the greatest women’s pole vaulters in the history of the sport have gymnastics backgrounds. All of the women’s world record holders in the event dating back to June 1995 started in gymnastics. Even the NCAA competition, according to UCLA pole vault coach Anthony Curran, is full of former gymnasts.
“I would say 80 percent,” Curran said. “It’s pretty amazing even with the kids that I’ve coached and saw develop before they came into UCLA, most of them were all ex-gymnasts.”
In high school, Wagner faced challenges practicing her new sport. Her pole vaulting repetitions were limited since her league’s dual meets didn’t offer the event.
If Wagner wanted to improve her official marks, she would have to do so at bigger invitationals.
To keep pace with and continue to contribute to her team, Wagner started running sprints. Her 4×100-meter relay team won the California Central Coast Section championships her junior year, and made finals at state her senior year.
“Whether it was the 100 or the vault or whatever she was doing, I always asked ‘Greta, what are we going to do today?’” Salinas said. “I was trying to get her to describe how she was going to make her events better or what she was going to do to be better at them. Her only answer ever – and I loved it – was, ‘I’m going to win of course.’”
Wagner also qualified for state in the individual 100-meter dash that same season, but what she accomplished in the pole vault overshadowed everything else. She won by 8 1/4 inches over current teammate Melissa Maneatis.
“Greta had two very good high school years – junior year jumping 13 (feet) 2 (inches) and then jumping that same height her senior year of high school,” Curran said. “When she came into UCLA it was a huge transition for her, and it usually is for everybody coming in that first year.”
But now in her second year, things are going very well, according to Curran. She’s steadily improved her jumps, ultimately scaling 13 feet 8 1/2 inches – more than six inches better than her best a year ago.
“As far as freshmen go, she’s probably one of the highest freshman vaulters I’ve ever had,” Curran said. “She’s already jumped on (the top 10 all-time list) as a freshman and she’s got three more years, it’s going to be a fun ride.”
In the regional meet this weekend, Wagner is seeded as 15th out of 48 competitors all looking to vie their way into the top 12 to make it to the national meet.
“I think for Greta there’s a really good chance,” said sophomore pole vaulter Elleyse Garrett, who will also compete at regionals. “But I think it’s going to be a tough year this year. I think 13-10, 14 will get you there, so it’s definitely a doable height.”
Wagner has been trying to clear those heights since the beginning of the season. Her best so far came at the Bruin Legends of Track and Field Invitational, when she achieved a mark of 13-8 1/2.
“Greta is on a mission this year, she is so focused,” Curran said “She walks around with her head down most of the time because she’s not achieving the things she wants to achieve, and I think she could be a 14-footer in a snap of the fingers and be in the mix for scoring at nationals. She knows that it’s just up to her.”
Those who best calculate the conditions and execute accordingly at regionals will qualify for the next round, and there are few people who can do that better than Wagner.
To the unfamiliar spectator, the dozens of seconds Wagner spends staring down the runway before she lifts the pole up to her waist and makes her approach could be seen as a remnant of her initial hesitation.
But after she achieved her personal best at the Legends invitational, UCLA’s pole vaulting natural revealed exactly what goes through her head – or more to her credit, what does not.
“There are a lot of things,” Wagner said. “Normally, it’s better if you don’t think about anything.”