Sandi Morris has a spirit of ingenuity and determination that pushes her through life’s challenges, so when the world went on pause for COVID19-related quarantines, Sandi knew it was time to double down. She’s always found a way to compete. This characteristic is what has catapulted her professional pole vaulting career to elite levels. She has competed in the sports world’s most renowned global competitions, including solidifying her place in history at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games by earning a silver medal. We caught up with Sandi recently to see how she’s making the most of quarantine, what she’s doing to stay in a consistent training routine, as well as where she finds the inspiration to push herself to the next level.
Growing up, Sandi had two active parents who were multi-event track athletes at Western Illinois University. “A natural interest in athletics runs in my blood. Pun intended,” she joked. “When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was race other kids. I discovered I was fast in the first grade during our school’s field day, when the teachers lined up every kid who wanted to race (boys and girls from all grades), and we raced to the other side of the field. I beat everyone, older boys included. I remember vividly when my first grade teacher looked down, gawking, and said, ‘Oh my gosh Sandi, you are FAST!’ Once I discovered this was my talent, racing was all I wanted to do!” Sandi created opportunities to race whenever she had the chance. “My parents once witnessed me pay a boy a quarter to race me on the sidelines of my sister’s soccer game. Both his parents and mine got a kick out of it when I dusted him to the pole we dedicated as our finish line. That same day, my parents found a local track club for kids my age. I was 7,” she recalled.
Morris refined her track and field skills as an elite high school athlete, winning the 2009 and 2010 South Carolina High School League 3A state pole vault titles. During high school, Sandi was also an all-state volleyball player, and says it’s still one of her favorite spectator sports. “I watch any game and immediately get into it. I love the fast-paced nature of the sport, and it’s definitely easy to follow because I grew up playing it and know the ins and outs of the game.” Sandi went on to compete in college, and graduated from the University of Arkansas in 2015 with a degree in Broadcast Journalism, before joining the Olympic Games in Rio 2016.
“My biggest learning moment as an athlete was standing on the back of the runway at the Olympic Games, about to take my third attempt at my final height. If I made the bar, I would take the gold medal because the other competitor had missed her final attempt right before me. If I missed it, I would take silver. I remember making peace with either outcome while preparing my grip, and the second I stepped on the runway I put all of that out of my mind and gave that jump everything I had. I missed the bar, and I took silver. That single miss has taught me more in life than any other sporting experience,” Sandi shared.
More recently, Morris took the silver medal at the 2019 World Championships, and had her sights set on gold for the 2020 Summer Olympics. With the delay of the games being pushed to 2021 as a result of the COVID19 global pandemic, Sandi is once again creating a way to do what she loves and stay in shape while she stays safe at her parent’s house in South Carolina. “I decided to leave Arkansas and drive to where my parents live because all the facilities closed down. My parents live in a neighborhood that has a community soccer field, and the owner has kindly blessed our desire to build my own vaulting facility on the field. My dad and I have been hard at work building an elevated runway and pit, and will be done within a week. I also ordered weights and have put together a home gym. So I’m training here and communicating with my coach via phone/video.”
Sandi says her coach, Bryan Compton, has a very old school approach and practices tough love when it comes to his athletes. “It’s funny that I have thrived so much under this method because my parents are basically the opposite–we are all very loving, easy going, and encouraging. When I transferred to Arkansas, getting used to Coach Compton’s intensity took some adjustment. It felt like I joined the army and was going through boot camp! At first, I thought I made a mistake by going there because he just seemed like he had a lack of understanding, and he was always yelling at people. Over time I realized why he was hard on us; because he really believed in us. He knew we could do better. As soon as I started viewing his intensity as his believing in me, I began to thrive. Instead of clamming up when he would yell when I had a bad jump or made a mistake, I would set out to prove him wrong. I shifted my perspective to focus on making the technical changes he wanted to see, instead of focusing on the fact that he opts to yell corrections instead of speaking them gently,” She laughed. “This relationship has hilariously not changed all that much in my nearly decade of working with him. This relationship is a strict coach to athlete relationship, no buddy-buddy stuff. My coach has seriously only been to my house one time! But I honestly think this is why I have thrived. Practice is intense and I’m always out to impress him. If we were close friends, I don’t know that training would carry that same boot camp vibe that has brought me so far. He has made me tough as nails in every scenario, and it helps me adapt quickly to competitions with unfavorable conditions (like bad weather, things changing mid competition and disrupting the flow, etc.)”
Adapting quickly to today’s challenges could be what brings Sandi to the next level once competitive sports are allowed to return to business.
Morris says that she does believe there is something good to be found for the world of sports during this bizarre time, “I think the most positive thing will be everyone’s drive to get back to work when it’s over. I think it’s similar to when an athlete gets injured and has to sit out a while, then comes back stronger than ever. I can imagine everyone is chomping at the bit to get back to normalcy in all dimensions.”
To keep her spirits high during her time at home, Sandi says she’s grateful for her parents' encouragement. “My dad’s help in building me a private space to continue doing my normal workouts is a lifeline for me, and the weather here in South Carolina is just wonderful. The sunshine, being outdoors, and my workouts have kept me sane even with all the uncertainty of what life will hold for track and field this season.”
And when the gates of competitive sport are reopened, Morris will be ready to compete. “The night before a big competition, I always visualize my game plan over and over in my head. I imagine what scenarios might happen and plan how I intend to react. It’s impossible to plan for every scenario, but thinking of as many as I can has helped me a lot when I’m under pressure and have to make a choice quickly. I see myself passing a height when a competitor is in the lead, and trying to take the competition in fewer jumps. The only “ritual” I really have is blasting fun music in my room while I get ready to leave for the track. I know it’s important to get myself in a happy mood and positive headspace, because when I’m having fun I’m able to handle the pressure of the situation aside and jump higher,” she said.
While women’s pole vaulting is still a fairly new event for the Olympics (only since the 2000 Sydney Olympics) and Sandi is helping to pave the way and inspire future women in the sport. But when you ask her who inspires her most, without hesitation she will tell you, “I have always been inspired by the first Olympic gold medalist in the women’s pole vault, Stacy Dragila. She defied the norm and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer when society saw women unfit to pole vault,” Morris said. “Stacy continues to inspire all of the vault community by continually giving back to us. She has an incredible program for kids called ‘Stick Jumping,’' where she travels the country introducing the sport to elementary school gym classes where kids can step outside of their comfort zone and try something new! The videos of kids participating just brings me so much joy, because you can see how much fun they are having doing something so simple. Stacy says the teachers continually tell her the participation is much higher than when they play a more common sport, because the kids aren’t afraid to be bad at it. Everyone is bad at it! I just love the program,” Morris added.
Sandi has made sports her lifestyle because she believes in the power of community to expand far greater than any one individual. “Sport gives us all something fun to live for. Whether it’s being a participant or watching, it brings a sense of community and purpose. Watching people struggle without having sports to watch during this global pandemic has really brought that to light for me. I realize how much people really do need teams to cheer for, and athletes to live vicariously through. It gives us all something to get excited about that’s outside of the stresses of our own day to day lives. I believe people who participate in recreational sports, or kids who play sports, are definitely much healthier and happier than they would be without them! The benefits of sports are endless.”
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