Allison Stokke doesn't want to be your sex symbol

Bill Frakes for ESPN

Allison Stokke during some down time at the EXOS training facility in Arizona.

Name a pole vaulter. Honestly, try naming any pole vaulter in history -- any gender, any nationality, any era.

And, no, not a decathlete -- a pole vaulter.

Got a name?

Probably not. But for millions, the image of a photo might have flickered through your mind: that of a young woman standing in a white athletic top, her right arm extended behind her head to adjust her ponytail, her midriff showing, a pole resting across her shoulder. In the photo, which was taken in while she was in high school, Allison Stokke is looking off into the distance, clearly preparing for an attempt.

The photo was posted in 2008 to a sports blog, along with the following text: "Meet pole vaulter Allison Stokke... Hubba hubba and other grunting sounds."

Within weeks, dozens of other blogs and message boards picked up the image. Calculating just how many people have seen the photo is impossible. But here's some anecdotal evidence to suggest that number is ridiculously high: the same week the image was posted online, Stokke opened up Facebook.

She had infinity friend requests.

The number of requests pouring into her account had broken Facebook's counting mechanism. Or consider this: the week after the photo appeared online, Cindy Stokke went to the neighborhood dry cleaner, where the woman behind the counter looked at her ticket, saw the last name and asked if she was related to the girl in the pole-vaulting picture.

Yes, that's my daughter.

Apparently everyone in Korea, where the store owner was from, was talking about the image.

In the infamous photo, Stokke is competing in a high school meet. She is, in that moment, an athlete, just as she is now. The year the viral photo was taken, she was 17 years old and the best high school vaulter in the country. In the picture, she is strong, her body taut.

Of course, that's not why the photo went viral -- not really. The image tore across the web because men thought she looked hot. Part of that "hotness" is certainly her strength, her body, which also helps make her a better pole vaulter.

But let's not kid ourselves: very few people ogling the photo saw Stokke through the athlete prism. They saw sex. Hubba, hubba.

The picture is like a Rubin vase for sports. What do you see when you look at the photo: a female athlete preparing to vault, or a sexy young woman striking a pose?

If most people see only sex, even though Stokke was literally in the middle of a competition, and if she does not want to be a sex symbol and really loathes the idea, then how does she continue being an athlete? If society has intertwined those two identities, how does she go about being one without reinforcing the other?

"I feel like me and that picture are two different people," Stokke says. "I feel it has taken on a life of its own. It's like that picture is my alter-ego and sometimes I feel like I use it for a positive force, and sometimes I just choose to leave it out there and not engage with it."

What a strange space we launched her into -- and at age 18.

Stokke is now 27, and she's still vaulting. In fact, last year, the Cal graduate moved from California to Phoenix, where she's training, working under a new coach and surrounded by the very best. She wanted to give herself the best chance to achieve her lifelong dream: making the Olympic team. The Southern California native briefly gave up her sport a few years ago, deciding she needed to move on and get her master's. But she quickly realized she wasn't yet done. She still wanted to try to twist her body over greater and greater heights.

The USA Track & Field Olympic Trials are in Eugene, Oregon, on Friday. Stokke will be watching from the sidelines, as her 4.20 meter entry mark didn't meet the 4.50m minimum standard, but she'll continue to train and compete.

Kyle Terada/Terada Photo

Allison Stokke during the 2009 Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational at Cobb Track and Angell Field in Stanford, Calif.

It's July of 2015, and Stokke is sitting in the back of a coffee shop in Orange County when the guy at the next table leans into her space. She catches the movement out of the corner of her eye. Her smile freezes; her hand tightens around her café au lait.

"I couldn't help but eavesdrop," he says, "but were you talking about sports?"

She was, in fact. She was talking about why she first started vaulting (she grew out of gymnastics), her years at the University of California (2006 to 2010), the small international competitions in Europe where you rent a car and drive all night instead of paying for a hotel, and about chasing the 2016 Olympic dream.

Stokke smiles in the man's direction without making eye contact and says: "Yup!"

He waits for her to say more, then nods, satisfied, as if this is the coolest thing he's heard in a while, then he drifts back into his space.

Stokke exhales.

In the months after the picture went viral, photographers would kneel beneath her at meets, shooting upward as she stood on the runway before an attempt. Grown men would send postcards, with handwritten notes, to her home in California -- some of the sentiments were kind; some were not.

When Stokke vaulted at Cal, the school removed her headshot from its website because men would constantly request a signed copy. And in the years immediately after the image went viral, she would often get asked to pose for pictures with men who couldn't believe they had run into the young woman from that super hot photo on the internet.

Or with men who really could believe they had, because they orchestrated a meeting, attending the event just to take a picture with Stokke.

So, no, it's not an overblown reaction if Stokke builds an invisible wall when someone unexpectedly leans into her space. A lot of people have leaned into her space. And she's mostly chosen to stay still -- very still -- and wait for them to go away.

Bill Frakes for ESPN

Bill Frakes for ESPN

Stokke has struggled with how to handle a lot of unwanted attention, but she decided to channel it towards her dream of joining Team USA. She moved from California to Arizona to train for trials at the EXOS facility in Phoenix.

Google her name -- it's almost like she didn't exist between 2009 and 2014. "At that point, I wasn't the best vaulter in the country, so why should I be getting that much attention?" she says. "It cut the other way, too, though. I think at some point Cal just decided: 'Don't put anything up about her.' So even if I jumped high or won a meet, they wouldn't put up a picture or article, and that's actually the kind of recognition I would have liked to see."

Even as a teenager, Stokke recognized her situation as a Catch-22. The attention she had garnered -- coverage by Glamour, offers from Maxim, calls to appear on The Today Show -- was disproportionate to her athletic achievements. Though she didn't yet have the language for her predicament, she sensed that waiting out the storm would be the best solution for her.

Some people around her wondered why she didn't seize the moment: accept the spread in Maxim, the modeling contract, fly to New York to appear on the morning shows. Do all of it. After all, who knows if you'll have the chance again?

But the part never mentioned is that, once someone walks through that door, it snaps shut. Once a female athlete is publicly labeled "beautiful," we offer her the world. But here's the trick: once she accepts it, we tear her apart, say she's exploiting and sexualizing herself. Oh, and we also say that she's not even that good, anyway.

"I've never seen this viral thing happen to a male athlete who isn't also already the best at what they do," Stokke says. "Yes, male athletes are also hailed for being incredibly attractive, but they're usually top-ranked in the world, too."

So Stokke kept fighting to become better.

"I think I saw her grow up faster," says her mom, Cindy. "She saw how the world can be, saw how some people can be really cruel, some people can be great. I think she realized, 'I can't be so concerned about what everyone else thinks; I have to pursue my career and my dream and my sport.'"

Bill Frakes for ESPN
Bill Frakes for ESPN

"I've never seen this viral thing happen to a male athlete who isn't also already the best at what they do," Stokke says. "Yes, male athletes are also hailed for being incredibly attractive, but they're usually top-ranked in the world, too."

Stokke is not a victim.

On this point, she is adamant, almost desperate. She did one print interview when this whole thing happened, with a magazine, and the energy conveyed by the piece was that Stokke was somehow wronged. Truth is: convincing people that unwanted attention from men isn't flattering -- and often also feels threatening -- is difficult.

Stokke isn't good at being a victim. She's an athlete; she's conditioned to mold herself to become whatever necessary. "If she was going to be in the limelight, it was going to be because she was an athlete, and she knew that was about her looks," says Cindy. "She wanted to be known for her ability to pole vault. That's what she wanted."

Says Stokke: "At Cal, I wrote about it once for a Sociology class. We were supposed to write about some deep thing that affected you emotionally, and then you had the option to share, or not share and delete it. And I didn't share it. I deleted it. I wish I still had that somewhere, because I think it would be very different now.

"My response back then, in 2008 -- was I flattered? In some ways, sure. But I was overwhelmed, too. And I think my response to being overwhelmed was to just stay away from it entirely. But now, I'm trying to figure out how to reclaim it and own it and push it in the right direction. And benefit from it -- in terms of fueling my training. And if I try to ignore it, it will take on a life of its own. Which is what I did in college: ignore it. And I lost control of my own story."

In an earlier version of this story, we incorrectly said Stokke would be competing in the USA Track & Field Olympic trials on July 8.

Related Content