Family The Focus And Motivation For Pole Vaulter Demi Payne
The best pole vaulter in NCAA history never sleeps in. Though recovery is a crucial part of any elite athlete's routine, Demi Payne's schedule has to be more flexible than most, and she is usually awoken around 6 a.m. by an insistent cry for Mickey Mouse.
"Mickey Mouse is always on the TV -- always. So I know all the songs," said Payne.
A habit familiar to many mothers but perhaps not to very many world-class pole vaulters, Payne wakes up with her focus not on her own dreams of Olympic gold, but on the needs of her 19-month-old daughter, Charlee.
It's a balancing act that seemingly requires a lot of energy to pull off, but Payne is convinced that being the best athlete she can be is only possible if she's also the best mom. Charlee takes priority in the morning until Payne can drop her off at daycare; then Payne pivots into athlete mode. She makes the hour commute to her coach's facility, jumps and sprints for two to three hours, drives back to campus for a weight room session and tries to squeeze in some studying for her classes at Stephen F. Austin State University before picking up Charlee and enjoying some family time with Charlee's father and Payne's fiancé, Thomas Taylor.
"Obviously, I try to keep a plan for the day," Payne says when asked about her many commitments, "but so many things happen and I just try to kind of go with the flow. If something happens you attack it, and then you attack the next thing."
That "next thing" is the NCAA outdoor track and field championships in Eugene, Oregon, where Payne will compete on Thursday. With all her accomplishments, Payne has never won an NCAA title. But she could finally break through this week, especially given her renewed focus since Charlee's arrival.
After finding out she was pregnant during her junior year of college, Payne vowed to take advantage of her talent in a way she never had before. She took training more seriously during her pregnancy than she had during her prior two and a half years as a collegiate athlete and was back on the track just four days after her daughter was born on Oct. 22, 2013. Returning to NCAA competition this winter, Payne set indoor and outdoor NCAA records (although Arkansas' Sandi Morris has since surpassed Payne's outdoor record) and won the USA Track & Field indoor pole vault title as the only collegian in the field.
She wasn't always so focused. At the beginning of her collegiate career, Payne was a solid athlete with flashes of untapped potential, but her performances made her simply one of many serviceable vaulters in the NCAA ranks, contributing team points at a conference level but never placing higher than 13th at the NCAA championships. Her coaches at the University of Kansas, where she spent her first two and a half years, and her father Bill Payne, a former world-class vaulter himself, coaxed her to a gradual improvement of 10-1/4 inches to 13 feet, 11-1/4 inches, but Demi Payne says she was far more interested in "just living the college lifestyle."
"I went out on the weekends and I pole vaulted during the week and it really wasn't No. 1 for me," she said.
Since transferring to Stephen F. Austin State University this past fall to be closer to her family, Payne has improved nearly twice as much this year as she did in her entire time at Kansas, bettering her best vault by almost 20 inches to 15-7. That mark ties her for third with four-time NCAA champ Kylie Hutson on the U.S. all-time list, trailing only London gold medalist Jenn Suhr and Sydney gold medalist and former world-record holder Stacey Dragila.
"After I had Charlee, it really completely changed the way I look at pole vaulting," Payne said. "I'm no longer doing it for myself. I'm doing it for her."
Payne was destined to be a pole vaulter, even if she didn't realize it at first. Her father still holds the indoor and outdoor pole vault records at Baylor and competed in the 1995 World Championships for the United States, while her mother played varsity basketball at Baylor. Despite growing up with a pole vault pit in her backyard, Demi was more interested in volleyball and basketball and couldn't be convinced to attempt the vault until her sophomore year of high school.
Pole vaulting is an extremely technical event that often draws former gymnasts at the high school level, but even athletes who have spent years training their body control can take a few weeks to successfully clear their first bar, usually at a beginner height of around six or seven feet.
On that first attempt in her backyard, Payne reportedly cleared 10-6, which would have placed fifth in her division of the Texas state championship meet that year. A year later, she won the state championship.
But Payne's improvement curve leveled off and she graduated high school with a 13-1 personal record. Then, during the indoor track season of her junior year at Kansas, she found out she was pregnant.
"It was definitely the scariest moment of my life," Payne said. "I kind of thought I was going to lose everything."
She first told her mother of the pregnancy but begged her to keep it a secret from her father. She wasn't sure how to tell her dad that their shared pole-vaulting dreams might be over. When he eventually found out, however, Demi said his reaction was "completely the opposite of what I thought it would be." Bill Payne told his daughter not to worry about anything. Pole vault didn't matter, her scholarship didn't matter; he would talk to her coaches and she could come home and they would figure out how to tackle this new challenge together.
"He wasn't that 'sports dad' anymore, he was that 'dad dad,' and I think that's really what I needed," Demi said. "I needed to see that to know that it was going to be all right and that I could get through it."
After the initial crisis management, Payne realized that her athletic dreams, though maybe more difficult to achieve, were still within reach. The NCAA granted her a year to train and compete unattached without impacting her eligibility, so she and her father got to work. Payne worked out throughout her pregnancy under the watchful eye of her father, who gleefully documented some of her 9-months-pregnant pushups on Instagram. There was no rest for the new mom after giving birth, either.
"No lie, four days after I had Charlee, my dad had me back on the runway," Payne said. "At that point I was still not cleared by my doctor to do anything, but I was on the runway with a pole and it was such an empowering moment."
She's barely taken a break since. Her move to Stephen F. Austin, which is just a few hours from both of her parents' homes and close to her fiancé, connected her with volunteer pole vault coach Jeff Erickson. Erickson has known Payne since she was Charlee's age; his father coached Bill Payne at Baylor and Erickson and his wife occasionally helped with babysitting while Bill Payne trained or competed. There's still some babysitting going on at practice, but now Erickson keeps an eye on the next generation of Paynes. Though practice time is usually worked around Charlee's daycare schedule, Erickson has no problem with Charlee coming to practice.
"She's a doll, so it's not really hard to have somebody watch her while [Demi] works out."
The established coach-athlete relationship has allowed Erickson to make key changes to Demi Payne's form. The biggest thing was Payne's plant, the crucial moment in a vault when the pole is planted in the box so the vaulter can convert her horizontal speed to vertical lift. "She went from having one of the worst plants in the world to having one of the best plants in the world and it's just made all the difference," says Erickson.
Erickson is confident in Payne's potential, saying he's never coached an athlete with her combination of athletic talent and dedication. "She continues to amaze me," says Erickson. "Every time she does something she seems to get better at it."
At the beginning of the year, Erickson asked Payne to write down her goals. There are only four that she hasn't accomplished yet, "and we're probably going to take care of those pretty quick," Erickson predicts. Two of them -- an NCAA championship and making the U.S. world championships squad -- could get crossed off if Payne has successful showings at the NCAA Championships on Thursday and the USATF Championships on June 28.
Erickson also believes that, with the right combination of hard work and luck to stay healthy, Payne has a legitimate shot at her last two goals: winning Olympic gold and becoming the first woman to clear 17 feet. It's ambitious to be sure, as only four women have ever cleared 16 feet and the current world record stands at 16-7¼.
For now, Payne is just focusing on winning the NCAA championship. Though she owns the highest vault of any competitor in NCAA history, the competition in Eugene will not be easy. Payne has traded NCAA records with Arkansas' Sandi Morris throughout the year, and Morris took the NCAA indoor title while Payne failed to clear a single bar.
Erickson says Payne peaked too early indoors and was on a "downward spiral" going into the NCAA championships, but both say they've learned from it and Payne had her best practices in the past few weeks leading up to Eugene. With good weather expected Thursday, Payne is concerned about conditions affecting her performance. "I'm going to be able to get on some big poles and grip 'em and rip it and just see what happens," she says.
First and foremost though, Payne wants to win. It would be the first Division I title in any sport for Stephen F. Austin, and the first NCAA title for the Payne family.
Says Payne: "I've always dreamed about this dad-daughter moment where I'm clearing that winning bar and I've been dreaming of this since I had Charlee ... Just having that moment of looking at my dad like, 'Holy cow, all of this hard work, it's paid off. Look at it.'"
On Thursday, Demi Payne will try to make that dream a reality.