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March 10, 2011

VAULTING TO THE TOP - Thanks to a great relationship with her father (and coach), Kelly Phillips has become one of the best pole vaulters in school history

By: Jimmy Robertson

Pole vaulting coach Bob Phillips and his daughter, current pole vaulter Kelly.

Bob Phillips desperately wanted his only child to become a pole vaulter as soon as his wife, Katherine, gave birth to a healthy girl.

And if more evidence is needed to prove this, then consider – the former Tech All-American pole vaulter, school record holder and Hall of Famer (inducted in 1999) strapped their daughter snuggly into a car seat and hauled her off to practice mere months after her birth.

And that was just the beginning.

“I would say badgered would be more like it,” he softly laughed when asked if he encouraged his daughter to try pole vaulting.

Despite her father’s repeated attempts, Kelly Phillips took a while to become immersed in her father’s passion. Actually, it took more than awhile. It took a little more than 17 years, to be accurate. She remained stubbornly wedded to her own interests, mainly gymnastics. So much so that her parents all but buried their hopes that their daughter would follow in dad’s footsteps.

“I did not think she would ever do it,” Katherine said. “She’d been adamant about it for a long time. She thought it was too much of doing the same thing and how could that be interesting?”

But her epiphany came shortly before she graduated from Blacksburg High School. She decided she wanted a change, and she approached her dad with an important question.

This wasn’t a conversation about what college to attend, or an advice-seeking consult about a boyfriend. She wanted to try pole vaulting and asked her dad for help.

Now, almost five years later, she’s an All-American. She’s a two-time ACC champion. She’s a school record holder.

And she could well be the best pole vaulter in the family.

Bob Phillips and his daughter, current pole vaulter Kelly, can celebrate being the best to compete in the event at Tech. Bob set the school record of 17 feet, 3.75 inches in 1981 (left), while Kelly (right) set the school record of 14 feet, 1.25 inches in early February.

Bob Phillips probably didn’t help his cause of getting his daughter to participate in the pole vault when he hung some rings up in the basement of the family’s home. Young kids love nothing better than grabbing onto and hanging off of – well, anything – and he realized his fate when he saw how much his daughter loved swinging off those rings.

He asked me if I liked it and if I wanted to maybe try some gymnastics lessons,” Kelly said. “Of course, I was on board with that.”

This happened at the age of 5 or 6, and she came to love gymnastics about as much, maybe more, than her father loved pole vaulting. Her parents encouraged her to pursue it and took her to Roanoke once a week for practices. As she got older and better, her practices became more frequent, and the Phillips parents ended up hauling their daughter to Roanoke five or six times a week for practice.

“We became quite familiar with that stretch of Interstate 81,” Bob joked.

“I think the happiest moment of their lives was when I got my driver’s license,” Kelly laughed.

Gymnastics appealed to my attention for detail, but I think what kept me in the sport was the fact that it challenged me, whether that meant learning a new skill, overcoming a fear or trying to perfect a routine. I loved being completely exhausted after hours of practice and gaining the satisfaction of finally getting up the nerve to do something that I was scared to death of.”

As she got older, though, she failed to see a future in gymnastics. Only 60-65 schools offer gymnastics as a varsity sport, and only elite gymnasts receive the scholarship dough. Plus, she started to lose some of her zest for all that practicing.

“I had a lot of injuries, and once you get to be a certain age in that sport, it’s hard to keep going,” she said. “Mentally, four more years of it [in college] was hard to contemplate. It’s really competitive and there are only like 60-65 programs, Division I, II and III. So even though I was an upper-level gymnast, you have to be really good to be competitive for scholarships, and I just wasn’t quite at that level.”

So then it hit her – why not try a different sport? Why not try the sport her dad had wanted her to try for the past 18 years?

After all, when her schedule allowed for it, she went to Tech’s practices with her dad, who has served as the Hokies’ volunteer coach in the event for the past 26 years, and she videotaped the vaulters for him. She also traveled with the team on occasions, so she was around the sport frequently and thus absorbed its intricacies.

At this point, in the spring of her senior year of high school, she had received her acceptance letter from Virginia Tech, and she decided to go to the school, following in the footsteps of her parents – who are both triple graduates of Tech (undergrad, master’s and doctorate’s). It made sense for her to walk-on to Tech’s track and field program and take up pole vaulting under the watchful eye of her dad.

Her dad’s thoughts?

“Now you tell me,” he said, laughing. “I told her we’d work on fundamentals over the summer and then she’d redshirt. I was a little surprised [at her decision], but she couldn’t get interest from some of the better gymnastics programs. That’s when she came and talked to me about vaulting.”

“We had the whole summer to start practicing,” Kelly said. “So my first day with the team wasn’t my first actual day of vaulting. I spent that summer going through the process.

“I think it helped that I was in a familiar place. I had been around the program and around the campus. But it was still intimidating to be around all these people who had done it in high school and actually wondering if I was good enough.”

It didn’t take her long to erase those doubts.


• “You get three attempts at every height. Three misses in a row, and you’re out.”

• “Most people don’t realize how many poles you use in a meet. You usually progress through six or seven. A lot of times, you’ll move up poles and raise your grip on the same pole.”

• “The pole itself only weighs a pound or two, no more than three. It depends on if it’s a girls’ pole or a guys’ pole. There’s a difference. It’s not as heavy as some people might think, though if you’re running at full speed, it can feel like it.”

• “You can break your pole. The first time for me was last year. I still have the pieces in my living room. It’s a scary feeling. You don’t realize what’s happened until you’ve landed. You land on your back in the pit. It doesn’t happen often.

“There’s definitely a lot of energy in those poles. My hands were bruised for six weeks. When it breaks, all that energy goes into you.”

• “There are so many adjustments you have to make. You can move the bar closer to you or farther away from you. After every jump, you check your step, and you decide what changes to make in terms of pole and grip and standard. You have to try and be consistent with your jumps, so that those changes translate into a higher jump.”

• “The progression is preset before the meet. The coaches actually set the progression, and then you can choose to come in wherever you want. If the bar starts at 12 feet and you don’t want to come in until 13 feet, you can pass the first two heights. You can pass at any point during the meet. But if you have three misses in a row, then you’re out.”

• “Outdoors, you have to think about the wind. There gets to be a certain point when they’ll call it. If you have a 40-mph headwind, they’ll call it. Other than that, you compete. You don’t compete in the rain.”

• “A tailwind is the best, when the wind is coming from behind you. With a headwind, it’s more mental because it feels like you’re going really slow. Crosswinds are my least favorite because it feels like it’s pushing your pole. It’s scary sometimes.”

• “I think the one trait all pole vaulters have is being fearless. I think you have to be a little crazy to do that. I think being mentally tough is the biggest trait. It’s such a crazy event, and it takes a special kind of person to do it. You have to have, whether you show it or not, a little bit of that inside of you.”

Bob Phillips expected his daughter to be good in the pole vault. He knew her gymnastics background would transfer nicely to vaulting. She only needed to master some of the finer points of technique – and she did so rather quickly.

After redshirting her freshman year and competing unattached in a few events (both indoor and outdoor), she burst onto the scene in stunning fashion when she won the ACC indoor title with a vault of 13 feet, 1.5 inches. Then, during the outdoor season, she finished sixth at the NCAA Championships, earning All-America honors with a vault of 13 feet, 5.25 inches.

In a little over a year, she had gone from a relative novice to an All-American.

“With the nature of the event, gymnastics really helps,” Bob said. “Kids with a gymnastics background get off to faster starts. They’re able to get to the first level quicker. I’ve had several gymnasts, and pole vaulting provides them with an opportunity to do something that takes advantage of their skills without the wear and tear on the body. It’s a great opportunity for them.”

Unfortunately for Kelly, injuries surfaced despite switching to a different sport. In October of her redshirt sophomore season, she tore a ligament in her wrist and underwent surgery. She started vaulting again in January, but at an outdoor regional meet later that spring, she felt it pop. She tore it again, and for the second time, underwent surgery.

Forced to wear a cast most of that summer, she missed out on valuable training time in both the summer and the fall. Last year, her redshirt junior year, wasn’t what she wanted, though she finished fourth at the ACC Indoor Championships and sixth at the conference’s outdoor meet.

“You’d think jumping that high as a freshman … the rest of your career would escalate from there,” she said. “Then I had all these injuries. Every time I thought I was better, I wasn’t. Every time I thought my technique was coming together, it just … I can’t even put into words how much of a struggle it’s been the past two and a half years.”

That’s really been the only trying time between her and her father – the coach and the student-athlete. Bob wanted her to take a cautious approach with her rehab, but Kelly, headstrong and ever the competitor, wanted to get back to the track as soon as possible.

“Different kids have different levels of pain tolerance,” he said. “And hers is high. We had to set limits.”

They never sparred on the issue, though. In fact, they haven’t sparred on much of anything. Their relationship extends beyond father/daughter and coach/athlete. They’re best friends, respecting the other’s viewpoints.

That makes for a happy mother, too. Katherine Phillips never has been placed in the role of mediator.

“It’s not my position,” Katherine said. “She’s an adult, and he’s an adult. I’ve told her that it’s up to her to interact with her coach.

“But Bob does a good job of separating his roles [as a father and coach], and Kelly’s not combative. They have a respectful relationship. I like it that he’s her coach. He’s a good coach.”

“Surprisingly easy would be the best way to describe it,” Kelly said of her relationship with dad/coach. “The past couple of years have been hard because of injuries. There’s been more dad than coach, which is natural. I really respect him for how he conducts himself toward me and how he’s really neutral. I don’t see any sense of favoritism, and I think you could ask anyone on the team and they’d tell you he was completely objective.”

Kelly Phillips’ two years of injuries, pain and rehab became just a memory on Feb. 5. At the Virginia Tech Elite Meet, everything came together for her, as she vaulted to a new school record and qualified for the NCAA Championships.

She set a personal record and a school record when she cleared 13 feet, 11.75 inches on her third and final attempt, which won the event. Then she decided to raise the bar to the NCAA qualifying mark, and she cleared 14 feet, 1.25 inches on her second attempt. She became just the seventh vaulter in the nation to clear that mark, and she ranks sixth in the nation.

“I’m so emotional. It’s ridiculous,” she said. “I can’t even believe that it happened.

“I thought it [the bar] was going to fall because I hit it just a little bit. It wasn’t a perfect jump, but I guess I’d saved up enough bar luck over the past three years.”

“That was a good day,” Bob said. “She had a great week of practice and a great warm-up. She was rock steady. It was just good to see that smile on her face.”

Kelly has lots of reasons to smile. She recently won her second ACC indoor crown. She’ll be heading to the NCAA Championships, and then the outdoor season begins. She’s in perfect position to attain more All-America honors.

After that – who knows? A terrific student double majoring in biology and human nutrition, foods and exercise, she’s been applying to medical schools, with hopes of pursuing a career as an orthopedic surgeon.

“I don’t know. I’m getting rejected a lot,” she said. “So if I have to take a year off, then I’d love to keep training.”

She admits she harbors thoughts of securing a spot in the U.S. Olympic Trials scheduled early next year in Eugene, Ore. It took a vault of 14 feet, 11 inches to make the Olympic team, and her coach thinks she can vault higher than her personal record.

“If her wrist continues to improve and she trains hard and trains smart, there’s a possibility she could make the Trials,” Bob said. “I think she could jump high 14s, maybe even 15.”

“You don’t get that chance very often, and I feel like I might regret it if I didn’t take the opportunity to at least try,” Kelly said. “I don’t know. It’s an option.”

At the least now, she can sit at the dinner table and debate her dad over who’s the best pole vaulter in the family. Bob qualified for the NCAAs four times, and he also competed for the U.S. team against Great Britain in 1984. He participated at the U.S. Olympic Trials that same year.

But Kelly – who was 11 years old when she attended her father’s Hall of Fame induction – is amassing her own list of impressive accomplishments.

“She’s clearly the best,” Bob said.

“I think he’s got me beat,” Kelly said.

Truthfully, that’s the only argument between them over the past four and a half years.

And knowing these two, you get the feeling that either would be happy to lose it.