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May 8, 2014

Up, up and away

By: Marc Mullen

Martina Schultze didn’t try pole vaulting until she was 15 or 16 years old, but five ACC titles and five All-America nods later, the native of Germany has vaulted her way to the top of the list among Tech’s all-time greatest female athletes

Culture shock – the feeling of confusion or nervousness caused by being in a place that is very different from what a person is used to – is very common among international students, regardless of where they attend college.

Martina Schultze, who is in her final year of competition on the women’s track and field team here at Virginia Tech, is from Uhingen, Germany, and certainly felt that disorientation when she first came to the States.

Shocking, though, is probably the best word to describe what she’s done since arriving in Blacksburg in 2011. That includes doing things for the Hokies that very few females have ever done before in the track and field realm.

She recently finished her sixth ACC Championship, combining both the indoor and outdoor seasons, by claiming her fifth straight championship in the pole vault, and with it, she joined some very elite company at the school. She credits an encouraging family, supportive teammates, motivating coaches and the Virginia Tech community, or Hokie Nation, as a whole for helping to achieve this level of success.

Born in Kirchheim unter Teck and raised in Uhingen – a two-plus hour car drive slightly northwest of Munich – Schultze was the youngest child of Cornelius and Renate Schultze’s four children, a group separated by 10 years. Anna, who is five years older than Martina, is most responsible for introducing the world of pole vaulting to her younger sister.

“Our parents were always trying to keep us fit, but none of them did track specifically,” Schultze said. “My mom did field hockey, and my dad did handball and gymnastics as well.

“My sister and I are both the same height, approximately, and she brought me into it [pole vaulting] because she introduced me to the regional coach there. I got onto the regional team, and so I practiced there with her, which was really exciting. To have your older sister there, you just feel more comfortable, in the beginning especially.

“I did horseback riding when I was younger. I did gymnastics when I was really young, but I was never good at gymnastics. I was about 15 or 16 years old when I started pole vaulting, which is kind of late, but I saw my sister and I was so inspired by her, and that was what I wanted to do.”

Schultze’s ascension into the pole vault world took a huge leap upward during the summer of 2009 at the age of 18, roughly three years after picking up the sport. She had qualified for the European Junior Championships in Novi Sad, Serbia, but had no expectations upon entering the event.

“My coach told me, ‘In one and a half years there are the European Championships and you’re going to have a chance to qualify and we are going to practice for it.’ And that was our focus,” she said. “I’d never done that before. I would never have thought of making the international events. I qualify, and we go there, and going in, I was like 10th or ninth. I wasn’t ranked high. No one expected me to do well.

“Then there is a qualifying round that’s like a day or two before the finals, and the top 12, I think, qualified for the finals. And during the finals, everything went well, and I won.”

Winning the event catapulted Schultze onto Virginia Tech’s radar. Stephan Munz, who is also in his final year of competing for the Hokies’ men’s track and field team in the pole vault, was kind of the middleman for the coaching staff, as he knew Schultze from his days of living in Germany as well.

The idea of going to another country to study was not foreign for the Schultze siblings, as Schultze’s oldest sister and brother had done that, while Anna was the only one who had not.

“My parents are really open with almost everything I’m doing, and they were encouraging me to go,” she said. “My oldest sister went to California for a year, and my brother went to China for a year, so they were really open with the kids going somewhere else.

“So when I told them, they were like, ‘Yeah, do it! Even if it’s only for a year.’ And then after it, I came back and told them I wanted to stay longer. I like it so much, and they were like ‘OK, sure, do whatever you want. Whatever you think is right.’ I’m really lucky for their support. They have been really supportive.

“My sister, Anna, wanted me to go – but she was like, ‘No, I don’t want to miss you for another two years.’ It’s just, whenever I look back, I think I made all the right decisions, and that’s really important to know that I don’t have any regrets or anything.”

The size of everything when Schultze came to Blacksburg was what overwhelmed her at first. The informal way Americans talk to each other was the other thing that she just couldn’t grasp.

“Opening up to people and starting to talk to them was my biggest challenge,” she said. “In Germany, you just don’t randomly talk about things. If they say to you, ‘How are you?’ they are really asking, ‘How are you!’ and not just, ‘Hey, how are you?’

“I just had to get used to having random chats with people that don’t necessarily mean anything. And I guess I did get many friends here. Sometimes, it was just cultural differences. You can feel like you don’t have too many people you can trust.

“In the beginning, I had to get used to that and felt completely alone in my class because you don’t really have anyone to attach to except for within the track area. Now, I feel super comfortable.”

And certainly comfortable enough to where she was able to leave her mark in the Tech record books. Technically, no female athlete has ever vaulted higher than her at an ACC championship competition, but in her first ACC indoor meet, she placed second behind teammate Victoria von Eynatten. Both of them tied the meet record with a 14-foot. 1.75-inch height, but Schultze got second due to more misses.

In her next five ACC championships, Schultze claimed gold, resetting the ACC indoor meet record in 2013. She joined two elite lists (see graph), and notice that she is the only one on both.

Virginia Tech Women’s Indoor Track and Field
Back-to-back ACC champions (single event)

Athlete Event Years
Patrice Potts 60m 2007-08
Brittany Pryor Shot Put 2007-08
Martina Schultze Pole Vault 2013-14

Virginia Tech Women’s Outdoor Track and Field
Three-time ACC individual champion (same event)

Athlete Event Years
Queen Harrison 400m Hurdles 2008, 2009, 2010
Dorotea Habazin Hammer Throw 2008, 2009, 2011
Martina Schultze Pole Vault 2012, 2013, 2014

She also became just the second female to win the ACC outdoor title three straight seasons and helped the Hokies continue their dominance in the pole vault event. Starting in 2007, Tech has captured seven of the past eight ACC indoor titles and five of the past eight outdoor crowns. So 12 of the past 16 pole vault champions have trained in Blacksburg – something not lost on Schultze.

“I think that’s why I enjoy it so much here, coming to Bob [Phillips, the pole vault coach], who is very motivating and very positive. It helped me so much to gain my self-esteem back,” she said. “And then talking to Coach [Dave] Cianelli – I’ve had so many sessions with him in his office where we were just talking. And hearing that someone like Coach Cianelli is believing in me, and he says something like, ‘I totally see you at the Olympic Games one day. I think you can totally do that.’ That was so important for me to hear.

“When I came to Virginia Tech, I didn’t have a very good season the year before. I wasn’t as successful, and I kind of thought I was done. I was still so young, but I thought maybe I wouldn’t make the jump to the professional level. And then coming here and hearing from people that you’re still so young, you can do so much in your life … that was really motivating.

Martina Schultze has won five gold medals in ACC competition
and earned five All-America nods, making her one of the top
female student-athletes in Tech history.

“The other day, Coach Cianelli grabbed a magazine with all the top rankings of the world, and he put it on the desk and said, ‘OK, look. This girl – Yelena Isinbayeva – holds the world record in the pole vault – year 82,’ meaning she was born in 1982. ‘This girl, 83. This girl, 85. How old are you?’ I said, ‘90.’ He said, ‘See, you have so much more in you.’”

Schultze is very thankful for everything she’s gotten here at Tech and appreciative of the experience. According to her, her gaining more self-confidence and improving as she did is partly because of the American culture. She recalls her first days of college and how confused she was when she saw her fellow students walking around wearing Virginia Tech hats and shirts.

“In Germany, we don’t have anything like a team, and you don’t celebrate your college like the way they do here,” she said. “When I saw that, I was like ‘Oh, everyone is wearing Virginia Tech. That’s so awesome!’ Also, people handle success differently here. My teacher sent me an email because he read an article in the paper about me winning the ACC and said, ‘I’m so proud of you,’ and that just made my day. That would never happen in Germany.

“And now, I do understand how big of a deal it is. My first year, I didn’t, and that’s why I think I was so surprised by all this positive feedback because everyone was excited for me to be an ACC champion and going to nationals.

“I think you have to be in the States for a while to realize what it means. I guess it’s a different culture, so you kind of have to figure out what it means to people. And I think I realized how big it was when I was talking to people and getting all this positive feedback and then I realized, ‘OK it means a lot.’ For me, it has gotten really important, too. When I went to ACCs [the outdoor meet], I really wanted to finish my last competition well. I was really nervous, and maybe it’s because it has a different value to me now.”

Before she heads back to Germany, Schultze, who owns both the school’s indoor and outdoor pole vault records, has three more things planned – starting with graduation on May 16. At least one more competition remains as well, the NCAA East Regionals in Jacksonville, Fla., at the end of the month, and if she qualifies, the NCAA Championships in Eugene, Ore., in mid-June.

She has not yet missed a chance to advance to either the NCAA indoor or outdoor championship meets, compiling a total of five All-America honors in that span - four first-team nods and one second team.

Schultze won’t be able to match Kristi Castlin’s seven All-America honors – the most ever for a Hokie female – but with one more, she will tie both Queen Harrison and Brittany Pryor with six and will become the only Tech women’s track and field athlete to be an All-American during both the indoor and outdoor seasons for three straight years.

Pretty shocking, to say the least.