It took almost every day of Kelby Tidwell’s college track and field career before she earned a spot at the NCAA Division III championships for the first time — and it was well worth it.
A senior on McMurry’s women’s track and field team, Tidwell needed to clear a height of 3.71 meters (12.2 feet) at the Augustana College Twilight Qualifier in Rock Island, Illinois, on May 19 — the last meet of McMurry’s season and Tidwell’s final regular-season.
Tidwell had cleared that height in practice but never in a meet.
She was driven to change that.
The senior cleared her first three heights — 3.26, 3.41 and 3.56 — with ease. The latter of those was a new personal record.
Before attempting another personal best and her qualifying target of 3.71, Tidwell took a deep breath. She knew she would be in a position to qualify for nationals if she perfected the jump.
“The whole day I was telling myself, ‘slow down, be calm,’” Tidwell said. “I just approached it like practice.”
Tidwell rose to the occasion.
She cleared 3.71 meters on her first attempt, snatching the 22nd and final spot at nationals.
For the first time in her career, Tidwell was headed to college track and field’s culminating event.
“I had a huge smile on my face,” Tidwell said. “It was a long time coming. It was just pure excitement.”
The most crazy part? She has been a pole vaulter for 16 months.
Tidwell has competed in more than a dozen events for the War Hawks during her career but began pole vaulting in 2021, her junior year. She is the ASC’s two-time pole vault champion and is also the conference’s two-time women’s track and field MVP.
Tidwell recently collected 43.5 team points for McMurry at the conference meet. McMurry's women's team finished first with 282.5 points.
She is one of eight War Hawks who will compete at the national championships in Cleveland from Thursday through Saturday, and the only athlete from the women's team.
The other athletes are: Jayden Sloan (400, 400 hurdles, 400 relay, 1,600 relay), DaZhaun Walton (200, 400 relay, 1,600 relay), DonTre Sinegal (triple jump), Jaheim Billison (1,600 relay), Jamari Williams (400 relay), Griffin Gaylord (1,600 relay), Jacorian Colbert (400 relay).
Introduction to vaulting
Pole vaulting is something Tidwell wanted to pursue early in her college career.
She approached head coach Cody Knight about it her sophomore year, but the coach shut it down. Assistant coach Michael McCarroll, who specializes in pole vault, liked the idea and quietly held onto it.
Tidwell began practicing pole vault in her junior year during her spare time, when she wasn’t competing in her other events — long jump, triple jump, sprints, hurdles and more. And it didn’t take long for Knight to notice Tidwell was a natural.
He gave her the green light, seeing it as a way to earn more team points at the conference meet.
“She had a lot of remaining potential there where we thought she could achieve higher heights,” Knight said. “We thought the juice was worth a squeeze.”
Though pole vaulting is a very technical sport that requires great skill, Tidwell didn’t have any growing pains.
Her skills from other events translated to vaulting success.
As a sprinter, Tidwell was able to reach high speeds during the approach. And her experience in high jump and long jump made it easier for her to extend and turn when trying to clear the bar after the vault.
The only thing holding back Tidwell were jitters of leaping to lofty heights. And those fears quickly went away.
“I was a little scared at first, but it was kind of natural,” Tidwell said. “I just learned it helps to be well-rounded. It’s a blast.”
Improving her jumps
In her first year competing in pole vault, 2021, Tidwell competed at three meets. Her best height came at the ACU Last Chance Meet, where she cleared 3.26. She also won the pole vault title at the conference meet.
Tidwell steadily improved during 2022 — her first full season vaulting. She upped her PR height to 3.30 and later 3.45 before reaching a personal-best 3.55 at the HSU Invitational on April 21.
Then, a month later, Tidwell improved her record by .16 meters to earn her spot at nationals.
“She started excelling at such a fast rate. And now we’re here,” McCarroll said.
What’s also impressive is how Tidwell steadily improved as a pole vaulter while continuing to excel in other events.
She defended her crown as the conference’s pole vault champion and also won gold in the heptathlon and 400 relay at the conference meet. Tidwell also medaled in the 400 hurdles, mile relay and long jump.
Her performance helped McMurry earn a women's team conference championship with 282.5 team points. The men also won, finishing with 250.
Throughout the 2022 season, Tidwell set personal records in the 800, 100 hurdles, high jump, long jump, triple jump, shot put, javelin throw and heptathlon.
Sprinting, hurdling, throwing, you name it — Tidwell does it all.
But she doesn’t really get tired.
“I don’t like to sit around,” Tidwell said. “At conference, when I did all those events, it was my way of staying sane.”
Going for gold
As Tidwell competes against the nation’s best athletes, her approach is similar to what it was when she cleared 3.71.
“Stay calm, have fun,” Tidwell said. “When I have fun, I do my best, so I'm just going to live in the moment.”
That’s exactly how her coaches want her to compete, too.
“Have fun: That’s been the goal from day one,” McCarroll said. “Going to nationals was never part of the plan until a few weeks ago. Just to see her excel at such a rapid rate is pretty awesome.”
Whether Tidwell places first, last or somewhere in between, she has already achieved something the vast majority of college track and field athletes never do by qualifying for nationals.
She embodies everything McMurry looks for in each of its student-athletes.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around someone who maximized what they were able to do on a university campus, in the classroom and in athletics as much as Kelby has,” Knight said. “She’s just an incredible person and student-athlete.”
McCarroll said, “I think she’s going to be someone that McMurry track and field remembers for a very long time.”
Carson Field is the area sports reporter for the Abilene Reporter-News. He covers primarily Big Country high school sports. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to reporternews.com.
This article originally appeared on Abilene Reporter-News: McMurry’s Kelby Tidwell headed to nationals after miraculous jump