Watch the vault that won Gabriela Leon Louisville's first NCAA women's track & field title

·4 min read
Louisville pole vaulter Gabriela Leon smiles while holding the trophy after winning the track and field program's first women's NCAA outdoor championship.
Louisville pole vaulter Gabriela Leon smiles while holding the trophy after winning the track and field program's first women's NCAA outdoor championship.

Gabriela Leon was "extremely terrified" of the pole vault at first, afraid of how far she might fall and how hard she might land.

"I just felt that I was going to go up and then back on the track," the University of Louisville's NCAA champion said Monday. "I didn’t think I was going to make it to the pit when I first started."

She had envisioned herself as a soccer player, but fell out of love with her favorite sport in high school. When she gravitated to track and field, her high school coach told her she wasn't tall enough for the high jump and encouraged her to pick up a pole.

Though Leon improved steadily, she was still unknown to U of L pole vault coach Brooke Rasnick until she showed up at a meet after she had graduated from East Kentwood High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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"I saw her go down the runway a couple of times in warmups," Rasnick said. "I told someone, 'I don’t know who that kid is, but she’s going to kick everybody’s (rear).' She finished 14th, but it was how she handled herself afterward. You knew she was invested in it. You knew she cared about it.

"I knew she was special, but she’s just blown me away ever since."

Late Thursday in Eugene, Oregon, Leon became the first U of L woman to win an NCAA outdoor track title, clearing a height of 15 feet, 1 inch. This was two inches better than her closest competitors, Arkansas' Amanda Fassold and defending champion Lisa Gunnarson of LSU, and it was eight inches higher than 2020 Olympic gold medalist Katie Negeotte vaulted when she won the NCAA title in 2013.

"She has the ability to be the next 16-foot jumper," U of L track coach Dale Cowper said of Leon.

She has already qualified for the USA Track & Field Championships to be held June 23-26 in Oregon and is on a trajectory that could ultimately lead to the 2024 Summer Games in Paris.

That dream, she says, has become a realistic goal within the last month.

Leon has raised her competitive personal best by 8 1/2 inches this season, from 14-5 to 15-1 1/2, and she recently reached the Olympic A standard of 15-5 in practice. According to Track & Field News, the best outdoor vault by a woman this year is 15-9 1/4 by American Sandi Morris, the reigning world indoor champion.

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"I think there’s a lot more room in the tank to grow," Leon said. "I'm jumping heights that professional jumpers are jumping at the same time."

"The big improvement is my mental mind game. I really focused on having a different perspective this year and making every single practice count. In previous years I would show up to practice with the idea that if it wasn’t good, I’d have the next one. This year I didn’t let that be an excuse."

Cowper sees additional room for improvement in refined technique. He suspects Leon might have been able to meet the Olympic A standard in Eugene, which would have enhanced her position to qualify for next month's World Championships, had it not started raining shortly before her two unsuccessful attempts at 15-5.

A redshirt senior who will celebrate her 23rd birthday on Friday, Leon has already earned a U of L degree in health and human performance/exercise science. She is undecided on whether to continue to train on campus or seek new surroundings, but she has already left a lasting mark.

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"We knew we were blessed," Cowper said, "but we didn't know at this level."

Tim Sullivan: 502-582-4650, tsullivan@courier-journal.com; Twitter: @TimSullivan714

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Gabriela Leon first Louisville woman to win NCAA track and field title