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Dragila still has the fire

Nevada Appeal Staff Reports

She has won an Olympic gold medal and even had her picture on the front of a Wheaties cereal box.

There isn’t anything out there that elite pole vaulter Stacy Dragila hasn’t accomplished. It makes you wonder, why at 32, she continues to compete in a demanding, grueling sport.

Well a six-figure income from sponsorships through Nike and Oakley (sunglasses) certainly doesn’t hurt. But Dragila isn’t all about the money. What drives her is competition; the more the merrier.

Dragila wants to win another gold medal, but what she wants probably more is to reach that elusive 16-foot barrier. The present world record holder is Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva at 15-11 1/4. Dragila is currently at 15-9 1/4.

“The 16-foot mark is right there,” Dragila said recently when she was in town for the 49ers Celebrity Ski Classic at The Resort at Squaw Creek. “I’m just three quarters of an inch away from breaking it. I’d love to be the first woman to do it. I love to compete. It’s a way to show who I am.”

Dragila, who is currently in a battle with the Russian trio of Isinbayeva, Svetlana Feofanova and Tatyana Polnova for the top ranking in the world, changed coaches last April in an effort to get better.

Dave Nielsen had been her coach for 16 years, but she opted to move to Phoenix, Ariz., to train under veteran coach Greg Hull, who has been coaching vaulters for 30 years.

“It was tough,” she said. “I felt I needed a different challenge. I think it had been a couple of years coming. With the weather in Pocatello, we couldn’t train outside very much, and that was frustrating. We lost a lot of training days. By moving to Arizona, we get to train outside almost year around.”

It hasn’t been the easiest of transitions. When Dragila vaulted 14-11 and only finished fourth at last year’s World Championships in Rome, she started to doubt what she was learning from Hull. It was certainly a natural reaction, and Hull had warned her that she might not do well right away. The biggest change that Dragila has undergone is that she’s holding her hands higher on the pole, which she believes will lead to higher heights.

“Last year I didn’t have the greatest season,” she admitted. “I was all over the place, and I was really ticked off. I told Greg don’t let me go back to my old ways. I feel more confident now, and I want to prove to people I’m not done.”

Dragila has been superb this year, slowly regaining her old form. She was second at the World Indoor meet, tying her personal best of 15-9 1/4, she won the U.S. Indoor title with a vault of 15-5. She also won the Boston Indoor Games (15-1 1/2 ), the Verizon Millrose Games (15-2 3/4 ) and the Tyson Foods Invitational (15-5 1/2 ).

Next up for Dragila are the Olympic Trials at Sacramento State in early July. She’s eagerly looking forward to competing again in front of a hometown crowd. Dragila attended Placer High in Auburn, which is about 45 minutes from Sacramento. The Sacramento State track brings back fond memories for Dragila, who set a then world record of 15-2 1/4.

“Everybody is gearing up for the Olympic Trials,” she said. “I’ll have my own Stacy Dragila cheering section. It will be a lot of fun.”

And, a lot of pressure. Dragila is being pushed hard in the United States. She will undoubtedly be the favorite, but it won’t be a walk in the park like it was four years ago.

The Olympic in Athens, Greece are set for late August, and barring any mishaps, Dragila should be contending for a title – again.

Who knows maybe if she wins another Olympic title, or breaks 16 feet, she’ll get her mug on a Wheaties box again.

Dragila received that honor after becoming the first pole vault champion with a mark of 15-1, defeating Russia’s Tatiana Grigorieva and Iceland’s Vala Flosadottir, neither of whom reached 15 feet. That led to her being the first woman track athlete to be featured on a box of Wheaties.

“My manager told me he was 99 percent sure that if I won I’d be on the cover,” she said. “I know Bruce Jenner was on it (after winning the decathlon), and a long time ago, Bob Richards was on it. To have that happen was amazing.”

And Dragila believes she’s not done doing amazing things.

Contact Darrell Moody at 881-1281 or dmoody@nevadaappeal.com.