For the past few years, pole vaulter Sam Sonnenberg has done most of her work from the shadows — the shadows of top vaulters before her, such as Alicia Rue and Laura Massey.
This year, Sonnenberg stands alone and is the only Gophers women’s track and field representative at this weekend’s NCAA indoor championships.
“The previous years she’s had Alicia to hide behind a little bit, just a little bit out of the spotlight,” vaults coach Caroline White said. “Now the younger vaulters need her to be that for them.”
Stepping out from the shadows to cast one of her own has worked for Sonnenberg, who earned All-American honors at last year’s NCAA indoor championships.
Regardless of the size of that metaphorical shadow, it pales in comparison to the height of the bar she hopes to clear this weekend — 14 feet, 1 1/4 inches.
That represents her career-best height that earned her All-America status last year. In a tough field this year, she will likely need to get back to that level to repeat as an All-American. Six vaulters who qualified for the field have cleared higher marks this year, and nine have cleared at least that high.
Sonnenberg is not among them. She is seeded 15th with a vault of 13 feet, 11 inches, a mark she shares with seeds 12-14.
Normally, that would constitute pressure, but White said having been at the stage before should allow Sonnenberg to perform well.
“She really enjoys the nerves,” White said. “She feeds off of that. She uses it for a positive and has that little extra bounce in her step and gleam in her eyes when she’s competing.”
Head coach Matt Bingle said he agreed with White in saying that Sonnenberg is capable of getting back above the 14-foot mark at the biggest stage.
“I think she’s fully capable,” Bingle said. “She’s fully confident right now. She’s five centimeters out from sixth place.”
“Some people can handle it, and some people can’t, so it’s who can do it on that day,” he said.
Ultimately, her coaches’ confidence means little if she doesn’t feel comfortable with the task at hand, but Sonnenberg’s mentality on the weekend is to exceed her performance thus far.
“Obviously you want to be able to go and perform your best, but I know I’m ready to hit that mark; it’s just a matter of doing it. I think I can pull it off at this meet,” Sonnenberg said.
Sonnenberg’s 14 years of gymnastics have given her an unusual ability to maneuver over the bar in ways other vaulters sometimes cannot.
Being able to contort and control one’s body is critical in vaulting, and Sonnenberg has some of the best awareness at the top of her trajectory. She senses where the bar is at all times, and does just enough to avoid it.
“She’s the best I’ve ever seen at that,” White said. “She can clear a 14-foot bar with an inch of clearance versus needing three or four or six inches extra.”
The Gophers did not qualify any other athletes for the NCAA indoor championships following a third-place finish at the Big Ten championships, though mile runner Nikki Swenson was extremely close.
Swenson, a two-time NCAA championships competitor and co-captain, missed the cut by four one-hundredths of a second.
The men’s team qualified four individuals, and its distance medley relay team after winning the Big Ten indoor championships.
Fellow pole vaulter Ben Peterson (who is coached by Caroline’s husband, Steve White) leads the Minnesota contingency into College Station, Texas this weekend.
Also competing are Ben Blankenship (3,000-meter), Harun Abda (800-meter), Micah Hegerle (weight throw) and the distance medley relay team, which includes Blankenship, Abda, Travis Burkstrand and Nick Hutton.
The last three times the Gophers men’s team has won Big Ten indoor titles (1998, 2009, 2010) it posted top-15 finishes at the ensuing NCAA meet (14th, 14th and 8th, respectively). The Gophers are ranked No. 18 in the nation according to the latest USTFCCCA poll.
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