When Sandi Morris finished fourth at last year’s NCAA Outdoor Championships, she knew she hadn’t hit her ceiling.
Somewhat dejected, she sat in her hotel room that night in Oregon and made a vow: she wasn’t going to come up short again.
Two weeks later, she returned to the track for the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Sacramento, California, and finished second in a field filled with Olympians and all-Americans. Morris’ height of 14-11 at the USA meet was 5 inches higher than the mark she failed to clear two weeks earlier.
Only American record holder and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jenn Suhr cleared higher in Sacramento with a mark of 15 feet, 1 inch.
“That was definitely a stepping stone to get to where I am now,” Morris said. “I realized when I got second that I was standing on the podium next to the world indoor record holder and American record holder. It kind of gave me this realization that my hard work is paying off and I’m climbing up that ladder and clawing my way, and maybe if I keep clawing I’ll be on that first place spot pretty soon.”
Things have continued to go up for Morris in the months since last June. She just finished one of the greatest seasons ever by a collegiate vaulter, briefly holding the NCAA record indoors and winning an individual championship at both the SEC and NCAA meets.
Her personal best of 15 feet, 3 1/2 inches at the SEC meet is the highest ever indoors by a collegiate at non-altitude. As athletes transition from indoors to outdoors, Morris is in contention for The Bowerman Trophy, college track & field’s equivalent of the Heisman.
“When we got her from North Carolina, we knew this was possible but we knew it would take a while,” said Arkansas pole vault assistant Bryan Compton. “We knew it would take three years, so that’s why we redshirted her in and out to get her ready for this season.”
During a dual meet against Texas in January, Morris cleared 15 feet, 1 1/2 inches to break the NCAA record set the year before. Morris’ final jump came around 11 p.m., after all other events had finished and after most spectators had left the building.
But less than 24 hours later, Morris saw her own record fall to Stephen F. Austin senior Demi Payne, who cleared 15 feet, 2 1/4 inches. Payne would go on to shatter that record with a vault of 15 feet, 7 inches the next weekend in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“You’re on top of the world and then 14 hours later you’re not,” Compton said. “I think that refocused her. We were shooting at the record, but our ultimate goal was for her to win the national title.”
Morris was back on the track when she learned her record had been broken.
“It was a bit of a roller coaster because I was exhausted from the night before,” Morris said. “I stayed up on social media because I like to respond to people who support me and say thank you. I was up all night and then the next day we were helping put up bars for the high school meet we were holding and Coach (Compton) walked up to me and held up his phone, and showed me the results. It was kind of bittersweet.”
Morris tried unsuccessfully to match Payne’s high mark several times throughout the indoor campaign and the track world anxiously awaited when the two would go head-to-head.
That happened in February at the Arkansas Open, when Payne was a late addition to the field in order to familiarize herself with Randal Tyson Track Center, where the NCAA Indoors would be held the following month. Morris topped Payne and former Olympian April Steiner-Bennett that night.
The NCAA meet was billed as a rematch between the two collegiate record holders, but that storyline quickly fizzled as Payne failed to clear a height. Texas’ Kaitlin Petrillose, whose record Morris and Payne had broken earlier in the year, also no-heighted at the NCAA meet.
“When your main competition no-heights, it’s mixed emotions,” Morris said. “The first thought is, OK, I don’t want to do that, too. You never know what’s going to happen in a big competition.
“Demi did come in a little big high. I was a little surprised at what she came in at. I always come in at 14 feet, get a bar under my belt and then I move up. I hadn’t seen her come in that high. I felt really bad for her because I’ve no-heighted at big meets, too. It’s like this terrible sinking feeling in your gut, knowing there was something you could have done.”
Morris’ top competition became Duke’s Megan Clark, but also herself. Clark and Morris both effortlessly cleared 14 feet, 9 inches.
Clark then missed her first attempt at 14 feet, 11 inches, but Morris moved on to 15 feet, 1 inch. Clark passed on her final two attempts at the lower mark and failed two attempts to match Morris at the higher height.
Morris cleared it on her second attempt to win the championship she told herself she wouldn’t lose nine months before.
“The whole sport of pole vault is a mind game in a way,” Morris said. “Sometimes I step on that runway and just try to imagine the stands are empty and it’s just Coach standing there. Then I can relax and focus on form, and that’s when I can do my best.”
With Payne in attendance, Morris took one more stab at the individual record. Instead of going for broke, she tried to work her way up to Payne’s mark, but fell short in three attempts at 15 feet, 5 inches.
“Not getting the record for indoor has kind of set me up to really hit it hard during the outdoor season,” Morris said. “I’m extremely driven to go out there and set the bar as high as I can.”
Morris has a fearlessness about her needed for a sport like pole vault. To understand how she so freely sails 15 feet above the earth, you have to understand she owns six deadly snakes - two red-tailed boas, two Brazilian rainbow boas and two bald pythons.
During one report for her TV news reporting class at the university, Morris recorded a stand-up with a boa around her neck.
“It started with bugs,” Morris said. “When I was a little kid I’d go out in the backyard and pick up snakes and spiders. At recess I’d chase little girls with bugs and stuff even though I’m supposed to be the one running from bugs, according to society, but I would pick them up. I’d watch Animal Planet every day. My mom let me get my first bald python in sixth grade and it just kind of went from there.
“I’m a little bit crazy, or at least my parents would probably say that. As a child I’d climb to the tops of trees. I’ve been kind of fearless my whole life.”
Around the same time she owned her first snake, Morris began to vault. Her father, Harry, was a pole vaulter at Western Illinois, where her mother, Kerry, was also an athlete.
“My dad did the pole vault as part of the decathlon, but he didn’t have a coach so he didn’t know that much about it,” Morris said. “He jumped 15-something without a coach. I tell him, ‘Dang, Dad, you probably could have been really good if you would have had a coach as a vaulter.’ He’s definitely built like a vaulter.
“Some coach saw me running hurdles in sixth or seventh grade and said, ‘She’d probably be a pretty good pole vaulter.’ He was right.”
Morris won the national title in pole vault at the USATF Junior Olympics in Sacramento the summer following her high school graduation. She spent two years as a vaulter at the University of North Carolina, where she earned three all-America honors, but said she needed a change both on the track and off after her sophomore year.
During a trip to the Earl Bell Athletics facility in Jonesboro, she spoke to former Razorbacks vaulter Katie Stripling about the program at Arkansas. Morris was aware of Compton’s history with vaulters and through her high school coach got in touch with the Razorbacks’ coaching staff.
Compton was impressed with Morris’ speed.
“Her speed is just uncanny,” Compton said. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s hard to teach that natural ability to run. “With Sandi being 5-foot-8 and that kind of speed, she can actually grip a little bit higher than the other girls. That makes a difference.”
Morris said she fell in love with Fayetteville when she and her mother visited on a road trip from their home in South Carolina.
“We took a look at the school and I researched the journalism program online,” Morris said. “The stars just kind of aligned and then Coach Compton said they would have a scholarship for me.
“I could see myself in this program and I knew if I came here that I would definitely improve.”
She didn’t know she would make history in the process. In addition to her own records, she was part of the Razorbacks’ first ever national championship in a female sport.
“I didn’t realize that until we did it and I couldn’t believe it,” Morris said. “We’re making history. I’m honored and just ecstatic that I played a role in that.
“We just have this work ethic and kind of this sense of family about us, and that has made this year so amazing. We’ve supported each other more than ever before and you can tell when we’re out there that everyone is cheering for each other and it’s a team effort. When we won a championship as a team, I was tearing up. We’ve set a very high bar for years to come.”
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