The first time Emily Clay watched pole vaulting, she wanted to try it because she thought it would be an easy event to qualify in for track and field.
What the 12-year-old Clay didn’t realize at the Illinois state championship meet was that she would one day be winning future state championships and breaking collegiate records.
“I was there for three other distance events — the mile, the half-mile and the four by two,” Clay said. “But you can make it in four events and I wanted to do that and pole vaulting looked the easiest.”
Now, Clay is ranked as the third-best pole vaulter in USF history after jumping 12-feet-10 inches at the Sykes & Sabock Challenge at Penn State on Feb. 6.
When she decided to pick up the sport in middle school, she had instant success with the help of Mike Cockerham, a pole vaulting coach at Illinois Wesley College and founder of the Flying Dragons Pole Vault club.
At the time, the club was only Clay and a few other members and they lacked an indoor facility, so training was dependent on the weather, which was not always ideal for pole vaulting in Clay’s home state of Illinois.
Despite the obstacles, Clay qualified for states in her freshman year and every year thereafter, including a first place finish in her sophomore year and second place finishes in her junior and senior years at University High School.
Her success drew interest from several Division I schools across the country. After taking visits, she narrowed her decision down to Cincinnati and USF.
“I only saw her perform on video when she was in high school, but I knew she was a very good athlete,” USF coach Don Marsh said. “She had a really good history of jumping high early on. I think she jumped 12 feet in the ninth grade. I figured because of her history in vaulting as well as cross country that she was a hard worker.”
Marsh visited Clay’s home in her senior year to recruit her, but her decision was made for her when her younger sister wound up in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital for digestive problems.
Even though the school was a five-hour drive from Clay’s home in Normal, Illinois, she stayed to help her parents and sister.
“They were put up in the Ronald McDonald House and you have to stay there every night, because if you don’t, then someone else could use that room,” Clay said. “And my parents had to work and take care of my other siblings, so I would stay there when they couldn’t be there.”
For the first time in her life, Clay began to struggle in pole vaulting.
Using a heavier and larger pole and adjusting to coaches with different vaulting philosophies made it difficult for Clay to continue where she left off in high school.
“I ran cross country at Cincinnati and my coach there actually thought I was a better cross country runner than pole vaulter, so that was kind of sad, but he made me love cross country,” Clay said.
When she didn’t get into Cincinnati’s nursing program and her sister recovered enough to live at home again, Clay knew her time as a Bearcat had come to a close.
Transferring to USF was the only option that made sense to Clay, who had just completed her sophomore season.
“It’s hard to pick schools that are vault schools and I had already visited USF. I knew (Marsh) and their nursing program fit better for what I wanted,” Clay said.
Because she transferred within the conference, she was forced to sit out last season, but Clay used that year to adjust to the changes in Tampa.
“She had a transition period when she transferred here,” Marsh said. “One thing we did was switch up the type of pole she uses because she is very small. Everyone uses fiberglass poles, but some are constructed differently and the ones she’s using now are much smaller in diameter and they’re lighter, which helps her.”
Clay almost instantly rid herself of her struggles at
Cincinnati with the help of Marsh.
“Coming here, coach Marsh believed in me and helped me realize I am really good at this and that helped me to refocus on pole vault,” Clay said.
She set a personal record of 13 feet in an event during her redshirt junior season last year, when she competed unattached from USF. Her success as a Bull led Marsh, who has coached pole vaulting for 40 years including 19 at USF, to believe she could be one of the best pole vaulters he has ever seen.
“I think she could potentially jump 14 feet,” Marsh said. “I’ve only had one girl jump 14 feet and right now, Emily’s our third-best vaulter of all-time here and we’ve had some good vaulters.”
Marsh said there’s nothing about Clay’s physical attributes that set her apart from the pack, but her ability to get inverted on her jumps is second to none.
“She’s very small and slight, but she does one thing really well that most vaulters have trouble doing and that’s getting inverted, or getting upside down,” Marsh said. “She can do that better than anyone I’ve ever had. Better than our school record holder and anyone else.”
Since coming to USF, Clay has not only enjoyed her renewed success on the track but also the group of athletes she joined.
“I love it here, it’s more of a family,” Clay said. “For instance, Brittney (London) had surgery and everyone visits her and makes her treats. We always go out together and we watch “The Bachelor” every Monday.”
She will now be able to complete her nursing degree on time while competing in pole vaulting. Clay said she still gets to see her family just as much as when she went to Cincinnati because her indoor meets are often close to her hometown.
Clay will continue to shoot for the top spot in USF’s record books when the team travels to New York City on Friday for the first AAC tournament of the season.