Carolina Carmichael and Carly Schmidt aren’t just two of the premier female pole vaulters in the state of Illinois; they are students of the sport.
When time allows, the Lake Forest High School standouts can be found watching videos of some of the best vaulters in the world. Carmichael admits she fixates on Steve Hooker, the Olympic gold medalist from Australia (see attached video), and U.S. women’s record holder Jenn Schur. Schmidt can be found studying women’s world record holder Yelena Isinbaeva of Russia (video attached).
“I’ll watch as many videos and YouTube highlights as I can, especially in slow motion,” said Carmichael, a 5-foot-4 senior. “The men are so explosive and I enjoy watching different drills.”
Carmichael and Schmidt head back to Eastern Illinois University for this weekend’s Class 3A state track championship with huge targets on their backs. After all the sectional results were reported last weekend, Carmichael posted a state best 12-3 while Schmidt is tied for third at 11-9. Carmichael was the runner-up (12-3) at last year’s state meet, and Schmidt was fifth (11-9), but the 5-8 junior also posted a school record 12-9 in her first meet of the season, just a week after her gymnastics season ended.
“I was a little surprised that record came so early in the season,” said Scout coach Nathan Sweet. “That day just happened to belong to Carly, but it could have been Carolina on another day. It seems like the two of them have been trading off victories every other meet this year. They are equally as good and equally as competitive.”
Good for Each Other
Having one outstanding vaulter is a privilege few schools in the state enjoy, but to have two has given Lake Forest high hopes of claiming only its second gold medal in girls track history. The only title belongs to Victoria Jackson in the 3200 back in 1999.
“If I were the lone vaulter on my team, I would probably feel a lot of pressure. But the good thing about having Carly on my team is I know my toughest competition is standing right next to me,” said Carmichael, who has a career best of 12-6. “I think we’re good for each other. We never take a meet for granted and we are always helping and encouraging each other. But that doesn’t mean we are not trying our hardest to beat each other.
“It’s very strange when we go around to pole vault camps together. So many of these girls are their school record holders and happy to have cleared 9 feet, yet we are both consistently going over 12 feet. It’s a very unique situation to have two girls from one school with that kind of ability.”
“Without Carolina, I don’t think I would be half the vaulter I am today and I think she feels the same way about me,” Schmidt said. “We’re good for each other. We have good competition and as much as you want to do your best, you are happy for her if she wins.”
Both girls are well past those freshman jitters and will feel very comfortable at O’Brien Stadium this weekend. This will be Carmichael’s fourth trip to Charleston after taking 18th (10-0) as a freshman and tying for third (11-6) as a sophomore. Schmidt tied for 12th (10-6) in her first trip before making the leap to fifth last year.
“I think we’ll be at an advantage because we know how everything works at the state meet,” Schmidt said. “I was so nervous as a freshman, but now I’m in a good place mentally. I just hope we have warm weather because it will be a lot easier staying loose.”
The duo usually brings seven poles of various sizes and weight ratios to each meet.
“We use one as a warm-up pole,” Carmichael said. “The rest usually depends on weather and how strong we feel that day.”
“I’ve seen Carolina get more confident and stronger this year,” Sweet said. “She’s using bigger poles and has added more speed. The speed generates all the power, which transfers to the height.
“Carly is very fast and has learned to transfer that speed right to the pole. She has spent a lot of time during the offseason training and working on her technique.”
With a background in distance coaching, Sweet readily admitted he handles mostly the mental approach to the competition when it comes to the pole vault. The technique falls on the shoulders of Katie Darraugh, a former vaulter at Lake Forest and the University of Virginia. Darraugh took over vaulting duties for her father, Mike, this year. Carmichael also can go to her mother, Toni, the vault and hurdles coach at Mundelein High School and a former collegiate heptathlete, for some extra advice.
“My mother knows a lot about the pole vault and hurdles from all the camps and conventions she has attended,” Carmichael said. “We still do some hurdle drills together and I joke around with her about competing in some Masters events, but I’m afraid she’ll hurt herself.”
Carmichael, who took second in the vault at the USATF Junior Nationals after her sophomore year, claims this past year has been a “rebuilding year.”
“I have been focusing primarily on my technique,” she says. “The hard part was done when I signed with the University of Memphis last fall, so I have been able to enjoy myself more the rest of the year. I quit gymnastics because I have weak ankles.
“I’ve only been doing this since my freshman year, so I’m very new to this sport. I still have a lot to fix and I go to camps or to North Central College, where my sister (Ofelia) is a freshman vaulter, when I can. Good or bad at the state meet this weekend, I know there’s a lot more in me that I want to achieve. I know I am eventually going to go 13 feet and if it’s not this weekend, it will be in college.”
Since she still hasn’t completed her junior year, college coaches haven’t been able to talk to Schmidt. But based on her finish last year and Carmichael already having drawn interest to Lake Forest, she knows the calls will be coming soon.
“All the preparation I have put in is for that moment when the schools start calling,” she says. “All I know right now is I want to go to a Division I school.”
Landing a scholarship to a school in warm weather wouldn’t be a surprise. For the past three years, Schmidt has spent part of her winter break training at pole vault camp in South Carolina.
“There are only six to 10 other vaulters there, so I get a lot of one-on-one time with the instructors,” she said.
When time allows, Schmidt also will go to Indiana for some personal instruction and nearly every Sunday she can be found at GetVertical Pole Vault, a private club in Milwaukee.
“This summer, I’m planning on hitting as many warm spots as possible to attend camp,” she said with a laugh. “I’m already planning one trip to Texas to attend a camp.”
One Final Hurdle
Since a bad baton exchange prevented Lake Forest’s record-setting 4x200 relay team from competing in the state meet this year, Schmidt will have to focus only on the pole vault. On the other hand, Carmichael also will be competing in the 100-meter hurdles, where she posted a winning time of 15.16 in her sectional, ranking her 14th in the state.
“At first I was thinking about dropping the hurdles this year and just focusing on pole vault, but I have been getting better,” said Carmichael, who has a season best of 15.06. “My biggest problem is I won every race this year, but I didn’t have any competition. I would love to go downstate and make all-state in two events.”
Sweet doesn’t think the great expectations for his vaulters this weekend have fazed either of them.
“This week has been 75 percent rest for them, allowing their bodies to heal from three grueling weeks of competition,” he says. “The rest is just getting in the right frame of mind for the job ahead. They know what the other vaulters are capable of and it’s just up to them to do their respective jobs.”