ATHENS, Ga. – Kayla Smith is weeks away from her final pole vault competition, yet the University of Georgia graduate student can’t stop looking back at all she’s overcome to reach this point.
Not only has she battled numerous injuries, she has also carved a path for herself in a sport where she has the opportunity to make history. This week, Smith will compete in her final SEC competition at E.B. Cushing Stadium in College Station, Texas. It’s the last tune-up before the NCAA championships, where Smith has the chance to become the first African American woman to win a national title in the pole vault.
“My experience is unique to any other athlete, and some may say in a good way and some may say in a bad way because I’ve torn my body up,” Smith said. “But it’s been extremely rewarding to be at the top for multiple years while my body is just constantly being broken down.”
The adversity for Smith started at birth with a meniscus deformity in her knee, making it more susceptible to tear. The reason Smith got involved in the pole vault was because her body could no longer handle the stress of a 13-year gymnastics career. Smith, who is from Indianapolis, reached level 10 status in gymnastics before giving up the sport. (Level 11 is the top level in USA Gymnastics and is considered an Olympic-caliber athlete.)
Smith switched to the pole vault as a sophomore in high school at the suggestion of the school’s pole vault coach, whose classroom Smith had to walk past every day. He knew Smith was a gymnast and always told her that gymnasts transition really well. Eventually, the former gymnast decided to give it a shot.
“I honestly hated [pole vault] the first time I did it,” Smith said. “I didn’t want to go back, but my dad forced me to go back. He wanted me to keep trying it because it’s a very awkward event at first. You feel very goofy and silly. … But I kept going back and started to get the hang of it and started to like it.”
Since that moment, Smith dedicated herself to the pole vault and it has led her to breaking new barriers. Earlier this month, Smith set the UGA school-record vault of 14 feet, 8.25 inches. That vault currently ranks her third nationally behind fellow SEC competitors Nastassja Campbell of Arkansas at 14 feet, 9.5 inches and LSU’s Lisa Gunnarsson at 14 feet, 9 inches.
“In my 20-plus years of experience as a coach, I’ve never seen anybody overcoming this much adversity. … When you go through that much adversity, you are owed,” Georgia track and field head coach Petros Kyprianou said. “The universe owes you something, and I think the universe owes Kayla the world right now. She’s about to get her own planet.”
In March, she finished runner-up at the NCAA indoor championships. That result tied the best mark for an African American woman in the event’s 24-year history with Duke’s Megan Clark (runner-up in 2015 and 2016).
If Smith were to win the SEC or NCAA championship, she would be following in the footsteps of former University of Tennessee pole vaulter Lawrence “LoJo” Johnson, who is one of the USA’s most decorated pole vaulters. Johnson also was a college teammate of Smith’s UGA pole vault coach Russ Johnson.
“I’d love to join Lawrence Johnson in that role,” Smith said. “I think that would be cool to have my coach’s old teammate to have made history as a Black pole vaulter and then his athlete do the same thing. It would be amazing to write my name in the record books. Not even just to win, but the first Black woman to win.
“That would just be an extra sprinkle of amazingness. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Lawrence Johnson won his first NCAA championship in 1995. His accomplishments include seven-time SEC champion, four-time NCAA champion, seven-time USA champion, world champion and Olympic silver medalist at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. All of these feats were firsts for African American pole vaulters.
Lawrence Johnson, who is 46 years old, said he understands exactly the hurdles Smith is facing in a sport that lacks diversity.
“You have to be prepared to be strong in who you are,” Lawrence Johnson said. “You’re going to get criticism. You’re going to get a lot more challenges. And in some cases, some attempts at intimidation from other athletes. You have to remain confident and calm and just go out and do what you know how to do.
“I’m obviously pulling for [Smith] and want to see some great performances.”
While overseas competing as a professional, Lawrence Johnson said, he was heckled and ridiculed while competing throughout Europe. During a competition in Johannesburg, Lawrence Johnson said, it seemed like cars were purposefully stepping on the gas as soon as he started crossing the road outside his hotel, trying to force the pole vaulter off the street.
“I can’t prove it,” he said. “But things of that nature are constantly dotted throughout my career.”
While Smith, 23, focuses on being a pole vaulter first, she can’t help but notice she’s often the only African American vaulter at almost every meet. Last year, as the country engaged in conversations about racial injustice, Smith chose to sit during the national anthem at the 2020 SEC indoor championship.
“They were just staring at me like I was crazy,” said Smith. “But my decision to sit for [the anthem] is based on my experience as a Black person in America and trying to be in solidarity with my community.
“I definitely think that rubbed people the wrong way and then they kind of looked at me a little differently throughout the competition because of that, but I’ve made this decision [to kneel] and I’m confident in it, so I’m not going to change it for anyone.”
That was the last meet before everyone’s focus shifted to the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent quarantine. With no more competitions, Smith said, she spent the summer learning more about the civil rights movement and the impact of systemic racism. Smith became involved in UGA’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and was the lead organizer for a virtual rally in the fall.
“We wanted to be something that was both empowering and informal,” Smith said of the goal for the rally. “Just making sure that people knew UGA and the athletic administration was supportive of them whether they were part of the Black community, any other minority community or they wanted to be an ally.”
With the support of the university, Smith has continued to sit out the anthem and plans to do so for the upcoming SEC and NCAA championships.
Smith’s pole vault career will end with the NCAA championships. She doesn’t plan to join some of her teammates in trying out for the Olympic team. It’s not because she doesn’t think she can compete. She just doesn’t believe her body will be able to handle it.
“That’s something that I have struggled with a little bit throughout my career,” Smith said. “Although I’m very proud of where I am right now, it’s always kind of that, ‘I wonder if I hadn’t had all these injuries, could I have been jumping so much higher.’
“My own coach tells me that a lot and he’s had other coaches come and tell him like, ‘Wow, that girl could definitely be one of the best in the world if she could keep training.’ And it’s always kind of sad when he’s like, ‘Well, yeah, it’s just not going to happen for her. Her body can’t take it.’ ”
The same meniscus deformity that led Smith to pole vaulting is probably what’s going to force her to retire, as Smith is scheduled after the season for a microfracture procedure on her left knee, her seventh surgery since entering college.
After her collegiate career comes to a close, Smith will take her master’s degree in nonprofit management and move to California to work either in the nonprofit sector or as a student-athlete development coordinator. Smith currently works as a mentor to younger student-athletes.
“She always just really fights for people that are in groups that are underserved, underacknowledged or underrepresented,” Russ Johnson said. “She definitely has a strong voice to represent those that might not be heard.”
Smith still has two more championship competitions and two more chances to make history. Regardless of the results, however, Smith says she is at peace with her career as it comes to a close.
“I just think about my freshman year when the doctors told me my likelihood of pole vaulting again was 20% to 25%, but I’m sitting here looking at my two All-American trophies displayed on my desk,” Smith said. “It would obviously be disappointing if I didn’t win, but there’s just so many other great things to pay attention to throughout my six-year career.”