Stacy Dragila – Keynote and Pole Vault Headliner

Olympic Gold Medalist and World Champion

The Olympic gold medalist we know as Stacy Dragila was born Stacy Mikaelson on March 25, 1971. Her parents, Bill and Irma, already had a 20-month-old named Eric. The Mikaelsens were a hard-working, middle-class family. They lived in Auburn, California, a rural town northwest of Sacramento. Bill worked as a meat cutter, while Irma stayed at home to look after their children. Stacy’s parents raised their kids to appreciate the simpler things in life. Spare time was never spent indoors watching TV or playing video games. The kids were adventurous and focused just like their mom and dad.

The Mikaelsens took family vacations on a small Idaho ranch owned by Stacy’s grandfather. The kids pulled their weight by feeding, exercising and washing the horses, pigs, goats and chickens. The freedom of ranching life helped make Stacy a fearless child. She thought she was invincible, and challenged her brother to everything from mud fights to races on horseback. When Eric began entering rodeos, Stacy naturally followed. She would do anything to prove she was his equal.

Stacy’s first love was actually gymnastics. She had great body control and a keen sense of balance. When she developed childhood asthma, however, she had to give up the sport. Looking for a replacement, she began focusing more on rodeo. Stacy’s best events were goat tying, breakaway roping and team roping. She was also known to take a turn or two on the mechanical bull at the county fair. As she got older, Stacy was drawn to other sports. A good all-around athlete, she mopped up on field day in elementary school. When Stacy entered Placer High School in Auburn, she joined the volleyball and track teams. She was a solid sprinter, hurdler and long jumper.

Placer’s wrestling coach doubled as the school’s track coach, so Stacy did not get much insight into technique. This frustrated her, for she knew much of her potential was going untapped. That changed when she met John Orognen, the track coach at nearby Yuba Community College. Orognen was impressed by the 16-year-old’s strength and stamina. He volunteered to teach her proper technique, and turned her into a winning hurdler. She reached the state finals in the 300 meters in her junior and senior years, and placed second in the 400 meters at the Golden West Invitational as a senior.

Stacy got it in her head that she was a choke artist. Rather than reaching down and finding something extra in pressure situations, she seemed to lose a step. This really bugged her. Her only ticket to a good college would be a track scholarship, because her parents couldn’t afford tuition to a four-year institution. Stacy knew college track coaches looked for W’s when they scanned a runner’s results, and in this department she was lacking.

When Stacy graduated from Placer in the spring of 1990, she believed the future was pretty much mapped out for her. A good student and member of the 4-H Club and Future Farmers of America, she assumed she would take courses at a community college, find a job, get married and raise a family. Stacy started on this path by enrolling at Yuba. The school’s campus in Marysville was an easy drive from her parents’ home.

There the freshman was re-united with Orognen. Initially, Orognen assumed Stacy would concentrate on the 400-meter hurdles. But after noticing her tremendous versatility, he prodded her into trying the heptathlon. She quickly took to the event. The two spent long hours together training. Stacy developed great trust in Orognen’s judgment, and they became close friends. She intensified her workouts as she entered her second year at Yuba, but was derailed when Orognen’s health began to fail. Doctors first diagnosed him with jaundice. Further tests revealed lung cancer; he had less than a year to live.

Stacy visited her coach often in the hospital. On his death bed, he advised her to pursue her dreams without compromise. Orognen died before Stacy finished her sophomore year. His passing sent her reeling. She went about her life with no real direction. Finally, during the spring of 1992, Stacy took Orognen’s words to heart and began to consider her options beyond Yuba. She toyed with the idea of going to UCLA or USC, but feared the L.A. smog would trigger her asthma.

Stacy Dragila, 2000 Track & Field News
Enter Dave Nielsen, the track coach at
Idaho State University. He offered her a scholarship, and said he agreed with Orognen—Stacy had tremendous potential as a heptathlete. When Stacy visited the school’s campus in Pocatello with her parents, she was immediately reminded of her grandfather’s ranch. That sealed the deal.

Stacy started her freshman year at ISU in the fall of 1992. On the track and in the classroom, her first 18 months in Pocatello were uneventful. She double-majored in Physical Education and Health, and logged endless hours honing her skills on the athletic field. Romantically, the picture was much brighter. She married Brent Dragila, a Gulf War veteran with an eye on a career in law enforcement.

Stacy’s scores in the heptathlon—usually between 4,700 and 4,800 points—were respectable. She figured she was good enough to contend for titles in the Big Sky Conference, but national championships were out of the picture. It seemed she had hit a ceiling, skill-wise. Again, it was coach Nielsen who helped her see a new direction. He had been keeping an interested eye on a trend in women’s track and field. All over the country, female athletes were clamoring to try the pole vault. They were challenging the long-held belief that women lacked the upper body strength and mental toughness to excel in this sport.

Stacy Dragila, SI for Kids Card
Nielsen saw an opportunity. An All-American pole vaulter himself at
Iowa during the 1970s, he won a Big Ten championship and once cleared 17-6. He knew if he could find the right woman, he had a chance to grab a leadership role in the sport. Nielsen gathered his troops, walked them over to the men’s vault pit, and told them to have fun. Of all the women who tried it, Stacy seemed to be the most curious. The more he thought about it, the more Nielsen realized that Stacy might be perfect for the sport. Tall and muscular, she was blessed with the type of body that spells success in the pole vault. Her background as a sprinter and love of gymnastics was a plus.

To this day, Stacy swears she only agreed to try pole vaulting to indulge her coach. Initially, she showed almost no aptitude for it. But with Nielsen’s pointers—and body-control tutoring from his wife, Joy Umenhofer, a coach for the U.S. Trampoline and Tumbling team—Stacy began to feel increasingly comfortable. Every week she showed marked improvement. It felt great, so she stuck with it. Even when Stacy’s friends on the men’s team told her she was wasting her time, she persevered.

Stacy cleared 10 feet for the first time in a 1994 meet during her junior year. She was taken aback when she read in Track & Field News that this vault established an American record. At the time, she was thinking about bagging pole vault so she could concentrate on her senior season in the heptathlon. Her goal was to capture the Big Sky Conference championship. When the 1995 season rolled around, Stacy was topping the 5,000-point mark, but she could not put the pole down. She cleared 11 feet that April at the BYU Cougar Track Invitational, and won the Prefontaine Classic a month later with a vault of 11-2.

Stacy bettered that mark by nearly four inches at the U.S. Outdoors in Sacramento—an effort that earned her a spot on a national team traveling to Great Britain for a dual meet. Naive when it came to the world of big-time track, Stacy thought it was up to her to scrape together the money to make the trip. Only when it was explained that her expenses were covered did she agree to go. In her first overseas meet, Stacy extended her personal best by nearly a foot to 12-1 1/2 and took second place. She finished the 1995 season as America’s #2 pole vaulter.

With her college track career over, Stacy assumed the same was true for her days as a pole vaulter. But as Nielsen had anticipated, the vault was becoming a cult phenomenon at meets all over the world. It was easy for fans to watch and understand, made for great television, and had all the can-you-top-this drama of the high jump, except it was twice as high off the ground. The sport’s first international star was Emma George, an Australian woman who had once been a child circus acrobat. Every time out, George was going for a new record, and the crowds were eating it up.

Stacy decided this was a sport worth sticking with, and she began competing on the European Grand Prix circuit. Nielsen hired her as an assistant coach to put some cash in her pocket and continue coaching her. Stacy augmented her income with a side job as a waitress. She also started on her master’s in Athletic Administration. Meanwhile, her husband enrolled at Idaho State as a Criminology and Sociology major.

Over the next few months, Stacy’s progress was astounding. In January of 1996, she established a new American record at 12-11 3/4. A week later she surpassed 13 feet. At an outdoor meet in Kansas that spring Stacy upped her U.S. mark to 13-6 1/2. In June, she cleared 13-9 1/4.