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
took family vacations on a small
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’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
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
Stacy Dragila, 2000 Track & Field News
Enter Dave Nielsen, the track coach at
Stacy started her freshman
year at ISU in the fall of 1992. On the track and in the classroom, her first
18 months in
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.
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Nielsen saw an opportunity. An All-American pole vaulter himself at
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
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
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