If you think about it, maybe the American rodeo sport of goat roping and the international sport of pole vaulting aren't that far apart. Sure, there are no animals involved in pole vaulting, and no pole in goat roping. But both sports require speed, coordination and, above all, fearlessness. Stacy Dragila, who ropes as well as she vaults, has all three attributes — with an extra dose of daring. But the crucial difference between her two pursuits is that there's an Olympic gold medal for pole vaulting, while goat roping hasn't drawn enough of a following to make it to the Games just yet.
So Dragila has spent the last six years learning and perfecting her vaulting technique. So far, so good. At the world indoor athletics championships in 1997, she won the first women's pole vault competition ever sanctioned by the International Amateur Athletics Federation — and set a new women's indoor world record. She hasn't looked back. She repeated that performance last year for the IAAF world championships in Seville. While Dragila and Australia's Emma George have traded the world record for the past two years, Dragila currently holds the highest mark, 4.63 m, set at July's U.S. Olympic trials. What's this all building to? At Sydney, where the women's pole vault will make its Olympic debut, Dragila is favored to be the new event's first gold medal winner.
The sporting success has brought some unusual off-field perks for Dragila, a sturdily built 29-year-old. Last year she was one of 12 female American athletes featured in a semi-nude calendar produced to raise money for charity. That grabbed her some attention. In January, Dragila was also the first U.S. track and field athlete ever to be featured in a television advertisement during the Super Bowl, the annual American football championship game that draws tens of millions of viewers. More attention. "This has been an amazing journey," says Dragila, who is an assistant athletics coach at Idaho State University. "I couldn't have imagined six years ago that I'd be doing the things I'm getting to do because I'm a vaulter."
Her brother deserves a good deal of credit for his little sister's success. Growing up on a working farm in northern California, Dragila had to pitch in with the chores, but even her time off was useful. "My brother was kind of a bully, but I had to keep up with him and his friends. It made me mentally and physically more aggressive and competitive." So she took it out first on animals, in a sport that requires a rider on horseback to gallop alongside a running goat, then catch it and tie its legs together — all in a matter of seconds. In high school and at university she redirected some of that energy into the heptathlon, but found only modest success.
When a male university teammate suggested to Dragila that women were too weak ever to be any good at the pole vault, her brother's lessons rushed back. "I developed this daredevil attitude growing up," she explains, "and I wanted to try vaulting."
At 0.6 m, her first successful vault was no stunner. But Dragila was determined to prove the doubters wrong. So she kept on training. In 1994 she cleared 3.05 m for the first time. When she read in Track & Field News that she'd set an American record, "It pumped me up," she later recalled. Her training intensified.
"A lot of coaches are just, like, 'Oh, women can't jump that high,'" Dragila has said. "I've heard coaches say that we couldn't jump 14 feet [4.27 m]. But we've surpassed that and gone way beyond. Now that we're jumping over 15 feet [4.57 m], a lot of those coaches have kind of quieted down and stepped aside, and said, 'Go for it and let's just see where you're going to go.'"
That attitude is shared by those in the stands, she says — though she's not sure their interest is entirely benign. "I think the risk of vaulters getting hurt is why the event is so popular with spectators," says Dragila, who has never been seriously injured vaulting. "It's an odd curiosity about the risk we're taking."
At the Games, Dragila (whose Labrador dog happens to be named Sydney) will be aiming to clear 4.88 m. If she reaches that height, she'll go where no woman has ever gone before, but she welcomes that challenge too. "I admit that the women aren't anywhere near the men's record [6.14 m], but I think the other vaulters and I have proven that women can do anything," says Dragila, who refers to most of her competitors as pioneering colleagues instead of rivals. "We're just setting the stage for younger female athletes who will come after us and take the sport to new places."