TOKYO — Katie Nageotte said Thursday night's women's pole vault final was a microcosm of her year: A rocky start with a triumphant end.
Her year began with a bout of COVID-19, and side effects that lingered thereafter. Her competition began with a tight quad muscle that hampered her on the runway, causing her to miss the first two of her three allotted attempts at the opening height — the lowest bar, the one that is supposed to be easiest to clear.
In both cases, however, Nageotte pushed through — and now she has an Olympic gold medal to show for it.
The 30-year-old from Olmsted Falls, Ohio won the women's pole vault final at the Tokyo Games on Thursday, recovering from her dicey start to be the last competitor standing, the only woman able to clear a height of 16 feet, 1 inch.
Nageotte, who also won the event at the U.S. Olympic trials in June, outlasted ROC athlete Anzhelika Sidorova and Holly Bradshaw of Great Britain as the bar continued to rise. Sidorova and Bradshaw got silver and bronze, respectively.
"I was nervous," Nageotte said, when asked about the two early misses. "I know my family got up very early to watch me. And I would've felt very bad if I made them get up at 6 in the morning to watch me no-height."
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Nageotte is the third American woman to win gold in pole vault, following Jenn Suhr in 2012 and Stacy Draglia in 2000. Sandi Morris won silver in the event in Rio in 2016.
Nageotte discovered pole vault while attending middle school in Olmsted Falls, a small suburban town outside of Cleveland, with fewer than 9,000 residents. She said Thursday that she feels a special connection with the community there. She feels like the town helped raise her, in a way, after her father Mark died when she was 16.
"They really banded around my entire family," Nageotte said. "I felt their support from Day 1 of his passing. So to do this for them too, I know they're all rooting for me."
It's true. The local community center hosted a watch party for Nageotte during the pole vault final, beginning at 6 a.m. ET. And a local pizzeria, Angelina's is offering the "Katie's Favorite Pizza Special" all day — only $8.05 for a medium barbecue chicken pie. ("They asked me what my favorite type of pizza was, and I like barbecue chicken pizza," she said with a laugh.)
Nageotte's journey to get her gold featured two college stops, the first at Dayton and the second at Ashland University, a Division II school about an hour from home. Before transferring, she experienced what she described as a "horrible mental block."
"I just lost all confidence in my vault," Nageotte said. "I just had a really bad run through issues. I was jumping three feet lower than I was in high school."
At Ashland, however, Nageotte regained her confidence and rediscovered her form, going on to win a pair of D-II national titles. Ashland track and field coach Jud Logan told The Ashland Times-Gazette, which is part of the USA TODAY Network, that he never doubted that she could one day be an Olympian.
"She was running faster than the world class girls were down the runway. She just didn’t know how to convert it into her technique," Logan said.
Working with coach Brad Walker, a former world champion in the event, helped Nageotte make that conversion, and she steadily climbed up the ranks from there. Qualifying for U.S. nationals was the first big step. Then competing at the 2016 Olympic trials, where she placed fifth.
"I'm very happy I did not make that team in 2016," she said Thursday, "because if I had, I probably would've been complacent and just happy with that, being an Olympian."
Instead, she kept chipping away, finishing seventh at the 2019 world championships in Doha, Qatar. This year, she is one of only three women to clear the 16-1 mark — and she's now done it four times.
"I think especially with pole vault, it's a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck," Nageotte said. "And I'm so grateful that it went my way today."
Contributing: Chris Snow
Contact Tom Schad at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Katie Nageotte wins gold in pole vault at Tokyo Olympics