By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Not even halfway through her college career, Bridget Guy has established herself as the finest pole-vaulter in the history of University of Virginia women’s track & field.
But she’s far from satisfied.
“I can’t say that I’m not happy, but I definitely am hungry for more,” said Guy, who’ll compete this weekend at the ACC outdoor championships in Tallahassee, Fla. “I want to keep jumping higher.”
A graduate of Hempfield Area Senior High School, Guy is from Greensburg, Pa., about 35 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. How she ended up in Charlottesville is a story in itself.
In June 2013, Guy competed at the World Youth Track & Field Trials in Edwardsville, Ill., where her father handed an information sheet on his daughter to UVA assistant coach Mario Wilson.
Wilson, who coaches the horizontal jumps, javelin, pole vault, decathlon and men’s high jump at UVA, did not immediately begin recruiting Guy. In fact, he didn’t follow up at all that summer.
“Up to that point, I wasn’t excited about recruiting the vault, because it wasn’t something that we had as a program really committed to,” said Wilson, who joined the staff of Bryan Fetzer, Virginia’s director of track & field/cross country, in July 2012.
“The pole vault had kind of stagnated here for a few years. The previous staff hadn’t really invested a lot into it, and even though I’m a big pole vault guy — I love the pole vault — I had to really work to convince Fetzer.”
Finances were a factor. The pole vault “is an event that can have a huge reward,” said Fetzer, who came to UVA in December 2011, “but it comes with a huge price. When you’re trying to get things going, money does play into it.”
Wilson pointed out to Fetzer that Lannigan Field, which had been renovated in 2011-12, had excellent pole-vault pits. Moreover, after sorting through all the program’s equipment, Wilson discovered the Wahoos had nearly 100 vaulting poles.
“I did an inventory and showed [Fetzer] that it wasn’t going to cost nearly as much as he thought, because it is a big investment, and it’s a time investment as well,” said Wilson, who as a Bucknell assistant coached an NCAA finalist in the women’s pole vault.
With Fetzer warming to the idea, Guy, dissatisfied with her college options, contacted Wilson in the fall of 2013.
“I was taking all these visits — I took an official to Kansas and then visited Kentucky and Louisville unofficially, [along with several] PA schools — and I didn’t like any of them,” Guy recalled.
“My high school coach was like, `Is there any place you want me to call?’ So I said, `Call Virginia and call Penn State.’ Because neither of them had really heavily recruited me, and those were the two schools I was most interested in.”
Guy had been a recruiting afterthought for Virginia, but she “kind of put herself on my radar,” Wilson said.
“She did,” Fetzer said, “and we’re so thankful she did.”
Once he realized the extent of Guy’s interest in Virginia, Wilson began researching her. The more he learned, the more intrigued he became. In high school, Guy not only pole-vaulted, she ran on the 4×100-meter relay, long-jumped and hurdled.
“She’s a great athlete,” said Fetzer, a native of Johnstown, Pa. “She’s fast, and she’s got that Pennsylvania determination and grit to her, too.”
Guy took an official visit to UVA in December 2013. During her stay in Charlottesville, “she sold me,” Wilson said. “That’s where I was like, `I like this girl.’ She had a great attitude. There was something about her when she was on the visit. She basically was able to convince me that she was definitely somebody we should invest in.”
Guy accepted Virginia’s scholarship offer and signed her letter of intent in February 2014. That UVA had no real tradition of success in the pole vault did not faze her.
“I think I kind of liked that,” Guy said. “I knew the program was up and coming, it was just a growing program, and I wanted to be part of that, and I thought I would really be able to grow and develop into a good vaulter with a small vaulting team. And I heard a lot of good things about Coach Wilson.”
As a 12th-grader, Guy won the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association’s Class AAA state title with a personal-best jump of 12 feet, 6 inches. Those points helped Hempfield win the state team championship.
In attendance that day at Shippensburg University was Fetzer, who recalls thinking that Guy was exactly the kind of fearless competitor the Cavaliers needed.
“And she’s been what Mario originally thought she would be,” Fetzer said. “She performs great at big meets. She’s much better when the pressure is on her.”
Guy, who competed in gymnastics until she reached high school, began pole-vaulting as a seventh-grader.
“There were a few girls ahead of me that I had known through gymnastics that also did pole vault,” Guy recalled, “and they said there was a strong correlation between gymnasts and pole vaulters. They said I should try it, and I did. It worked out, and it just kind of took off from there.”
Asked why she fell in love with the pole vault, Guy said, “It’s just thrilling, I think, the whole event. From the first time you step on the runway, you run as fast as you can and jump and you’re going up. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. It’s crazy.”
To succeed in the event, Wilson said, a pole-vaulter needs “relatively good sprint speed. Good runway speed, great body awareness. You’ve got to be very coordinated. It’s a very technically demanding event, so you have to be very disciplined. And then you have to have a very determined attitude, because sometimes it doesn’t go well.”
Failure in the pole vault is often “really dramatic,” Wilson said. “It’s not just a real minor thing. It’s like, `Whoa!’ ”
In the fall of Guy’s first year at UVA, Wilson asked her to make significant, and necessary, changes to her technique. “She vaulted like an athlete and not like a vaulter,” Wilson said.
Guy was a willing pupil, but she struggled to adapt to the changes, and her performances suffered that fall. At the beginning of the 2014-15 indoor season, Wilson said, he gave Guy the option of redshirting. She declined.
“She said, `I came here to compete for UVA, and I want to do it,’ ” Wilson recalled.
Guy’s struggles were never the result of a lack of effort or a poor work ethic, Wilson said. She simply needed to time to get comfortable with the changes. Eventually “she clicked,” Wilson said, “and then basically she’s been clicking ever since.”
As a freshman, Guy set a school record for the women’s indoor pole vault by clearing 13′ 0.25″ at the ACC championships. That earned her a sixth-place finish. Then last spring she jumped 13′ 5.75″ to set a school record for the women’s outdoor pole vault.
Guy, who placed fourth at last year’s ACC outdoor meet, has broken both of those marks this academic year. In February, at the ACC indoor championships, she finished fourth with a jump of 13′ 8.25″.
Last month, at the Highlander Invitational in Radford, she cleared 13′ 10.5″ outdoors, a jump that ranks 17th in the NCAA this year.
“And she’s going to continue to get better,” Fetzer said.
Guy is one of three full-time pole-vaulters at UVA, along with sophomore Katie Freix and redshirt sophomore Jeff Jernigan. Fetzer and Wilson want to beef up both the men’s and women’s pole vault at UVA, and Guy’s success should make it easier for them to do so.
“Athletes want to come where they’re around other great athletes,” Fetzer said. “Now it’s kind of just building on that, and the pole vault is one where we can continue to get better. Those type of student-athletes generally fit Virginia pretty well.”
Wilson said Virginia is pursuing some of the nation’s top prospects in the pole vault. “It’s one of those things where I think Coach Fetzer feels that could be a niche event for us,” Wilson said.
Guy, who’s majoring in French, said she hopes to minor in entrepreneurship through a program offered in the McIntire School of Commerce. She likes French, she said, “but I don’t really know what I want to do with it. I just know that if I can speak a different language, it makes me more marketable.”
Her UVA experience, Guy said, has been a positive one.
“When I committed here, I knew that it was going to be different from what I was used to at home — different people, different area,” Guy said. “My other option was Penn State, and that was just like my backyard, the same kids I grew up with. A lot of my teammates from high school were on the team.
“So it’s definitely been refreshing to come here. This is kind of my own stomping ground, and I can make my own mark here. I’m not following anybody.”