A single shiny quarter changed the life of Olympian Sandi Morris when she was 7 years old. She held it up to a little boy, challenging him to a race, and little did she know both of their parents were watching from across the field her sister was playing in a soccer game on. The boy took the quarter, and they proceeded to sprint to the other end of the track circling the game. Sandi dusted the little boy, and his mom looked over to hers to tell her about a club track team for kids Sandi’s age. It was all over from there. Track became her life.
From age 7 through high school she focused on the sprints and beginning in 6th grade she began hurdling. She was very good at all of these things, but she found her calling in the 8th grade when she picked up a vaulting pole for the very first time. Her dad and a local coach helped teach her the basics, and soon her parents began taking her to a specialist to get her trained properly. Rusty Shealy was this coach’s name, and he coached her to become USA High School National Champion her senior year, earning her a scholarship to college.
Sandi began college at UNC Chapel Hill, and had a very successful freshman year. She became one of 4 freshmen in history to jump 14 feet, but her sophomore year she saw no improvement. She was struggling to find her way both in the classroom and on the track, and after her second year at North Carolina, she decided to leave her life and start over at the University of Arkansas.
After only 6 months under her new coach, Bryan Compton, she had increased her personal best to 14’7”. This is a huge improvement for such a short time. She knew she had made the right choice going to Arkansas. Sandi accomplished many great things at Arkansas, but her most impressive year would come her last (and fifth year) of college at U of A. That year, Sandi broke through the 15-foot barrier, which, prior to her, only two other collegians had accomplished. She was not the only one to do this that year. Her rival on the track, Demi Payne, also had a big breakout season, and the two women exchanged the indoor and outdoor collegiate records multiple times. By the time Sandi graduated, she had won three-straight SEC titles, become the 2015 NCAA Indoor Champion, and still holds the outdoor NCAA title at 15’5.75”.
Her professional career began in what felt like the blink of an eye. Three weeks after her last NCAA competition, she signed with Nike, and took second place at the USA Championships behind indoor world record holder Jenn Suhr. Sandi, Jenn, and Demi, then went to China to represent the USA for the World Championships. Sandi went in ranked 6th in the world, and she took 4th place at her very first World Champs.
2016 came along and she was still on fire. Sandi surpassed the 16-foot barrier that indoor season, and won her very first USA title, beating both of her main competitors, including the indoor world record holder. She emphasized in an interview that “it was never about beating Jenn. It’s never about beating anyone. For me, it’s a personal thing. I jumped as high as I could today, and it just so happened to take the win. I’m honored and proud to be able to call myself U.S. Champ.”
Sandi’s 2016 season was going fantastic. She won USA Indoors and followed that up with a silver medal at the Indoor World Champs a week later. Everything was going as planned until May when she was at a meet overseas. With only 7 weeks to go before the 2016 Olympic Trials, Sandi’s pole broke in a competition, and the break was so violent that it caused a hairline fracture in her wrist. Sandi flew home from Europe and directly to doctors. She was told she couldn’t pick up a pole for 5 weeks, but she had 7 to be ready to compete in the most defining meet of her life.
She took this as a challenge and got to training. She was creative in everything she did, finding ways to stay fit and ready without using her left wrist. She and her coach came up with “one-arm-swing-drills” she could do to keep the feeling of the vault. She ran. She lifted weights. She did everything she could, and it all paid off, because the Trials rolled around 7 weeks later, and she jumped 15’7” with having only one practice planting a pole and she took second place. Top three made the Olympic Team. Sandi was going to Rio.
The Olympics turned out to be everything Sandi had ever dreamed of, and with the help of her coach, she jumped her way to a silver medal at The Games. Three weeks after that, the motivation of just barely brushing off the gold-medal bar drove her to jump past the 5-meter barrier in her final meet of the 2016 season. Sandi jumped that height (16’4.75”) at the Brussels Diamond League, and had the most phenomenal end to her season she could have ever asked for. Only one other woman in history had cleared that height outdoors. That woman is Yelena Isinbayeva, the current outdoor world-record holder.
2017 followed suit. Sandi consistently jumped heights ranking her second in the world. Although she wasn’t satisfied with her vaults that season, she still cleared a season’s best of 15’11”, won her first USA Outdoor Title, and took silver at the World Championships. The season came to a close and she is motivated for the upcoming 2018 season. Sandi believes she has even bigger feats on the horizon.
A personal note from Sandi:
“The reason I am so passionate about The Chasing Gold project is I know what it’s like to sacrifice everything to chase “the dream”. I grew up dreaming of becoming an Olympian, and now that have accomplished that, my eyes are set on the World Record and a gold medal. I live 14 hours away from my family in order to train with my coach at Arkansas. I give up all of my time to spend it training. Every waking hour of mine is spent studying nutrition, watching videos of my vaulting technique, planning my competition schedule, or sitting on flights to Europe to go compete. My entire life is the pole vault. This project speaks to me because I know how hard this dream is to catch, but one thing I am lucky not to have to experience first-hand is financial struggle while simultaneously trying to train and compete. Because I have a supportive family and became a medalist within a year of becoming pro, I never lacked the financial ability to focus on training. My situation is extremely rare. Most athletes have to work a part (or full) time job along with training. If an athlete is not a medalist, they likely are barely making enough money from track meets to survive. This means they have to find a job that can supplement their income, but also one that is lenient enough to allow them to leave and travel for weeks at a time. These types of jobs are few and far between. Track and Field is not like the NFL. When an athlete “goes pro”, they are on their own to find a coach, a place to train, and clothing to train in. Arkansas gracefully has allowed me to stay at the University as a “volunteer coach” so I am allowed access to facilities, my coach, and my training partners/teammates. Most Uni’s don’t do this. This is why I want to play a role in The Chasing Gold project. Every athlete with The Dream deserves the opportunity to give it their all. They need support, and I want to help provide them all the things I always had. Without them, I never would have accomplished what I have thus far.”