Kate Soma Conwell (Grant, 2001)

Kate Soma ConwellKate Soma Conwell

Kate Soma Conwell (Grant, 2001)

December 2023 ~

In the midst of her competitive years, through the high school state championships, the Pac-10 and NCAA titles and Olympics quests, Kate Conwell (Grant, 2001) didn’t spend much time reveling in her individual achievements along the way.

Even as she was establishing herself as one of the best Oregon and American female pole vaulters of her time, Conwell was thinking far less about her accomplishment than about what she had yet to accomplish. It took the passage of time and the occasional reminder, like her 2014 induction into the PIL Hall of Fame, to impress upon Conwell the significance of what she had achieved in athletics.

“I certainly appreciate my accomplishments more now than when they originally happened,” she says. “When you’re still in the middle of your athlete career, still training and competing, you spend most of your time thinking about where you’re falling short. When I won the NCAA championship, that was the plan all along. But now when I look back, I think, Heck yeah, I did that.”

Yes, she did do that, winning the pole vault competition at the 2005 NCAA Track and Field Championships as a senior at the University of Washington. Conwell (then Soma) had gone nowhere but up since winning the state pole vault championship at Grant at the height of 11’ 9”. During her four years at Washington, she made it to seven of the eight indoor and outdoor NCAA meets (missing just the indoors her freshman year) and won the NCAA title with a vault of 14' 4", almost two and a half feet higher than her best high school mark.

In the indoor championships, Conwell finished 16th her sophomore year, then 12th, then seventh. Outdoors she finished fifth her freshman year and second her sophomore and junior years before winning the title as a senior.

“I made a pretty big improvement from high school to college and then just kept getting better,” says Conwell, who also won the Pac-10 outdoor championship in 2004 and was a five-time All-American. “I just kept improving my heights and places. It was a pretty awesome college career.”

Those achievements were even more impressive for someone who didn’t even have the opportunity to try the event until she was at Grant.  “Back then, pole vaulting wasn’t an event for girls until shortly after I got to Grant,” she says.

Not that she had any interest in trying it anyway. At Irvington Elementary School, Conwell was focusing on gymnastics and doing well enough in the sport to “compete all over the country.” But by the time she was in fifth grade, the training, travel and general consumption of her time had already taken a toll.

“It was a lot, and I didn’t enjoy it anymore. So, I quit and started playing soccer and, in middle school, start running club track.”

Once at Grant, however, she got a piece of advice that changed the course of her athletic career. It came from longtime neighbor and family friend Tinker Hatfield, the famed Nike shoe designer and former UO track-and-field All-American and record-setting pole vaulter.

“He just said, I think you should try pole vaulting,” says Conwell, whose track events to that point had been sprints and relays. “I don’t think I ever would have gravitated toward the event. It was all Tinker.”

Hatfield would wind up being Conwell’s pole vault coach through high school, a gift, she says, “I’ll be forever grateful for.”

Conwell would wind up lettering all four years in track and field, winning the PIL pole vault championship as a junior and senior and taking second at state as a junior before winning the title as a senior. At the time, her 11' 9" mark was a Grant and PIL record.

Despite her high school success, Conwell left Grant without any scholarship offers and was all but packed for the University of Arizona, where she was planning to compete as a walk-on for the track team. But shortly before she was planning to leave Portland, her club coach reached out to a UW assistant coach named Pat Licari, who called and invited Conwell to Seattle.

“I was supposed to leave for Arizona in a month, but decided to go up there,” she remembers. “They offered a small scholarship and, since Washington had a good business school and that’s what I wanted to major in, I made the decision to go there. It turned out to be a great decision. I think Pat was one of the best pole vault coaches in the country. The Arizona coach was great, too, but he wound up leaving for a job at the University of Kansas after what would have been my sophomore season, and I wouldn’t have gone with him.”

What was a great decision for Conwell and UW was just the opposite for all the college coaches who failed to recognize her potential. Toward the end of her collegiate career, Conwell was featured in an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer during which she recounted the story of her leaving high school without so much as an offer just to pay for books.

The reporter wrote: “The future NCAA champion planned to walk on to the track team at Arizona. But a call from UW assistant coach Pat Licari altered that course…. Within a year, (Soma) had improved her top mark by more than a foot, eliciting forehead slaps and self-kicks from coaches throughout the Pac-10.”

After graduating from Washington, Conwell continued training and competing in post-collegiate events with the goal of qualifying for the 2008 Olympics.

“I kept competing, but the transition was a little rough,” she says. “During the Trials, the top 12 finishers make it into the finals and then the top three make the team. I finished 15th or 16th. By then I was three years out of college and figured I’d had enough, so that was the end of my career.”

By at least one metric, her physical stature, Conwell was an unlikely candidate to achieve the success she did in such a high-flying event. She’s only 5' 1" in an event that provides definite advantages to taller competitors.

“Like a lot of ex-gymnasts, I’m very short,” she says. “When I started, the leading women’s pole vaulter was only five four. So, it wasn’t like everyone was towering above me. But there are benefits to being taller. The higher off the ground you are the less technically sound you have to be.”

What she lacked in height, Conwell says she made up for with speed and body awareness. “My gymnastics background helped in that regard,” she says. “After competing, I coached for a while and I was always looking for gymnasts and cheerleaders to recruit.”

Conwell adds that there’s one other important trait that must be possessed by anyone interested in pursuing what can be an intimidating sport, and that’s the nerve to try it.

“The willingness to do it is definitely the important thing,” she says. “You’ve got to have a little bit of fearlessness.”

Despite the potential for injury, Conwell only suffered one while competing. That came during the NCAA’s her sophomore year when her pole snapped and cut her hand, requiring 10 stitches. She brushes that off as a small trade-off for the rewards of the event.

“When you fall back down to the mat and look back up and see you’ve cleared the bar, that’s one of the best feelings in the world.”

After she quit competing, Conwell went to work as a personal trainer and private coach, jobs that allowed her to stay home and raise her two boys, now 12 and 10. For the last two years she’s lived in Texas, outside of Dallas.

“What I do now is run a community and do coaching for women who have experienced infidelity in their marriage,” she says. “I’m taking my most painful moment and turning it into something that can help other people.”

Do you know Kate? If you’d like to reconnect, she can be reached at kate213@comcast.net

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