When we think of a professional athlete, most of us think of one who participates in a team sport, like football, basketball or baseball. We may not think to include competitors in individual sports, like swimming, sprinting and pole vaulting. Annie Rhodes-Johnigan is a professional pole vaulter.
She’s highly ranked, both in the U.S. and in the world and has a shot at making the USA track and field team for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Rhodes-Johnigan is a Waco girl, who graduated from Midway High School in 2013 and from Baylor University in 2016. In high school she earned the 4A state title in 2010 at the UIL track and field state meet, and in college, she won the Big 12 conference title at the 2016 Big 12 outdoor track and field championships. During her career she’s continued to — literally — clear higher and higher bars. Her personal record was set in April at the Mt. SAC Relays, when she cleared 15 feet, 3 inches.
Wacoan writer Megan Willome visited with Rhodes-Johnigan by phone to discuss what her training routine looks like, how she became a pastor’s wife and why pole vaulters may be a little bit crazy.
WACOAN: I remember your parents from Highland Baptist Church, Gary and Karen Rhodes. And your husband is a pastor.
Rhodes-Johnigan: His name is Zach. He is my first boyfriend. We met through my older brother, Chris. We started hanging out before my freshman year at Baylor and dating the second week of my freshman year. He’s one year older than me. We dated all four years of Baylor. I knew I was going to marry him.
He wasn’t an athlete, but he was the music minister at this church, Chalk Bluff Baptist. He was pursuing music ministry. We got engaged my junior year, married after my senior year.
A year after we married the head pastor left, and we needed an interim. Zach just felt a little bit of a change of ministry, in his calling. He was already going to [George W. Truett Theological] Seminary but also pursuing a music degree. Through that year of interim it was obvious God was opening this vision for pastoral ministry over music ministry. They eventually voted him pastor-pastor. So, a year of interim and a year as pastor for our first two years of marriage. It’s been a fun ride.
WACOAN: Where is Chalk Bluff?
Rhodes-Johnigan: It’s northern Waco, Bellmead. Just a small, Southern Baptist church. We have fallen in love with it.
WACOAN: Where is Zach from?
Rhodes-Johnigan: Also from Waco. We both went to Midway. Since Midway was such a big school we didn’t have classes together. I went to Highland; he went to First Woodway [Baptist Church]. Both our families still live here, which we both love.
WACOAN: Let’s talk pole vaulting. When did you start the sport?
Rhodes-Johnigan: I started pole vaulting in middle school. I was a previous gymnast, as a lot of pole vaulters are. I did gymnastics since I was 2, in the Mommy and Me classes, up until I was 13.
Then when I got to middle school I decided I didn’t want to do gymnastics anymore but then did volleyball, basketball, softball and track. In track I did hurdles and even triple jump and pole vaulting. Maybe it’s my gymnastics background, but I liked pole vaulting a lot from the beginning.
My freshman year of high school I joined a pole vault club. This was in Killeen, Texas Elite Pole Vaulting. Jack Chapman is my coach. I started going freshman year. He’s so knowledgeable. I had been jumping 10 feet. By my senior year I was jumping 14 feet.
WACOAN: I’ve heard of other pole vaulters going out of town to train. Is that because it’s such a specialized sport?
Rhodes-Johnigan: It’s so technical, such a unique event. Most high school coaches that coach track are the football coaches, so they don’t know a ton [about pole vaulting], just the basics. It’s so important to get a coach who really knows how to take you through drills and how to get you to learn the right technique and how to put your body in these positions where you go upside down and turn over the bar.
WACOAN: Is that why gymnastics feeds into pole vaulting, because some of the skills are similar?
Rhodes-Johnigan: I think gymnastics does several things. You already have this upper body strength from the bars and the vault, which is so important in pole vault. That’s a little bit of an advantage and already being familiar with going upside down and putting your body in different positions. In gymnastics you have this fearless attitude toward doing daring things.
The final thing is this body awareness. When you clear the pole vault bar, as long as you don’t touch it, even if you’re within centimeters, you clear the bar. Because of gymnastics, you have this awareness of where the pole is at all times and of when to let go of the pole.
WACOAN: I’ve read that speed is key to being a good pole vaulter.
Rhodes-Johnigan: If it’s not the No. 1, it’s one of the main requirements for a pole vaulter to have. I work with the speed coach at Baylor, [track and field associate men’s coach] Mike Ford. He is awesome. To brag on him, he made head coach of [the USA track and field] team for the Pan American Games in Peru [in July]. He’s selected [to coach] the USA team for the USA vs. Europe match. I’m going to that meet, in September, in Belarus.
He’s worked with me and made a huge difference in my speed, helping with the biomechanics of my run. I have more power with each stride, pushing off the ground. Little things you wouldn’t think of in sprinting. Then you add a pole, and it’s even harder. He’s the one I credit most with my speed. I train with him three times a week.
The run is all the energy you’re gonna load into the pole, so if you slow down before you plant the pole then that energy is dispersed. Your speed needs to accelerate into the plant so you’ve put the most energy possible into that pole, so the pole gives you the most energy at the top and you clear a higher bar.
WACOAN: I want to know more about your pole vaulting time at Baylor. I assume you were recruited?
Rhodes-Johnigan: Usually the recruiting process starts junior year [of high school]. Going into my junior year I had cleared 12 feet, 6 inches, then junior year I cleared 13 feet. I had Baylor, Texas A&M and University of Arkansas visits. It became clearer that I wanted to go to Baylor. They told me that to get a full ride I needed to clear 14 [feet] my senior year.
My senior year I started lifting weights more, doing some speed training at Waco Sports Academy with coach [LeBaron] Caruthers. I went on to clear 14 feet that year and was No. 1 pole vault in the nation, so I was the No. 1 recruit in the nation. I’d already committed to Baylor, but then I got a full ride. I remember going to celebrate with my parents. It was a huge financial blessing for my family.
WACOAN: And then at Baylor you set school records in pole vault.
Rhodes-Johnigan: In track there’s an indoor and an outdoor season. Indoor, I broke the school record and went on to break the outdoor record too. I don’t think that in the past Baylor had recruited a lot of female pole vaulters. They had some good male vaulters, but the school record [for women] was relatively low. So coming in, I would hopefully attract some other girls and guys to want to come there and make the Baylor pole vault a great team.
WACOAN: Did you graduate in 2017?
Rhodes-Johnigan: I actually graduated in three-and-a-half years, December 2016, but my eligibility [continued through] 2017. I still competed that spring of 2017.
WACOAN: Let’s talk about your rankings, both in the U.S. and in the world. I found slightly different numbers and was wondering if you could clarify that discrepancy.
Rhodes-Johnigan: In the U.S., in track, there’s different ranking systems. The first one is just based off the height you’ve cleared — your highest height compared to every other girl’s highest height.
The other system takes into account the size of the meet. Was it international? What did you place? It’s harder to compete overseas than at home. It’s a more wholesome ranking. In the second system bigger meets carry more weight. It’s more a point system.
In the point system, the second one, I’m fourth in the U.S. Based off of the first one, I’m sixth. In the world, I’m 18th in the world according to the point system. Then 16th, just for height only.
Both ranking systems count for different things. Certain meets may qualify you off the first ranking system or the other one. They both matter.
The all-around point system is in place because a girl could come out of nowhere, have a lucky day, maybe on her home turf, and put herself way up on the height ranking, so maybe she’s ranked No. 10. But then she never does that again the rest of the year, so her overall point score would be way lower. It’s good to have both [systems].
WACOAN: And you just had your personal best in April, when you cleared 15 feet, 3 inches.
Rhodes-Johnigan: The meet was at [Mt. San Antonio College, in Walnut, California,] but they were doing some work at their field so it was actually at El Camino College, in California.
It was such a good meet. My husband got to be there, my dad was there too, and I flew my coach out too, Jack. I was feeling good that day. I took some attempts at 15-5, but it was a good day.
WACOAN: I read that anything over 15 feet is very good in women’s pole vaulting.
Rhodes-Johnigan: Anything over 15 is really solid. You can’t get solid without clearing 15. If you’re clearing 15, you’re one of the top in the world. What sets you apart is can you do it consistently.
WACOAN: You mentioned to our assistant editor that you train full time. What does that look like?
Rhodes-Johnigan: I train six days a week, usually two different times a day, in the preseason. Usually that’s a morning workout, then I break for lunch, then an early evening workout. Typically each workout is maybe around two hours, depending on the time it is in the season. Some are speed training or strength or vault training — it’s a mix of what I need to work on that week.
Then I think a whole other aspect of training is the recovery aspect. That takes another hour or more, depending on how my body feels. After a four-hour workout you can’t go home and sit on your couch and do nothing or you’ll wake up the next day and feel horrible. Recovery includes ice baths or massage therapy or compression boots or Epsom salt baths or just stretching to recover your body from the previous workout and prepare for the next workout, so you don’t get injured. An injury, that will take you out for a long time.
Then there are smaller things like meal prep, keeping the house clean, trying to be a good wife, being up at the church. It’s a full-time job. Then when the season hits I’m traveling on the weekends.
WACOAN: When is the season?
Rhodes-Johnigan: The indoor season is January and February, then outdoor is March through August.
WACOAN: How do you know which meets to go to?
Rhodes-Johnigan: Track and field is different than other sports. Soccer is organized, so you play another team. A pro track athlete, you can choose where you want to go.
Small meets, you can email the meet director and ask if you can come, and usually they’ll say yes. Since I train in Waco, maybe I’ll jump in on a meet at UT or [Texas] A&M or at a small college.
Then there’s meets that you get invited to. The meet director has heard of you and knows you’re good and wants you at that meet. I’ll get an email or phone call: ‘We’ll book your flight, pay your hotel and food. Can you make this meet?’ Usually you say yes.
The biggest level meets are the ones my agent gets me into. My agent, she books the international ones, the really big ones. She’s the one who talks to the meet directors. She’ll book my flight and hotel and make sure my poles get on the plane.
It’s also based off how my body is feeling. If I’m starting to feel fatigued, I may stay home and rest.
WACOAN: When did you get an agent?
Rhodes-Johnigan: I signed with her this past year, in January. My whole first year out of college, as a pro, I didn’t have an agent, and I just did all the work of emailing directors, trying to get myself into meets. Your agent does do a lot, but if you jump high, it’s a lot easier to get yourself into meets.
My first year I got myself into meets, but they were smaller-level meets. This year, 2019, I signed with Karen Locke. She’s great. She’s one of the top agents for sure. She pursued me and asked me to join their agency [Elite Athletes Network].
WACOAN: Next summer is the Olympics. What’s the process for you between now and then?
Rhodes-Johnigan: The U.S. has the [U.S. Olympic Team Trials]. Those are in June of next year, in Eugene, Oregon. There will be a standard you will have to hit, probably around 14 feet, 9 inches, just to go to trials. I’ve cleared that a lot this year, so it should be no problem to get to trials. It will be the top 24 girls in the nations at trials.
All 24 girls compete on one day, for the prelims, then the top 12 go to finals. At the finals, the top three girls make the Olympic team. It doesn’t matter what you do the whole season of 2020; it only matters what you do that day at the trials. That’s the way a lot of the big championships work for track and field. A lot of athletes are used to that system.
WACOAN: That sounds like incredible pressure. Which reminds me of a quote from you in 2017 at the Big 12 outdoor championships. You said, ‘Pole vault is such a mind game. Your mind is your biggest enemy.’ Is that something you still believe?
Rhodes-Johnigan: It’s so funny you asked that question. My coach says pole vault is 90% mental and only 10% physical. It’s hard to describe to people who don’t do it.
Imagine holding a 15-foot pole on a windy day, and you’re running toward this small box at the end of the runway, and the pole’s gonna bend and jolt you into the air, 14 or 15 feet high. You can think, ‘Oh man! I could get hurt! Or what if something goes wrong?’
There’s this confidence aspect, this mental aspect that a lot of vaulters struggle with. Some vaulters go through a mental block because they’re so in their head about the details of it. Pole vault is so technical. When you take off the ground, you’re trying to hit a certain mark every time, so you start on the runway at a certain mark, you’re holding the pole at a certain spot. So many details could go wrong. Sometimes it could just be scary, what you’re doing with your body. Or the wind making you feel out of control, in the outdoor season.
It’s confidence in yourself. Any time you’re put in a new scenario, on a new pole, at a new track, all those what-ifs start in your head.
My coach helps with mental toughness. At a meet you’ve got to be in the right frame of mind or you wouldn’t be able to compete at that high a level. It is definitely a mental game.
WACOAN: How does he help develop your mental toughness?
Rhodes-Johnigan: He’s one of the most encouraging people ever. He’s verbally telling me affirmations, simple things like, ‘You can do this. You’ve done it before.’ Even if I’ve never done it, he’ll say, ‘This is what you’ve practiced for.’
He’s good about, in practice, putting us in different scenarios to get us out of our comfort zone. So if something happens at a meet, we’re ready for it because we’ve practiced for it. At our club we have a pit inside and one outside. So sometimes outside there’s a headwind, which is not good, but sometimes he’ll make us do [a vault in a headwind] in practice anyway to be able to make mistakes and feel what it feels like to be uncomfortable. So in a meet we won’t be so unfamiliar with it, so we don’t get mental about it and don’t have as good a meet as we could have if we were prepared. I really feel strong mentally because of him when I get to meets.
WACOAN: I found a quote about the psychology of pole vaulters that I’d like to run by you. It’s in an article about pole vaulting from 2015 from Vice News, and it says, ‘The pole vault is a singular and uniquely dangerous sport. The people who do it anyway aren’t in it for money. They’re in it to fly, and because they’re a little crazy.’
Rhodes-Johnigan: Agreed, 100%. Any pole vaulter finally has this one jump that clicks. When you’re starting out [you’re] all over the place. Then you have this one day where it really clicks and you fly a little bit more. It’s that moment that captures you and gives you the pole vault bug. You have to do it better and more and more often. It’s a thrilling event.
You have to be daring and fearless and maybe a little bit crazy to do it. You’re literally running with a pole to jab it into the ground and fling yourself over the bar. It’s so random, but it’s so addicting. I love that feeling of flying, falling, being up in the air and being flung off the pole.
When you PR, that rush is what fuels you to do that again.
Rhodes-Johnigan: Personal record, when you set a new personal record. Like I did in April.
WACOAN: Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
Rhodes-Johnigan: My faith. I’m a Christian. In the sports world it’s so easy to get caught up in medals and titles and money and status, social media appearances. In the end those things are so temporary. Most people couldn’t tell me who the Olympic champion was in the pole vault in 2016 or 2012.
I pole vault and try to live my life in such a way that people see the love of Jesus through me, somehow, through this sport. I’m vaulting for something bigger than myself. I hope that when I practice and compete other people see the joy of the Lord in me because that’s the No. 1 reason why I’m doing this. I so want other people to know Jesus the way that I do and have more purpose besides just myself or just fame because those things are so fleeting. That’s what’s most important to me.
Five Things Annie Can’t Live Without
1. Bible. That’s where I find my hope and my purpose, so that’s a daily thing for me.
2. Tennis shoes. All over my car, all over my closet, all over the house.
3. Foam roller. One in my car, one in my track bag and one in the house. I do it before and after every practice.
4. Three certain water bottles. In my car, in my track bag, by my night stand.
5. Face wipes. For after every workout.