Washington pole vaulter Olivia Gruver named nation’s premier field athlete — and, eventually, the Olympics are next

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SEATTLE — One piece of the following sentence is peculiar:

On Wednesday, Washington senior pole vaulter Olivia Gruver was named National Women’s Field Athlete of the Year by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.

Read it again if you have to. Really pick apart the premise. Feel free to phone a friend.

Now, can you guess what’s amiss?

It isn’t the fact that Gruver — a standout senior from Reisterstown, Md. — was honored with the award, despite the fact that no other Husky has ever won it. After all, Gruver set the collegiate outdoor pole-vaulting record at the Stanford Invitational last spring — registering a height of 15-feet, 6.25-inches (or 4.73 meters). It broke the UW women’s school record by more than a foot, and the Pac-12 record by more than five inches.

In this albeit abbreviated indoor season, Gruver also recorded the NCAA’s second-best all-time indoor clearance (15 feet, 5 inches) and broke the Dempsey Indoor facility record (15 feet, 3.5 inches) as well. In a sparkling college career at both Kentucky (2016-18) and Washington (2019-20), she was a two-time NCAA champion and six-time All-American.

So, yes: Gruver is very good. That has certainly been established.

But, to solve the riddle, it’s peculiar that she was awarded a season-ending honor on March 25.

Strange, but understandable. These are unprecedented and peculiar times.

“I had kind of shut myself out of the track world at the moment, because of what’s happening (in the world),” Gruver said in a phone interview from her apartment in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood on Thursday. “I was kind of just in a shock. But then I opened up my phone and I see that (I won this award) and it kind of brings me back in.

“I’m like, ‘Wow, this sport means so much to me.’ It just means a lot to be thought of and be recognized that I am one of the best.”

Gruver proved that over four-plus prolific seasons on both sides of the country.

But she can’t continue to prove it in Seattle — and that, she says, continues to sting.

“It just feels like a lack of closure, for my collegiate career,” said Gruver, who graduated last winter. “I wanted to go out and win the national championship title. I wanted to break the (indoor) collegiate record. But I’ll never have the chance to do that. So it was a very sad time for me.

“But my coach (Toby Stevenson) and I, we talked a lot, and it’s one of those things where he said, ‘You’re not done yet. You still have a professional career. You’re going to do better things.’”

Sure, but when? For now, the answer is undetermined. Gruver was training to compete at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Now, in the continued wake of COVID-19, that event has been postponed.

“It was still heartbreaking to see that,” she said, “when you’ve practiced and you’ve worked so hard for four years leading up to this and then it gets pushed back another year. But I take it as a positive. I have an extra year to get better and try to be top three at the Olympic Trials and then hopefully do very well at the Olympics.

“So I’m taking it as a positive, that I get more time and that I can just better myself.”

Suddenly, Gruver has a seemingly endless supply of time — and precious few ways in which to train. Until recently, she was continuing to use the pole vault at nearby Ballard High School. But now, after the state of Washington’s stay-at-home order, that’s no longer a viable option. She says she still runs often and cycles through body-weight drills — squats, burpees, lunges, “anything to get your heart rate up” — from inside her apartment.

She says “it’s just weird at the moment, but we’re making it work.”

And, despite the abrupt end to her college career, she doesn’t regret the road that led her west.

“My time at Washington has been amazing,” said Gruver, who added that before transferring to UW, she hadn’t visited the state since she was 4 years old. “I was talking to Maurica Powell, the head coach, this morning. She was just congratulating me about the award, and I was like, ‘These were some of the best years of my life, just coming into an atmosphere where I was so welcomed and I felt heard.’

“They were just so caring. They cared about what I thought. They wanted all my opinions on things. It was just very welcoming and nice to feel that you were important. And with my teammates, they were so welcoming as well. We were all together all the time. It was just a fun team to be with.”

And, despite these peculiar times, Gruver isn’t going anywhere. She says her plan is to train for the Olympics in Seattle while remaining at UW as a volunteer coach.

“It was kind of just a shock to my system moving all the way out here,” she said, “but I knew it was something I had to do for my training, and I’m so happy that I did it.”


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