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Demi Payne photo by PhotoRun.net

Emerging Vault Star Demi Payne Senses Breakthrough

There's an old expression that proclaims, "Babies bring their love with them." Sometimes those babies also bring inspiration as well. Just ask 24 year old pole vault star Demi Payne - the reigning USATF indoor national champion, NCAA outdoor champion, and mother of a 2 year old daughter, Charlee. "You know, it's crazy" declares Payne, whose daughter's arrival interrupted her education and budding vaulting career at the University of Kansas. But Charlee's birth also caused her mother to focus and reorder her priorities. "I think when you become a mom, it's like everything kind of changes. And nothing is about you anymore. And I wake up and I look at her every day and I want to somehow better myself."

All athletes are aided by inspiration, but natural athletic ability and raw talent are also essential for success. And Payne has plenty of those ingredients as well. "I'm really not a technical jumper. I'm a power jumper," explains Payne, who attacks the runway with a zestful Bartoletta-like aggressiveness. "So I need my speed and I use that to my advantage."

And that she did in 2015 - a breakout year for the young vaulter. In a year when Payne improved her indoor PR 1'7¾" to 4.75m and her outdoor best 1'4½" to 4.71m, the young vaulter captured the indoor USATF vault crown and was victorious at the NCAA outdoor championships. And her 3rd place finish at the USATF outdoor gathering secured her a berth on the world championship team which led to valuable international experience in Beijing. As the curtain came down on 2015, Track & Field News listed Payne as #3 on its annual ranking of U.S. women pole vaulters.

But her story to date really begins when she arrived in Lawrence, Kansas to begin her collegiate career at the University of Kansas. "I had a full ride to KU and I was super excited. KU is an awesome school. And the coach there - Tom Hays - he's an incredible coach. I was OK in high school, but I think what coaches saw in me was potential. And the coach at KU saw that potential in me." Payne's progression continued, but something just wasn't quite right. "I don't think it was quite what I needed. I don't know," admits the young vaulter.

After 2½ years at KU, Payne decided to make a change - stimulated in large measure by her pregnancy with Charlee. The expectant mother returned to her native Texas and - with an NCAA-granted leave - she had an entire year to adjust to her new and busy life. "Actually they [the NCAA] gave me a year to take off that wouldn't affect my eligibility or anything."

When Charlee arrived in October of 2013, Demi treated this turn of events as a 'do over' - a new lease on life and a fresh start. "It actually took having my little girl to kind of get my priorities straight," Payne confesses. "Up at KU I was into track, but I just kind of did it because I liked to do it. It wasn't like I wanted to do something with it. So it really took finding out as a mom to really like find out what I wanted to do with my life," she explains. "After I took my medical redshirt, I had a full year to take off and just basically be a mom and work out. I kind of wanted to be closer to home so Charlee could be near her grandparents and stuff like that."

Additional stability arrived when Charlee's father Thomas Taylor moved to Texas to join Demi and the young one after a stint in the Los Angeles Dodgers system.. "We're engaged. He's living with me in Nacogdoches. He is so awesome," Payne declares excitedly. "He's really like the main reason why I can even do everything that I'm doing."

Now enrolled and competing at Stephen F. Austin State University since the fall of 2014, Payne notes that her unplanned sabbatical triggered other helpful developments. "After leaving Kansas and coming to Jeff Erickson, my new coach, he really did work on my speed and my running mechanics - especially my plant. That was the main thing." Erickson - a longtime family friend - has been instrumental in igniting Payne's progression spurt. "Jeff's dad - Carl Erickson - coached my dad [former world class vaulter Billy Payne]. So it's kind of pretty cool - it's like a generation thing. Jeff watched me when I was a little baby when my dad was overseas jumping. We have a really good relationship. And it just worked out perfectly."

With the major pieces of life's puzzle in place for Payne, The New Braunfels, Texas native believes she can take her vault game to the next level. "Obviously the main thing was to get my speed up, get my power up, and get stronger. And now that that's there, I can really focus on the technical aspects of my jump," offers the reigning indoor national champion. "It is crazy because I know it's so early, but my jump already looks so much better. So I'm really, really excited to see what happens when I get back my longer run and get on bigger poles. Really the bigger poles are going to be the key for me." Her recent practice sessions with Erickson suggest to Payne that a big jump is brewing inside of her, just bursting to come out. "I'm actually on smaller poles right now. And I'm jumping the same height I was jumping when I was on my bigger poles. I think it is just a matter of time. It's pretty neat to say that because it is so early. But my jump has just gotten so much better - even from last year."

Another fortuitous development was the timing of Payne's remaining NCAA eligibility. With only one outdoor season of eligibility remaining, Payne - unlike nearly all other elite collegiate athletes - faces no conflict in competing in the USATF indoor nationals. That Portland gathering - which is the qualifying meet for the World Indoor Championships to be held in same facility the following week - is the same weekend as the NCAA indoor championships. "It worked out perfectly," notes the 6-foot Payne with a smile.

Demi Payne is off to a very solid start in 2016. Her 4.71m/15'5½ clearance at Akron's Pole Vault Convention currently places her tied for 2nd [with Greece's Ekaterini Stefanidi] on this year's world list behind only the reigning Olympic champion Jenn Suhr. With a winter build-up that may include a Millrose appearance, Payne hopes to unlock a magnificent PR clearance this indoor season. She is particularly anticipating a return to Albuquerque and its cozy facility at altitude which has long been a favorite venue for vaulters. "That's where I PR'd. I'm pretty pumped to get back there," Payne exclaims. "I'm definitely going to be gunning for Jenn's world record [5.03m/16'6"]. I'm not going to lie." Whoa, do you think a WR indoor clearance is possible this winter? "Yeah, I really do. I set my goals really high. And I think after last year, maybe I didn't really set them high enough," states the young vaulter matter-of-factly. "I see what I do in practice and I have such an amazing support system from my coaches and they are constantly feeding me such positive things. Really, there is not a doubt in my mind that it's going to happen. It's just a matter of when it is going to happen."

The ever-powerful instincts of motherhood continue to draw the young vaulter's attention back to young Charlee and Payne's awakened quest to be the best she can be. "And it doesn't always have to be pole vaulting," explains the high flying Texan. "It really is with every aspect of my entire life. I want to make better grades. I want to just better myself completely for her. The main thing is I want her to know - when she grows up and can understand a little bit more - that I was faced with a lot of adversity. And it was really hard for me. I want her to see that you can do anything. And it doesn't matter what life kind of throws at you. Anything is kind of possible." And after a momentary pause, Demi Payne adds, "That is really what I want from all of this."

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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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