DURHAM, N.C. – When Jillian Schwartz jumped into the world of professional pole vaulting following her 2001 graduation from Duke, the reigning queen of the sport was Olympic gold medalist Stacy Dragila, a nine-time USA outdoors champion and world record-holder.
When injury felled Dragila two years ago, former NAIA women’s basketball player Jenn Stuczynski ascended to the throne with back-to-back USA outdoor titles and the setting of a new American record.
There was no turn at the top for Schwartz during the transition from one superstar to the next, but the former Blue Devil has maintained a remarkable level of consistent excellence as the No. 2 pole vaulter in the country for most of the past six years.
In fact, at the last five outdoor national championship meets — all won by either Dragila or Stuczynski — Schwartz has been the runnerup three times and the third-place finisher twice. The most significant of those performances came in 2004, when Schwartz’s second-place finish to Dragila earned her a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for Athens.
Schwartz hopes her habit of placing among the top three at national meets continues in a couple of weeks when the best track and field athletes in the country gather in Eugene, Ore., for the Olympic Trials. Schwartz intends to retire from competition later this summer and would like to mark the end of her pro career with a return trip to the Olympics — a reality if she’s in the top three at Eugene.
To maximize her chances, Schwartz plans no major changes to a formula that has always worked for her. One of the secrets to her longstanding success has been to treat every meet exactly the same.
“I definitely think I have a really good shot at making the team, but I always feel like I have to go into these things thinking of it as just another meet,” Schwartz said. “I feel like if you go to the Olympic Trials and you change what you normally do for any other meet, then it can get you out of whack, maybe hurt your confidence a little bit. So I go into these meets treating them the same as any other meet.
“The fact that it is an Olympic year doesn’t really change anything for us. It changes for people watching the sport. They don’t realize that every year is pretty much the same for us. The Olympics is a little bit bigger because in the general public’s eyes, that’s all they know about track and field. But I don’t change my training for the Olympics. Every year it’s the same — you go to nationals, and this year that’s the same as Olympic Trials, while most other years you’re trying to make the world championship team. That’s probably not quite as big as the Olympics but it’s pretty close. It’s just not publicized quite as much here in the States.”
Schwartz competed in her first Olympic Trials in 2000 following her junior year at Duke — her first breakthrough campaign when she won the ACC title and took third place in the NCAA meet, which was held at Wallace Wade Stadium. She didn’t clear a height at those Trials, but she’s been going over the bar with regular improvement ever since.
As a senior she won the ACC indoors and outdoors and took second at the NCAAs, then signed with Nike and launched her pro career. During her first full year she was the USA indoors runnerup (2002) and since 2003 she’s never finished lower than third at the USA outdoor nationals.
Schwartz set a new Duke record of 13 feet, 9.25 inches in her last NCAA meet and it still stands at the top of the school charts. But she certainly did not stand still, going over 14 feet in her first year as a pro and clearing 15 feet for the first time in 2004, one of her best seasons. Along with the trip to Athens, where she placed 11th in the semifinals, she took fourth place at the ’04 world indoors.
Schwartz established a new personal best in 2006 when she jumped 4.61 meters several times (the equivalent of 15 feet, 1.5 inches). She has increased her all-time best twice this year already, during the indoor season, with jumps of 4.63 meters at the Millrose Games in New York and 4.64 (15-2.5) at the Tyson Invitational in Arkansas.
The indoor season was a strong one for her, with victories at Millrose, the National Pole Vault Summit in Reno, and the Run for the Dream meet in Fresno, along with a runnerup at the USA national indoors. The Millrose triumph was especially noteworthy because the event was billed as a meeting of Stuczynski vs. Dragila. But Dragila, still plagued by an Achilles problem, was the first vaulter eliminated and Schwartz upset Stuczynski for her first-ever Millrose title.
Schwartz’s outdoor season has been a little lighter than usual because she opted not to take her customary spring trip overseas to compete in Europe, but she feels ready to reach a peak at the Trials.
The pole vault competition will open with prelims on July 3 and conclude with finals on July 6.
Schwartz, who turns 29 in September, has been living in Jonesboro, Ark., throughout her career, training under coach Earl Bell. Her usual training partner has been Jeff Hartwig, a 40-year-old multiple USA champion and the American outdoor record holder until last week. She’s made her living on a base salary from Nike, performance bonuses, appearance fees and prize money. She says she had no idea her career would last this long when she was just starting out.
“I came out of college and thought I’d do it for a year and see what happens,” she said, “and then all of a sudden it’s seven years later and I can’t believe I’m still in Arkansas and still training and still going. I definitely did not expect that at all.
“It’s so much fun. We get to travel around and see so many different places, so many experiences. I have friends all over the world now. It’s a great lifestyle. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Schwartz’s lifestyle will change in the fall, however, when she hangs up her spikes and marries another former Duke pole vaulter, Seth Benson. The two were on the Duke track team together, with Benson setting the men’s school record at the same time Schwartz was dominating the women’s scene. Benson graduates from business school at Northwestern this week. The couple will move to New York, where Benson will begin work as an investment banker.
Schwartz hopes to bank a second Olympic appearance by then.
“I would definitely look forward to that,” she said. “It was definitely a different experience in 2004 in that I went to the opening ceremonies and it was awesome. Just the scale of the Olympics is so much bigger than any other meet. Our world championships are pretty big too, and generally run the same way, with the difference being when we have world championships, it’s just track and field. The Olympics is every sport, so it was just so much bigger.”
But Schwartz won’t be thinking about that as she tries to get there. When she hits the runway for the Trials, it’s all about maintaining the same consistent approach as always.
“You go in and try to do what you do in practice,” she said. “You try to make each bar. You’re not going out there necessarily trying to PR (set a personal record). The point is to finish in the top three. If you jump higher than you ever have before, that’s great. But there’s more of a focus on finishing in the top three.”