National record holder reaching for podium at Commonwealth Games
There may be nothing natural about launching yourself several metres into the air on a fibreglass rod, but Canadian pole vault star Alysha Newman makes it look easy.
The 23-year-old former gymnast from London, Ont., broke a meet record in her very first attempt at the sport at age 15, and since then has been climbing to unprecedented levels on the national stage.
A 2016 Olympian, Newman holds the Canadian women’s pole vault record, which she first set in 2016 and has reset twice since — most recently last summer when she cleared an impressive 4.75 metres. She also owns every national under-20 and under-18 mark.
Still considered a youngster in her sport, the University of Miami alumna believes she has barely scratched the surface of her potential. She has her mind set on going where no woman in the country has gone before — the top of the international pole vault stage.
“I’ve always looked up to elite Canadian vaulters of the past, but I want to put the nation on the map for being number one,” says Newman. “I don’t just want to be an Olympian. From the beginning of my career I’ve taken it on myself to break every single age group record. I keep pushing the height to as high as I can so that it’s not just an amazing accomplishment for Canada but also for the world.”
A contender for the top of the podium at the Commonwealth Games in Australia, where she’ll compete on Thursday, Newman has already had her taste of victory on that stage. She won bronze at the 2014 event in Glasgow.
Known for her strong technical skills and fun, charismatic style on the pole vault runway, Newman is used to turning heads when she competes. When things are going well, her enthusiasm is on full display, but she says it’s nothing contrived, just her riding on the adrenaline of the moment.
“When I did the backflip after jumping the Canadian record at 4.75, it kind of just happened,” she says. “I’m not one to overdo things and make a huge scene, but to know that you broke through in something you’ve been working so hard at for months is special. I cried for a while. I tried to jump again but I just couldn’t. I was just so overwhelmed.”
Now training in Toronto year-round, the Miami school record holder often hangs out after practice to give encouragement and pointers to younger athletes, mostly girls, who look up to her.
Working under the coaching leadership of Canadian Olympian Doug Wood and legendary pole vault coach Zdenek Krykorka for roughly the past five years, Newman says as a team they really gel.
“I have the best of both worlds,” she says. “Doug is really good emotionally. He’s the one that went through it as an athlete himself and knows what I’m going through. Zek is the technician. He can close his eyes and hear my footsteps on the runway and know exactly what’s going on or going wrong. The past few years have been amazing for me and for them because what we’re doing is working.”
Newman doesn’t shy away from admitting she dreams of one day surpassing Russian Yelena Isinbayeva’s 5.06 world record. According to her coaches, that exclusive five-metre territory is well within her capabilities.
“I’ve never met an athlete who responds as well to things as she does,” says Wood, who represented Canada in pole vault at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. “She’s so aware. I kind of [compare] it to a hockey player feeling like they’re on the ice and everyone else is moving in slow motion. She’s doing everything right to put down a good result. I mean a really good result.”
Newman says at times she’s progressed faster than even she expected. Her consistent 10- to 15-centimetre annual improvement puts her on pace for a big jump in time for the 2020 Olympics or the world championships in 2021.
“I think it’s going to be one of those things where I get a nice tail wind, the bar goes up, I take off and it ends up being really easy,” said Newman. “That’s kind of how my 4.75 was. I think we put more stress on it than it actually needs. I’m just slowly progressing every year.”
After having a breakthrough year vaulting 4.60 or more over 10 times in 2017, Newman has maxed out on her poles and is transitioning to longer ones in order to reach greater heights. Normally there is a dip in performance during the time of an athlete’s adjustment to the new length, but so far Newman continues to execute.
“I’m not really having a dip year yet,” says Newman, who vaulted a 4.70 at the world indoor championships in March. “I’ve been transitioning so well to these new poles, so maybe you don’t have to have a down year for it to happen.”