On the right track: Olympic hopeful Cole Walsh keeping focus during COVID-19 era

Cole Walsh said when competing in the pole vault, “All the pressure is only on you. You’re not looking to anyone else to rely on.” (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Cole Walsh stood on the runway, gazing at a large mat 100 feet away.

The Arizona heat blistered the high school freshman as he prepared for his first-ever vault. With a pole held next to his hips, Walsh’s feet started shuffling.

The approach began.

Sprinting closer and closer to the mat, Walsh lowered the pole, aimed, planted and sprung into the air.

But not very high.

“I got no air,” Walsh said. “It wasn’t scary at all.”

Walsh had no idea how he would build on this dismal first jump. Fast forward nearly a decade and he’s a mogul in the track-and-field community, currently ranked sixth in the men’s pole vault world rankings.

He has traveled the world with his pole and cleats, competing in exotic locales such as Norway, Switzerland, Qatar and Des Moines. Walsh was hoping his next stop would be the U.S. Olympic Trials in Oregon, followed by the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

But the state of the world’s health put those dreams on hold.

Long before this rise, however, Walsh was a student at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix. He joined the school’s track and field team as a freshman after being intrigued by the sport thanks to his background in gymnastics, a sport that requires a similar skill set.

But his innate agility and grace didn’t do much to ease the transition. Walsh initially struggled to find his pole vaulting groove.

“I sucked,” Walsh, 24, told Cronkite News. “I really started at a low level. I was only jumping like 9 feet, 2 inches in my first year.”

Vying to sharpen his newfound craft, Walsh turned to an authority in the pole vault community: 2000 Olympic gold Medalist Nick Hysong. A Valley resident and former Arizona State athlete, Hysong runs a fully equipped private vault facility, Risen Performance, in his backyard.

Without hesitation, Walsh began intense training with the former Olympian.

“In high school, we were training pretty hard,” Walsh said. “We would have long days of practice where we would jump and then we would have full pole vaulting practice, then we would run over to the local high school to do a running workout. Then we would come back and lift weights.

“We would have long practices, and Nick was not afraid to make us work hard as young athletes.”

Learning from such a distinguished athlete helped Walsh understand some of the sport’s semantics early on.

“People think that there’s a gray area to the pole vault, but it can be very black and white, and he made a very good point of that from a young age,” Walsh said. “I always had him as a standard to look up to.”

As his high school career progressed, Walsh began to reach new heights – literally.

As a senior at Brophy, he earned five first-place finishes and placed second in the AIA Outdoor State Championships. His numbers improved every year, with Walsh’s personal best reaching 16 feet, 9 inches.

Walsh had high hopes of taking part in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo but will have to wait with the Games delayed. ((Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images for IAAF)

Walsh attributes much of his development to those grueling days of training with Hysong. He wouldn’t trade them for anything.

“I was lucky to, from a young age, have a great coach,” Walsh said. “I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve had success.”

But Hysong wasn’t Walsh’s only support system. With most of his family residing in the Phoenix area, Walsh had the encouragement of his loved ones at almost every meet.

This added to Walsh’s enjoyment of the sport early into his career.

“I love that my family wants to see me express myself,” Walsh said. “From a young age, our family has come out to support all of the children’s performances. It makes pole vaulting way more fun.”

Away from home

After graduating from Brophy, Walsh earned a scholarship to compete for the University of Oregon. While in Eugene, he built his resume.

As a senior in 2017, Walsh finished second in the Pac-12 Championships and fifth in the NCAA Championships. His career best came the same season, when he jumped 18 feet, 0.5 inches at the Mt. SAC Relays.

This second stage of progression, however, came more than 1,000 miles from the Phoenix area. Because he was based in the Pacific Northwest, Walsh didn’t have as much face-to-face interaction with his family or Hysong.

This put him in touch with the sport’s solitary nature. Like most track and field events, pole vault is a sport where the athletes don’t have traditional teammates and everyone else in the field is a competitor. With his loved ones mostly in Arizona, the remoteness was acute.

But this didn’t bother Walsh.

Related story

While he appreciates his various supporters, one of Walsh’s favorite aspects of pole vaulting is its lonesome essence.

“In pole vault, it’s really you against the bar and you against the standard,” Walsh said. “I try not to worry too much about my competitors. I try to jump a little bit higher every time I go to a meet.

“All the pressure is only on you. You’re not looking to anyone else to rely on. I enjoy the aspect of track and field in that it’s all on you.”

For the rest of the family, Walsh’s excellence proved how dominant he is at his craft – even if his relatives aren’t always on hand to watch.

“Cole’s amazing career and increasing personal record shows his family presence is not a factor,” said RosaLee Walsh, Cole’s grandmother. “Cole knows we are rooting for him at home and keep in contact through the internet.”

Halted momentum

Since college, Walsh has moved back to Phoenix and continued his breakthrough. In particular, 2019 was a year of growth.

Walsh won five events that season and placed 10th at the IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar. With a jump of 19 feet, 0.13 inches, Walsh set his new personal best in August 2019, tying for third place at the Zurich Diamond League meet in Switzerland.

With his recent success and the 2020 Olympics on the horizon, all signs pointed to Walsh appearing in his first Games soon.

Then COVID-19 happened. Because of the pandemic, the IOC and Tokyo organizers rescheduled the Summer Olympics for July 23 to August 8, 2021.

“It was quite a bummer,” Walsh said.

Walsh took up the pole vault when he was a student at Brophy College Preparatory after competing in gymnastics. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

With the Games postponed, along with every other sporting league in the world, the everyday life of athletes everywhere had to change. Walsh was preparing for the heat of the 2020 track season and qualifying events for Tokyo, including the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, which were slated to take place in Eugene, Cole’s old stomping grounds. They have been rescheduled for June 2021.

Luckily for Walsh, his training facility is at a private property in the Valley, so he can continue working while being socially distant.

“I’m lucky in the sense that I can go and train by myself, safely, in his backyard, obviously because it’s a private facility and it’s not going to be closed,” Walsh said of his coach’s facilities. “I’m lucky to have a place to train and jump while I’m going through this. I haven’t lost any training in a time like this.”

In addition to the canceled events, there’s another roadblock for athletes trying to stay in shape: diet.

With restaurants closed and grocery stores carrying limited supplies, it can be hard for people to find everything they need. And with more lag time due to stay-at-home orders, there’s temptation to make extra trips to the pantry.

For the most part, that’s not a problem for Walsh.

“My diet hasn’t changed too much,” Walsh said. “I’m lucky to have a nice, charcoal grill at home. We’ve been making mesquite-grilled steaks, chicken.”

But he has enjoyed one guilty-pleasure snack during quarantine.

“My girlfriend has been bringing over baked cookies because her family is sitting at home, bored, baking cookies,” Walsh said. “That’s probably the worst thing I’m eating.”

The change away from the runway has been the most difficult adjustment. From businesses being closed to not being able to visit his closest friends and family, Walsh is in nearly complete isolation.

Not even a decade of competing in a solitary sport has prepared him for this.

“I don’t know if anybody’s ready for such a change,” Walsh said. “And I don’t feel like I am. Maybe pole vaulting has, but I haven’t realized it yet, if so.”

To make things easier, Walsh has frequently kept in touch with his family members. Although he isn’t able to visit them during quarantine, communicating with his relatives helps him stay positive.

“We are connected through the internet and phone calls,” RosaLee Walsh said. “I think Cole appreciates that family is watching his career closely through the internet and he is pleased knowing family is behind him every step of the way.”

As the new year dawned, Walsh expected to make his Olympic debut in 2020.

That won’t happen.

With all of the hardships that come with quarantine and avoiding the coronavirus, it would be easy for Walsh to lose hope. All competitions have been placed on the back burner for the time being, halting Walsh’s preceding momentum.

But Walsh doesn’t have any plans of easing his workload.

In fact, this hiatus from competition could actually put him in a better position for the Olympic Games in 2021.

“Now that our season has been pushed back, we’ve been able to start training a lot more and a lot heavier in that I’m sprinting more, lifting a lot more weights,” Walsh said. “We’re able to really increase the load.

“Maybe by 2021, I’m more prepared.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix