By Carley Crain
Junior Emily Racana had her eyes set on beating that pole vault mark since she first stepped foot on Alden Street. After her first opportunity at an outdoor track season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she was hyper-focused on breaking the school record during her sophomore year.
Although the process to get there wasn’t always easy — in fact, she battled a COVID-19 diagnosis herself right before the start of sophomore outdoor training.
Pole vault is one of the hardest events in track and field. It requires a great amount of both physical and mental strength as it forces athletes to go against what their body is naturally trained to do.
Racana is a Rotterdam, New York native and is studying physical therapy at Springfield College. Growing up, Racana excelled in the sport of gymnastics and never even thought about track and field until late in middle school.
Translating her skills from gymnastics to pole vault started out as a difficult process, but she quickly learned the focus on technique and strength work in gymnastics was helpful when changing her main sport to track and field. Gymnastics work is still a large part of her training and has helped her both physically and mentally when pole vaulting.
“I think the drive and focus that pole vault needs where you have to stay on task and realize what you are doing the whole time was really important to me, even the technical stuff translates really well so I think having a background in gymnastics helped me build on what pole vault is all about,” explained Racana.
“Gymnastics and pole vault connect well together because it takes a lot of strength to be able to pole vault — a lot of flexibility and body awareness which for gymnasts is easy,” said Springfield assistant track and field coach Brendan Wilkins. ”A lot of gymnasts to don’t really have a lot of fear when it comes to being upside down which can be a huge mental barrier when it comes to pole vaulting.”
Racana made the tough decision to leave competitive gymnastics and go all-in with track and field in 7th grade. She had mixed feelings of nervousness and confidence but knew this was the right decision for her.
Growing up in upstate New York exposed Racana to one of the most competitive high school track and field regions in the entire country, which helped her enter a smooth transition into collegiate athletics. This experience also shaped her into a confident, driven, and highly motivated individual, which has been a key part of her track and field identity at Springfield College.
“What I definitely appreciate is the attitude and mindset she brings to practice and training every day, ” said Wilkins. “ She does not really let setbacks interfere with what she is doing, as she is very determined and focused. Emily keeps track and field at a high priority and wants to succeed in it. This year especially she blossomed more into a leader within the team.”
At her very last meet in high school, Racana jumped just below Springfield’s school record, and during the recruiting process Coach Wilkins was confident in her abilities to break 3.39 meters. However, he knew the record would come in time, and did not put too much pressure on Racana when coming in as a freshman, as the transition to college is oftentimes difficult.
“When I think someone has the potential to hit a high standard or break a record I tend to not talk to them too much about it. So I think it was both something that we acknowledged without saying, especially someone coming in as a first-year. I did not want to put pressure on them that this is something they have to do and if they don’t, it wasn’t a successful year,” said Wilkins.
After students got sent home in March during her first year, Racana was forced to come up with creative ways to help keep her in shape since she had no access to mats, along with the fact that most gyms in New York were shut down. While this change did affect her training, Racana was able to work on other features of pole vault, such as drills and speed, as well as attending weekly meetups with a few of her teammates who lived nearby. Additionally, Wilkins developed new training techniques to help keep her on track for the upcoming school year.
After her freshman year was torn apart, Racana was ready to get back to work with her teammates and coaches — with the main focus being on breaking 3.39 meters, since she was on track to break the record during her first year at Springfield before COVID came along. Right before heading back to school in the spring during her sophomore year, Racana and her family tested positive for COVID-19, and her training was yet again forced to a halt.
Since her family members all tested positive at different times, she was in quarantine for almost a month, and for the most part, was unable to train. Luckily she did not battle any severe symptoms, as she only dealt with a mild cold. While this was definitely upsetting, Racana maintained a positive mindset and focused on the bigger picture — 3.39 meters.
“Even coming back this year I think I was just in a mindset of being really focused, not only to break the school record but just to do better for myself,” said Racana.
Once Racana completed the return of play protocol, which is a week-long training program that eases student-athletes back into regular athletic activities, she soon found her groove again and worked closely with Coach Wilkins on improving her overall technique and jumping abilities. She was able to train with bigger poles this past season, which at first was an adjustment, but ultimately helped propel her higher in height.
Despite the Pride’s shortened outdoor season this year, she was able to progress smoothly over the regular season and finished 2nd overall at the NEWMAC championship. The weekend after, a dual-meet vs Bridgewater State, was where she was finally able to jump over 3.39 meters and break the record she had been seeking for so long, despite being her only competitor that day.
“It was such a big moment for the both of us, ” said Wilkins. “We both have been working on it for so long, and I’ve always had the confidence she would do it.”
Racana’s name is now permanently a part of the record books at Springfield College, and with still two years left on Alden Street, her eyes are now set on breaking the indoor pole vault school record.
Photo: Springfield College Athletics