Minutes before the National Anthem rings through Greenville High School’s Gymnasium, Sandi Morris exchanges teen-bright smiles with star-struck girls. Tonight, the Red Raiders boys basketball team faces archrival the Wade Hampton Patriots, while the super-photogenic Morris, whose shoulder-length blonde hair inspired her name, signs glossy color posters of herself. She adds little sharpie hearts to each autograph, a keepsake from a role model returning home with an Olympic medal.
Barely four months have passed since the 24-year-old pole vaulter catapulted from the Games of the XXXI Olympiad into her hometown’s history. “Think how many little kids say, ‘I want to go to the Olympics,’” Morris’s father, Harry, says. “That dream became real, and not many people can say that, and she sure worked hard for it.”
Let’s rewind the tape to Rio de Janeiro: Around 11 o’clock on the Friday evening of August 19, Morris stands less than 100 feet away from an athlete’s grandest prize. Her dad and mother, Kerry, along with sisters, Crissy, 30, and Jami, 28, sit among the stadium’s 60,000 seats.
Morris has the last women’s jump of the night. Wearing neon yellow socks with bright pink streaks, the steel-built Morris grips a fiberglass pole nearly two-thirds longer than her 5-foot-8 frame.
Her face chiseled in intense determination, she launches into a 15-stride super-sprint.
The 138-pound flier writhes over the crossbar. Watching in slow motion, it’s almost impossible to determine what just happened. NBC Sports said her knee grazed the hypersensitive bar, but it looks as if her chest, or maybe her pinky, might have just brushed away gold.
A childhood’s worth of dreams flashed by in eight seconds.
“It was crazy,” she told the worldwide TV audience shortly after the medal ceremony the next evening. “You know, a split second in the air, I’m over it. ‘I think I’m a gold medalist.” That ran through my mind very, very quick. I hit the mat, and the bar fell, and the first reaction was, I grabbed my head in just one fraction of a second of being a tiny bit disappointed, and I kicked myself and said, ‘You’re an idiot, why would you ever be disappointed in any Olympic medal?'”
Or appearing alongside the biggest stars on sports’ premier stage. She laughs about running into Jamaican superstar Usain Bolt and teammate Asafa Powell seconds after her silver was draped around her neck. “So I walked over and I was like, ‘Can we get a selfie with our medals?’ I go up and hold up my phone and Usain said, ‘No, no, let me do it.’ I said, ‘You kind of have a built-in selfie stick, don’tcha?’ His arm is like 10-feet long.”
With barely a break after Rio, her next stop was Belgium. “Honestly, missing the gold, that’s why I jumped five meters three weeks later in Brussels because I was extremely driven and motivated,” she says of the September 9 meet, her last this season. “I jumped the third-highest height in history and became only the third woman to jump over 5 meters, and I don’t think I would’ve done that had I been a gold medalist because it’s easier to be satisfied when you’ve achieved something like that, and I was not satisfied.”
This dissatisfaction keeps Sandi in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she continues to train. But in December, she returned home for four days to spend time with her family and to be the grand marshal for Greenville’s Christmas parade downtown.
Born in Illinois, Sandi moved to the Upstate in the mid-1990s, when her father Harry, a geologist, brought the family. A self-described early bloomer, Sandi began competing in second grade. “I was at my oldest sister’s soccer game when my mom saw me hold out a shiny quarter to a little boy, who took the treasure and agreed to race me around the track,” she writes in a 2014 blog. “That boy’s mom happened to be sitting next to mine, and they both laughed as I dusted him to the finish line. She informed my mom about a local track club for kids my age.”
One day, when Sandi was in sixth grade, they attended a track-and-field event at Spartanburg’s School for the Deaf and Blind. “Across the field,” Harry recalls, “I saw some kids pole vaulting, so I walked over to the pole vault, and this guy who was there . . . he just gave her this one little lesson, and she said, ‘Oh, that was cool,’ and that was it.”
Typical Sandi—at least when she was little. It wasn’t until high school that she sharpened the championship-caliber laser focus you see beaming from her face when she races over a hurdle, a determination caught in a color photograph that’s drilled to the beige cinderblock walls of Greenville High’s gym.
That’s also where Kerry became her daughter’s coach. Like her husband of 34 years, Kerry was a multi-event athlete back in the day; the couple met on a track. Harry was a decathlete, Kerry a pentathlete at Western Illinois University. “Kerry and I dreamed of being Olympians ourselves,” Harry says. “Living vicariously? Absolutely, and I’m not ashamed to say that because we were so passionate about the sport, about track and field.”
While they shared the passion with their children, the parents offered the girls opportunities in all sorts of other areas. “When I was 3 or 4 years old, Mom had me doing gymnastics. It didn’t last very long because, apparently, I got very upset that they wouldn’t let me attempt a backflip on the beam, and I got very frustrated, and I told my mom, ‘This isn’t for me, Mom, they’re too strict.’
“I’m just a free spirit, and I think track and field is perfect because I had the attention span of a chipmunk. Track and field was simple: start here, run as fast as you can to that line that’s only 100 meters away, and then you’re done. It was perfect.” Young Sandi was a handful, all right, Kerry says. “She rode horses. She ran track. She went to all-state volleyball. She was an artsy kid”—Sandi also paints, writes, plays violin, and guitar—“and she would say, ‘Mama, could you please homeschool me because I have so many things I’d rather do.’”
Everyone remembers the plucky child climbing a 20-foot magnolia tree, collecting rocks and reptiles, and showing off on the family trampoline in their kid-busy North Main Street neighborhood.
“She’s just wild,” Crissy says, Sandi’s sister. “She always had to have the next animal. There was always something crazy going on with Sandi. She’d have a lizard and get tired of that one, and then she’d go out into the woods and bring home a snake.”
Nowadays, Sandi’s pets include an Italian greyhound, Rango; a parakeet, Indi; two boa snakes, Clementine and Cortez; a fangless ball python named Fang; and a fish. As the oldest of the three, Crissy felt responsible for her restless baby sister. “I can remember, we were sitting on the couch, and we were all watching TV. She was pretty young; she was five or six, so, I was 10 or 11. She was sitting on her knee, bouncing up and down on the couch, and she fell forward.” With their father a rock scientist, the coffee table was, naturally, a “big flat piece of rock,” Crissy says. “She whacked her head, and her head’s bleeding everywhere. She still has a scar over her eye.”
LEAPS & BOUNDS // At 24 years old, Sandi Morris is not just an Olympic medalist. She has also jumped the third-highest height in pole-vault history, one of only three women to jump over five meters.
Another major injury nearly kept her from Rio. During competition in the Czech Republic seven weeks before the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, Morris’s pole snapped and she broke her wrist. The doctor told her she couldn’t vault for six weeks. “I honestly was feeling pretty confident because I knew myself, and I said, ‘Okay, I can’t vault, but I can do many other things, and I know how to pole vault,” she says. “Even though it was very stressful and nerve-wracking, I knew I could do it, and I think that’s the key to sports: pure confidence. You just have to believe in yourself.”
Crissy knows where her sister’s tough self-assurance comes from. “She was fearless and wild—wild not in a bad way, but just full of energy—and that fearlessness is what makes her good at pole vaulting.” And not just good, she’s among the best—Sandi is one of three women in the world to belong to the “Five-Meter Club,” or 16.4 feet.
Back at her high school alma mater, her seven records still stand. They’re listed on a wall filled with Red Raiders stars dating back to 1915. Her name appears alongside the 100- and 400-meter dash, the 100- and 400-meter hurdles, 4 x 400-meter relay, long jump, and, of course, pole vault. And, yes, she was MVP of the volleyball and track teams, all four years. “Let’s face it, from an athlete standpoint, she could do basically anything she wanted,” says Steve Scolamiero, Greenville High’s athletic director for 10 years. “At the high school level, you can’t foresee what’s going to happen, but you could tell she had some special talent.”
In 2010, her senior year, she flew 13 feet, 3 1⁄2 inches. Her proud dad points out the boys side of the board, where the pole-vault record’s space remains blank. Sandi topped them, too. “The coach from UNC took a picture of that sign because he was like, ‘This girl’s good,’” Harry says, remembering when universities scrambled to recruit South Carolina’s top girl vaulter.
Upon graduation, her parents wouldn’t let her go to track-and-field’s mecca, the University of Arkansas. “I drew a circle around Greenville, and I said, ‘You can go anywhere within six hours because here’s my fear. My fear is, my child moves away, goes to school far away, meets a boy far away, gets married far away, and never moves back.’ I’m a planner.”
Enrolling at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Sandi struggled to find her feet, dabbling in biology and exercise and sports science before finally landing on a broadcast-journalism major. Still, she says, “I knew I wasn’t improving on the track, and I wanted to transfer just because I knew I needed a fresh start. I needed new scenery, I needed a clean slate.” That’s when Arkansas’ Bryan Compton got a hold of her. In his 18 years, the Razorback coach has seen 78 student-athletes earn All-American honors.
“I’ve had some that are more technically better on the pole, but I’ve never had anybody as fast as Sandi,” he says. “She’s probably the fastest pole vaulter in the world, with a pole in her hand and without a pole in her hand. Technique, that’s something you can always correct, but speed is something that God gave to you, and you either got it or you don’t.”
Backatcha, Coach. She credits a lot to Compton, who, at 56, is the same age as her parents. “When I first got to Arkansas, he said something to me that I’ll never forget. He looked at me and said, ‘You can jump about 15 feet your way, or someday, you can break the world record my way.’ He’s a very old-school coach, but him saying that to me really hit home. Growing up, I loved to race people. ‘Who can climb this tree fastest? Who can swing highest on the swing?’ That kind of stuff. Having Coach Compton challenge me to basically correct everything and do it his way, it was kind of me saying, ‘Okay, I’ll take on this challenge, I can do that.
“Every single day at training from that moment on, when he would tell me a correction, I would get on the runway and really try to fix it. A lot of really ugly awkward jumps come from trying to fix something on the runway. It might be different in a bad way, but at least you’re trying to change. That’s the first step in changing your technique, trying to change.” Changing meant winning. Morris began toppling records and earning personal bests, jumping higher than 14 feet, 9 inches, to win a spot on the Olympic team.
“I’d say in 2013, 2014, I started to realize how good I was, how good I could become. I recognized my talent. I had people my whole life tell me that I was talented, but you have to see it in yourself,” she says with sincere self-awareness and endearing humility. As Harry says, “Here’s something that makes me equally proud of her as a silver medalist: Anytime she would finish a race, whether she won by a mile or lost by a mile, she would go and seek out the other competitors to shake hands. That’s not something that Kerry and I taught her, and we don’t know how she learned that, but she is the ultimate good sportsman. That’s who she is.”
Compton sounds like her dad, too. “I’m extremely proud of her, the way she’s come so far, how far she’s come in so many ways, not just as a pole vaulter, but as a person, really being the spokesmodel for USA pole vaulting—and that’s a lot to take on.” Now a professional athlete signed with Nike, Morris can handle the pressure. She envisions a golden future, the next summer games in Toyko 2020, where she hopes to top 17 feet.
Back in Arkansas, she trains up to three hours a day. She cooks for herself 90 percent of the time and loves pulled-pork BBQ. She’ll travel to meets, many in Europe, and helps raise funds for cherished causes, including a 4-year-old Greenville boy who underwent open-heart surgery in November. Eventually, she hopes to have her own family. For now, though, she has time only for occasional dates, despite an arena crowded with admirers. And though this worldly Olympian is constantly flinging her pole skyward, perhaps she still carries little Sandi with her to keep her grounded.
“Once I got on the airplane and was heading back from Rio, I think that was the first time I had written in my journal since becoming a medalist,” says the life-long diarist. “‘I’m Sandi, and I’m writing in this journal for the first time as an Olympic medalist,’ and it was really cool. It will be just so awesome to have stuff like that in my journal to give to my kids and, hopefully, inspire them to chase after whatever their dream is.”
Originally published January 2017.