Six months out from the Olympics, pole vaulter Alysha Newman isn’t jumping high. And that’s exactly how she wants it.
Heading into her second Games, Newman’s worked too hard on her mental game to be fazed by opponents seeing her slower-than-normal start. On the contrary, she’s excited about it; it’s all part of her plan to peak in Tokyo and become the first Canadian female pole vaulter to bring home an Olympic medal.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever opened up [a season] in my career,” Newman told CBC Sports recently. She finished third at an indoor meet in France earlier this month, jumping 4.51 metres, well short of her personal best of 4.82.
“Maybe I’m not placing as well internationally right now, but nobody is going to remember that six months from now when I win a gold medal,” she said.
Comfortable in the uncomfortable
Newman, from London, Ont., is a different athlete than she was four years ago at her first Olympics. She was just 21 in Rio, freshly graduated from the University of Miami with no professional experience. She finished 17th.
Since then, the 25-year-old has gone pro, competing against and beating the top athletes in the world, shooting up to No. 4 in the world rankings in the process. She’s finished in the top 10 at two world championships, become a Commonwealth Games gold medallist (in Australia in 2018), and set a new Canadian record last August with her personal best jump of 4.82 metres.
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“I’m just constantly taking down barriers and it’s very, very powerful to me because we’ve been training for this,” Newman said. “And that’s probably the hardest right now, knowing I’m not even close to where I know I’m going to be in six months.
“I need to take the good, the bad, the ugly and actually enjoy it because the top will feel so much more amazing and that’s what I have to look forward to.”
Pole vault and milkshakes
Athletes have to believe in the process, but Newman talks about the lows just as frankly as she talks about the highs. She’s laser-focused but calmly so, quick to laugh with a sense of lightness. It’s almost unnerving how relaxed yet confident she is at such a critical juncture of the quadrennial.
Newman credits that perspective to a few things, one of which is embracing the joys of life that are sometimes forgotten when the Olympic blinders are on. She doesn’t let an upcoming competition stop her from having a milkshake or a glass of wine. When she travels to meets, she packs a bag of regular clothes so she can enjoy the destination, turning otherwise intense competitions into opportunities to enjoy the perks of her job. Newman also thinks about future opportunities, recently launching a lifestyle website.
“I find I’m jumping my best when I’m happy off the track,” she said. “My coaches have been so good at saying, ‘Alysha, pole vault and athletics is just one part of your career, you’re going to be phenomenal and a gold medallist in something else eventually too.’
“I want to be one of the best pole vaulters of all time and then I want to be something great after that. And that’s what keeps me getting up everyday and motivates me and makes me full of life because there’s so many opportunities, especially in the world we live in now.”
Manipulating the mind
Newman also credits her progress and state of mind to hypnotism. It’s her alternative to sports psychology which, as a self-described over thinker, she finds overcomplicates things.
“Training your body is one thing, but training your mind is so hard,” she said. “I feel we need to trick it sometimes into getting it to do what it needs to do.”
Newman finds it works. When she sees the colour red, she feels powerful. When she sees a runway, she feels a surge of confidence in that direction.
“Like, how do we know that colour is green?” she said smiling, clearly excited about the topic. “If you can train your mind to say that’s actually blue, that’s so powerful.”
Right now, Newman’s working on training her mind and body to feel comfortable gripping the biggest poles she’s ever been on. Heavier polls are stiffer, so if Newman can master them she’ll be better equipped to launch herself higher. She thinks the bronze medallist in Tokyo will jump in the 4.90m range and has her sights set on jumping 5m one day, ideally in Japan.
So things are slowly coming together, but she’s not quite in podium shape yet. But of course Newman is just fine with that.
It means she’s right on track.