BOSTON -- Stacy Dragila relied on sheer athleticism to become a pole vault champion. She knows it will take more than that to remain one.
"The pole vault came around so fast for me. I picked it up so quickly that I never became a technician," she said on Friday as she prepared to defend her title at the U.S. Indoor Track and Field championships.
"Now I realize, 'Hey, if I'm going to be in the mix with these young girls who learned to do it properly right from the get-go, I need to work on this."'
A high school rodeo star and a heptathlete, Dragila was among the pioneers of women's pole vaulting when it was first contested internationally in the mid-1990s. She won the inaugural gold medal in the event at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and has won 14 U.S. indoor and outdoor titles in all.
But all that early success may have kept Dragila from honing her craft.
Although she trained just as hard back then, she now realizes that she didn't pay enough attention to the fundamentals of jumping. It didn't seem to matter much when she was setting the world record eight times over, but with Russians Svetlana Feofanova and Yelena Isinbayeva surpassing her last year, it was time to worry.
Dragila, who turns 33 next month, lost both the indoor and outdoor world records in 2003, the former to the 23-year-old Feofanova and the latter to the 21-year-old Isinbayeva. After Dragila no-heighted at the indoor worlds, she dedicated herself to learning the sport all over again.
No more taking off as much as 18 inches too close to the box and costing herself valuable height on the upswing. No more winging it, relying on her athleticism to make up for a lack of technique.
"I kind of had to make a decision right then and there what I wanted to do with my career," she said.
Dragila changed coaches and moved her training from Idaho to Phoenix. Greg Hull, who also trains men's gold medalist Nick Hysong, is trying to teach Dragila the things she never bothered with before because she was good enough to win most times without them.
Hull wants Dragila jump farther from the box - 11 1/2 or 12 feet away, instead of as little as 10 - which is no small feat because to do it she must overcome the fear that she will not have enough push to make it to the crossbar, and instead will come smashing back down on the runway.
"I don't feel like I have enough power on the pole to make it into the pit," she said. "I love what I do, but I'm not a daredevil."
The biggest improvement Dragila has seen is her consistency. Where before she might do 20 percent of jumps technically correct, she is now up to 80 percent. Soon, she hopes to take advantage of that success by using a longer pole that will enable her to challenge the heights established by the Russians.
"Right now, it's kind of dead here in the U.S. I don't have anybody really pushing me," Dragila said. "No one's stepping up to the plate to push me. I have to go over to Europe to get that."
That chance will come in Budapest at the indoor worlds next week, where she'll have a chance to compete against her two Russian rivals. Feofanova set the indoor record with a height of 15 feet, 11 inches at the Athina 2004 indoor meet on Sunday, 3/4 of an inch better than the mark established by Isinbayeva the week before.
"I would have loved to be over there in Athens to watch them duel. It sends a message to me and others that the mark is rising and it's going to continue to rise," Dragila said, adding that it was good for the sport to have a lively competition. "Sometimes it's better to chase somebody and not worry about who's coming up on you."
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