Ladyjack standout pole vaulter Demi Payne is going places—likely the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She’s accomplished a lot during the past year, including qualifying for the 2015 Team USA World Championships in Beijing, China.
However, the 6-foot junior kinesiology major from New Braunfels isn’t just one of the leading female pole vaulters in the world; she’s also a mother, 3.9-GPA student, wife-to-be and daughter of a former All-American pole vaulter. Payne makes flying over a 15-foot-high crossbar look easy, but it hasn’t always been so for the record-setting athlete.
It could have been that she watched her father do it countless times during track meets or an untapped, natural talent pumping through her veins. Or, perhaps, it was a mystical combination of both that led Demi Payne to pick up a pole for the first time in her parents’ backyard. It was the summer of her high school freshman year. Her father, Bill Payne, had encouraged her to give the sport a try many times before. However, Payne had always refused until this particular day.
Her curiosity piqued, she opened the back door, grabbed her father’s athletic gear and walked toward the training pit. She had always been athletic, whether it was spiking a volleyball over the net or running. So on this sunny afternoon, Payne knew exactly what to do. She picked up speed, placed one hand in front of the other and nailed the pole on the ground to aid the jump over the bar. Feet pointed skyward, her body followed, allowing Payne to clear the 10-foot 6-inch bar.
It was love at first flight.
Soon after that first jump, Payne joined her high school track and field team and began her career in competitive pole vaulting. With the help of her father and coaches, Payne drastically improved. By the end of her sophomore year, she was jumping 12 feet 3 inches.
“It was really awesome to begin my first year and jump with girls who were the best in my high school,” Payne said.
By the end of her high school senior year, Payne cleared the bar at 13 feet 1 inch and secured a track and field scholarship to the University of Kansas. There, she continued to increase her speed and strength, yet she failed to reach her goal height.
Payne struggled to keep her eye on the bar.
Juggling the demands of collegiate track meets, workouts, class projects and social life, Payne wasn’t devoting 100 percent to her pole vault goals. She was losing her focus.
“I wasn’t the best student. I was concentrating on the fun part of college life,” she said.
While completing the first semester of her junior year at the University of Kansas, Payne and her fiancé, Thomas Taylor, learned she was pregnant.
Payne was granted a yearlong red-shirt leave to continue pole vaulting after her child’s birth. During that time, she returned to Texas to be closer to her family, including her father, who helped her stay in condition before and after the baby’s birth.
“I remember telling my dad during the pregnancy, ‘I am going to do this and show everyone you can come back and be awesome,’” Payne said.
Soon after, she delivered a baby girl she and her fiancé named Charlee.
In addition to a new daughter, Payne also had a newfound inspiration: return to school, clear the highest bar and win every meet.
Determined to make the biggest comeback in pole vault history, Payne made it her mission to find a university close to home willing to support her dream. She found it at SFA.
“My main motivation is Charlee,” she said. “My life is living proof that you can do anything and overcome challenges no matter what.”
With the expertise of a family friend, former pole vaulter and volunteer coach Jeff Erickson, Payne trained and looked forward to her comeback.
Although she didn’t know anyone at SFA, Payne moved to Nacogdoches with her daughter and fiancé, and excited for the next chapter in her life, began her Ladyjack career in fall 2014.
Since the start of indoor and outdoor track season, Payne has taken the runway by storm.
“I knew this was going to happen. I knew she was going to set records. I see it every day in practice,” Erickson said. “I just didn’t know if it was going to be at the first or last meet of the season.”
Payne describes the thought pattern she utilizes to successfully clear the bar as a simple “mind game,” which she starts the night before a meet.
“I lay in bed and picture myself clearing the bar. I never imagine it falling,” Payne said.
Through the power of self-visualization and technique, Payne is able to achieve significant momentum on the runway by aligning her head, shoulders and hips with a slight forward lean. Running at maximum speed, she said she places both hands on the pole, gripping one in front of the other, plants it into the vault box and lets her body do the rest.
Although the pole vault field is very competitive, Payne has set her sights on accomplishing what she’d never imagined possible only a year ago—winning a gold medal at the Olympics.
“That’s always been my dream.” Payne said. “I know it will change my and my family’s lives, and I want that more than anything.”
With the next chapter in her life waiting to be written, there’s one sure thing that Payne said she’ll rely on as she goes forward. “Now, sometimes when I lay down at night, I visualize standing on a podium with the national anthem playing in the background. It’s a dream, but one that I hope will soon become a reality.”