Olympic Hopeful Vera (Neuenswander) Schmitz Seeks New Heights

Stories / July 6, 2016

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Sometimes it all comes down to one moment, or one jump in the case of Olympic hopeful and three-time All American pole vaulter Vera (Neuenswander) Schmitz, a Jefferson City native.

All of her training and hard work along with the ups and downs that most athletes experience stared her down as she prepared to sprint down the runway at a meet in Louisville, Kentucky.

After her surgery for a labral tear in her hip in October of 2014, Schmitz, 28, has faced an uphill battle – not only to heal but to jump high enough to make it into the Olympic trials, much less the games in Rio.

“Even healthy you don’t know if you’re going to be good that day, but it’s been a lot of valleys. After the surgery I was able to compete in a few meets last summer but it has been a fight to come back and be competitive,” said Schitmz, by phone from her home in Bloomington, Indiana.

Since January of this year, she’s been competing in track meets across the country trying to meet the Olympic standard of 14.9 and rank in the top 23 or 24 women in the nation.

“I haven’t jumped a personal best in three years and the last six months have been difficult,” she said. “I haven’t been performing well and I had put a lot of pressure on myself. It’s not the way I wanted to go out.”

With time running out and her last chance to qualify to participate in Olympic track and field trials, the standard had to be met on June 26, the day of the meet in Louisville. Then in one of those Hollywood movie moments, Schmitz cleared the bar at 14.9, which automatically pushed her into the track and field Olympic trials.

“It was one of those moments you hear athletes talk about, where you’re praying just to go out and execute. I wasn’t thinking about my technique, my cues and I was in that flow state,” Schmitz said.  “I couldn’t have written a more dramatic story.”

“I had visualized that jump for the last four weeks and as it was happening I expected it,” she said. “To have my husband and my coach there made it a very emotional and exciting moment.”

Also watching her qualifying jump were her parents, Joe and Joyce Neuenswander, who have been watching her since she excelled on the track and field team at Jefferson City High School, JCHS, where she won three Missouri state championships.

Now tied for 18th in the ranking, Schmitz is in Eugene, Oregon preparing to compete in the Olympic trial qualifying rounds for pole vaulting on July 8, with the finals to be held on July 10.

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According to Schmitz, the American team is very strong and only three pole vaulters will make the team. With competitors like Demi Payne, who enters the trials with 16-0.75, the third best mark in the country this year, the odds may seem against Schmitz. There are an estimated1,000 entrants trying to qualify at the trials to make the track and field team of 125-130, a fifth of Team USA.

“It may not seem like I have a chance to make it,” Schmitz said. “But there are so many variables in pole vaulting that I really believe I have a shot.”

In outdoor meets, there’s so many environmental factors added to the normal considerations. Constantly assessing and switching her grip on the pole – she also decides whether to move her run forward or backward from the box, where she plants her pole, and adjusts her steps.

“You’re constantly betting on yourself out there, if there’s a tail wind you run faster, or if the wind flows in your face that changes things,” Schmitz said.

One of the most important factors for a pole vaulter is speed, and she adheres to a disciplined training regimen five or six days a week, lifting weights, running and jumping in some form. During the competitive season, which begins in January, the outdoor season beginning in April, she trains, competes, then recovers and then competes again.

“The past month has been primarily meets and more meets. I’ve been competing two days a week and it’s been intense and there’s lots of travel,” she said. “But I have focused on local meets lately to avoid flying.”

There have been baubles, strains and the wear and tear of her sport, but she has kept her eyes on the goal.

She started a Go Fund Me campaign and raised half, $8,000 of her goal amount to help with poles, she carries 10 poles to each event, nutrition and therapy and traveling to competitions and training at She has trained at the World Athletic Center and at ALTIS, an elite track and field training center in Phoenix. She has also trained at her alma mater Indiana University, IU, in Indianapolis with her long-time coach Dave Volz, a retired pole vaulter who finished fifth at the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona.

“I call him my Indiana dad,” she said.

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Her own dad was an All American gymnast at Michigan and has been encouraging his youngest daughter from the earliest days when she first started in gymnastics.

“I wanted to be the best and my father, sister and brothers all supported me. I spent hours doing cartwheels on this carpeted piece of wood in the backyard and my dad would say, ‘Vera Beth you can go to the Olympics, and I believed him.”

Schmitz tried gymnastics but then switched to pole vault, which she describes as the most acrobatic event in track and field, when she was attending Thomas Jefferson Middle School. She was good at it and continued in high school.

“Our coach Dennis Licklider instilled in us that we were going to win and we really believed in ourselves and that we would be champions,” she said.

After graduating from JCHS, she attended IU where she won the Big Ten Indoor Freshman of the Year Award and set an IU record for best vault in the program’s history. Her sophomore year though proved much more challenging. She dealt with a neck injury and her performance was much more inconsistent, but she bounced back by her junior year.

After NCAA Division 1 Championship finishes of second in 2009 and fourth in 2001, Schmitz entered the world of post-collegiate track and field. She was a finalist in the 2012 games, where American Jenn Suhr won the gold medal.

For Schmitz, age, experience and her faith have given her a different perspective and helped her weather the setbacks during her journey.

“My mental game is important and there’s a maturity now and a voice in my head telling me what’s true,  and I rely on that,” she said. “I like to get up in the morning and read my Bible, even if it’s only one verse and pray and that keeps me centered and focused.”

“I feel like I am in my stride and confident and that God has brought me through the tough times, and I’m enjoying the talent he’s given me,” she said.

Now it’s only a matter of a few more jumps and she will be on her way to Rio to join the track and field Olympic team or go into retirement. She and her husband, Matt, a financial planner with Edward Jones, plan to start a family.

Schmitz said that most of the action on television usually focuses on the races on the track, but fans can follow her quest to make the Olympic team by watching the trials at USATF.tv or on one of the NBC family of networks.

by Shelley Gabert | photos by Megan Cody

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