The next day at 5 p.m., about 100 spectators, spread around the field to adhere to social distancing guidelines, gathered in the community space that features tennis courts, a pool, a pavilion and a soccer field. And, thanks to Morris’s family and the need to keep her training on track, a pole vaulting pit.
As Morris practiced, the neighbors watched, expressing their awe each time the 2016 Olympic silver medalist hurled her body over the bungee cord that acted as the bar.
“Everybody’s hungry for something to do,” said Morris’s father, Harry.
Long(er) road to Tokyo
Not long ago, this soccer field was empty. With the novel coronavirus pandemic prompting universities to close, Morris’s usual training space at the University of Arkansas was no longer an option, so she headed to her parents’ house. With her dad and some neighbors, she embarked on an ambitious project: building a 120-foot runway and a pole vaulting setup fit for an Olympian.
Morris, 27, usually returns home once or twice a year, seeing her parents more often when they travel to her competitions around the world. But for the foreseeable future, her training will continue in Piedmont, a small town outside Greenville.
Harry Morris, a former college decathlete, works with pole vaulters as a volunteer coach at Clemson. When Arkansas closed its facilities, Clemson’s remained open. He briefly thought his daughter could train there. But then Clemson closed, and so did other colleges, prompting the question: Where could an elite athlete train?
“The answer is nowhere,” he said. “You can go make do at a high school, but most high schools were going to be in the same situation.”
The family had discussed building their own pole vaulting facility for a few years, but “this situation kind of pushed us into action,” Sandi Morris said.
She returned home to South Carolina, bringing along her two dogs, two birds and one of her three snakes. Harry Morris, a geologist, always has been handy with projects around the house. Sandi Morris jokes that her dad should start an Etsy account. When she was a child, she and her dad built animal habitats, such as the rabbit hutch they tripled in size so it could house her chinchillas.
Harry Morris talked with the community developer, who gave him permission to build on the soccer field. The father of Sam Kendricks, an American who won a bronze medal in the pole vault at the Rio de Janeiro Games, helped with the design. Scott Kendricks, whose family had built a similar setup, sent over some blueprints and talked with Harry Morris for about an hour.
“I had a pretty good idea, but I didn’t want to start from scratch or do something wrong,” Harry Morris said. “We’re trying to build what’s the equivalent of a world-class facility.”
Three neighbors helped with the project. One joined in after his curiosity prompted him to ask what was going on. He didn’t know Harry Morris, let alone that his daughter was an Olympian. Each day around 4 p.m., they headed toward the field — sometimes walking and other times riding bikes or golf carts.
During the planning phase, Harry Morris considered the topography of the field and the prevailing winds. A giant pile of lumber, which the family was able to buy at cost, slowly turned into a runway. They placed cross supports every two feet until the final few sections, where they added twice as many. The takeoff feels “very, very solid,” Sandi Morris said, which is necessary to support the force exerted by a vaulter during her final strides.
They spread a 1,000-pound roll of rubber across the runway, and the company that provides Morris’s poles loaned the family a landing mat, which can cost around $30,000. With that taken care of, the entire project cost about $4,500.
Harry Morris initially thought the project would take about a week, and maybe it would have if he had dropped everything with his full-time job. Building the facility ultimately required nearly a month, but it was work he called “collaborative and very enjoyable.”
Sandi Morris typically has competition dates on her calendar, incremental goals that offer motivation and add purpose to her training. With sports on hold, the building project provided a similar boost.
“It was a really good distraction from what's going on in the world right now — just having something to focus on every day and something to look forward to,” she said.
Morris has returned to a training schedule that closely resembles her usual one. She turned the garage into a weight room. One of her sisters is a physical therapist and has helped with her therapy. She uses the community field for fitness circuits. She bikes around the neighborhood. She does sprint work on the newly built runway, where she can run in spikes. She vaults twice a week, and the homemade setup feels normal.
The family has ambitious long-term plans for the facility. They are hoping to obtain the proper certification that would allow fun competitions to take place there. The runway would need to be extended to accommodate elite men and some women with longer approaches, but that wouldn’t be too difficult. A few neighborhood parents have asked Harry Morris whether he plans to start teaching kids there.
For now, though, it’s just a suitable training spot for an Olympian and sometimes the site of the only sporting event in town.