JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The art of pole vaulting took Kaitlin Petrillose to distances far and wide. And to previously unseen heights.
Now, nearly five years after completing her eligibility at the University of Texas she remains the most decorated female pole vaulter in Big 12 Conference history.
Not bad considering her journey to stardom began in what would be considered the unlikeliest of places: Vermillion, S.D.
The tiny community is located off the many beaten paths west of Interstate 29 as it traverses the eastern edge of the state on its journey from Kansas City north to the Canadian border.
While the northern plains are not known for being a hotbed for pole vaulting, it was the presence of one of the top vaulters in American history, Derek Miles, that drew the former Texas high school standout to journey to the University of South Dakota to begin her collegiate career.
The journey to South Dakota proved enlightening.
“I had a hard time adjusting,” Petrillose said of the surroundings she found herself in once arriving on the USD campus. “I found out you can’t take the city into a small town in South Dakota … it was a humbling experience and I had to grow up in a hurry.”
She made every effort to fit in and leave her mark on the Coyote program.
Pentrillose was born in Jacksonville, Fla. before moving with her family to Round Rock, Texas and later attending McNeil High School where she competed on the school’s cross country team. She quickly began to make a name for herself after capturing the attention of Brian Elmore, who coached the pole vaulters at the school.
“Right off the bat it was clear to see that (Pentrillose) was a special kind of athlete,” Elmore said. “She was very fast and she was a very physical kind of athlete who we thought had all the tools necessary to become an outstanding pole vaulter.”
Elmore was correct in his assessment of the talented Pentrillose.
A four-time district champion while competing for McNeil, Petrillose captured regional titles in each of her final two seasons at the school. She helped her team win the 5A state championship as a senior by winning the pole vault after placing second the previous season.
She capped her prep career by being named to the high school all-American team prior to journeying to the plains of South Dakota.
It was a time of transition not only for Pentrillose, but for the coaching staff at South Dakota. The college freshman was caught in the crosshairs.
USD was transitioning from NCAA Division II to become a Division I program and becoming a member of the Summit League, a league dominated by North Dakota State since that school made the transition several years earlier.
While making the adjustment to the academic and athletic rigors associated with college, Petrillose competed in just one meet during her time as a Coyote. She spent all of the indoor season during her freshman year competing unattached and preserving all four years of her eligibility.
She still managed to establish a new USD program record by clearing 14-feet, one-inch.
She also qualified for the 2012 Olympic Trials that same year.
After the season she decided to return home to be closer to her family. She also hoped to get a chance to compete for Texas.
The school, which was undergoing a change of leadership following the resignation of legendary women’s track coach Bev Kearney, was being led by Tanja Buford-Bailey, who had recently been named to succeed Kearney following a highly successful career in leading the University of Illinois to success in the Big Ten Conference.
“The scholarships that were available were being divided up between many athletes,” Pentrillose recalled. “(Texas) offered me books … and that was all I needed, just a chance to live out my dream of competing in a Longhorn uniform.”
She was welcomed with arms as wide open as the storied plains of Texas.
“It felt right as soon as I got to campus,” she said, “and the coaches and athletes made me feel right at home.”
She repaid them all in a big way over the course of the next three years. She also earned a full scholarship while competing for the Longhorns.
Pentrillose would go on to win seven Big 12 Conference titles in pole vaulting. She swept the indoor and outdoor titles in each of her three full seasons as a Longhorn and qualifying for the national meets each of the years along the way. She would add a seventh and final title during the indoor season as she completed her eligibility.
The 2012-13 season proved to be a harbinger of things to come for Petrillose and the Longhorns.
She competed in six meets as a redshirt freshman and began the indoor season by placing second at the Crimson Tide Indoor in Tuscaloosa, Ala. when she cleared 12-11 1/2 (3.95m) in her first meet for Texas. She would go on to become the first Longhorn to win a Big 12 pole vault title by clearing 14-2 1/4 (4.33) at the conference meet at and setting a new school record in the process. That height surpassed her previous school mark of 13-9 1/4 (4.20m) set earlier in the season.
She went on to place 10th at the national meet with a height of 13-5 1/4 (4.10m) and was named the Big 12’s outstanding freshman of the year for her brilliance during the season.
Petrillose continued to shine during the outdoor season and setting new records along the way.
She opened the season by placing third in a meet at San Diego State and tying for second at the Florida Relays with a leap of 13-5 1/4 (4.10m). She also added a sixth-place finish while competing at home in the prestigious Texas Relays where she cleared 13-9 3/4 (4.21m) and claiming the title at the Longhorn Invitational with a leap of 13-3 3/4 (4.06m).
The Longhorn standout took over the top spot on Texas’ all-time performance list with a then-career-best 14-3 1/2 (4.36m) to win her second conference title of the year. She went on to place seventh in the West Region meet to advance to the national meet, where she cleared 13-7 1/4 (4.15m) and finishing in a tie for 13th.
History was made, on several levels, during her sophomore season in 2013-14.
She tied for third at the Tyson Invitational to begin the indoor season and followed that up later with a win in a dual against Arkansas in which she cleared 13-11 1/4. She also broke her own school record for the first time that season by winning the New Mexico Collegiate Invitational with a mark of 14-7 1/4.
At the conference meet she cleared 14-5 1/4 to secure back-to-back Big 12 indoor titles.
She was not done making history.
Petrillose established a new collegiate indoor record on her way to the national title when she cleared 15-1 in the meet. It remains the best mark of her brilliant career as one of the best American vaulters in history.
She continued her dominance of collegiate pole vaulting during the outdoor season by winning titles at the Texas Invitational (14-8) and the Texas Relays with a new school and personal record outdoor leap of 14-6 at the conference meet to complete sweeps of the indoor and outdoor conference titles for a second straight year.
Her second trip to the national meet is one she would just as soon forget.
She came up short in each of her jumps and came away disappointed.
“I have no good excuse,” Pentrillose explained of her performance at the meet. “I let my mind win … and when that happens, nothing good can come of it.”
It proved to be her final appearance at the outdoor national meet.
Petrillose completed her third sweep of the pole vaulting titles in 2015 by once again dominating the Big 12 at the indoor and outdoor meets. She placed in three meets during the regular season before claiming the conference title for a third straight season. She cleared 14-4 3.4 (4.39m) to win the event at the conference meet and went on to place fifth at the national meet by clearing 14-5 1/4 (4.40m).
The outdoor season had its share of memorable moments for Pentrillose.
She placed third at the Longhorn Invitational with a jump of 14-3 1/2 (4.36m) and went on to make history by jumping 14-6 1/4 (4.43m) at the conference meet. Her mark was a conference meet and facility record.
The win also allowed her to become the first woman to win six pole vault titles in Big 12 Conference history.
Her 17th-place finish at the regional meet was not enough to earn her a spot at nationals.
Her final indoor season saw her win the conference title with a leap of 14-5 ½ to surpass her own previous conference record. That mark still stands today.
To compete at a high level in any sport, and at any level, is challenging enough.
To do it consistently throughout a four-year college career only raises the bar.
“There is a lot of pressure to succeed through all the rounds year after year and to win each time,” Pentrillose said. “I was fortunate to do that throughout my career and that is something I will always take great pride in.
“I did everything I could to score points for my team,” she added.
Pentrillose, a standout in the classroom during her collegiate career at South Dakota and Texas, graduated with a degree in health promotion and communications from Texas. She currently works for Paychex, a provider of human resource, payroll and benefits for small-to medium-sized business across the nation.
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.