The memory still stings, nearly four years later. Mary Saxer had worked so hard to reach that point, to be on the threshold of a dream, to win a place on the U.S. Olympic team and a trip to London.
From the moment Saxer began pole vaulting as a high school kid in Lancaster, she had imagined being in that spot. And on a late June day in 2012, at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., she came unbearably close. She finished fourth.
The top three vaulters qualified for the Games. Saxer cleared the same height (14 feet, 9 inches) as third-place finisher Lacy Janson, but she had one more miss. Four years of striving came down to a margin that tiny.
“Fourth was probably the worst place to finish,” Saxer said Tuesday by phone from Indiana, where she’s in training. “Of course, I had to go through all those interviews immediately afterwards, before I had seen my coach or anyone. A lot of tears started to fly. I definitely broke down.
“It was just being so close to that dream,” she said. “So close, thinking I had the same height as her. It was just devastating.”
As first alternate, she had to endure the formality of Olympic team processing, though she had virtually zero chance of going.
But Saxer wasn’t going to let the disappointment defeat her. A few years earlier, while struggling collegiately at Notre Dame, she had considered giving up pole vaulting. It was after looking deep inside herself and rediscovering her passion for the sport that she began improving.
So in the most despairing moment of her pole vault career, Saxer saw hope and promise. She looked at her trials experience not as a failure, but an opportunity.
“It made me more hungry,” Saxer said, “because I could taste being an Olympian. I was so close and I knew that it wasn’t just a dream, it was a real possibility. Hard as it was, I knew I belonged with those women.
“Thinking back to how I felt after the trials, honestly, is a huge motivating factor,” she said, “because I told myself I never want to feel that way again. Every year since I graduated college (2009), I’ve had a PR (personal record), except for last year. But to be able to improve every year, it shows there’s more in the tank.”
Saxer had a strong season in 2013, finishing third at the U.S. indoors. A year later, she won the national indoor title with a personal best vault of 15 feet, 5¼. She beat Olympic gold medalist and fellow Western New Yorker Jenn Suhr in the process.
There was a time, of course, when Saxer was the darling of Buffalo pole vaulting. She started her career with Rick Suhr – now Jenn’s coach and husband. Saxer set national girls’ vaulting records at Lancaster and was the first American high school girl to clear 14 feet.
Saxer leveled off at Notre Dame, though she won three Big East titles. Suhr, who is four years older, soared to the top of the sport, becoming the top vaulter in the world and the best woman jumper in American history.
So while Suhr is preparing to defend her Olympic title in Rio de Janeiro this August, Saxer is still chasing the dream of making the team. She recently tied her personal best indoors and believes she is peaking for the outdoor season and Olympic Trials, which are back in Eugene in July.
“I can’t believe it’s been four years,” Saxer said. “I’m like, shoot, how much more time can I do this for?”
Luckily, she landed a sponsorship deal with Nike a year ago.
It’s a huge boost for a U.S. track athlete, most of whom get scant financial support from USA Track and Field, the national federation.
“Financially, it helps,” she said. “Up until a year ago, I was buying my own shoes, my own trainers and spikes, all my workout clothes.
Now that’s all provided to me. That alone makes such a huge difference. I receive less than $10,000 from USATF. I can’t live on that.
“There’s talk about this all the time in U.S. track and field,” Saxer said. “There’s certain people making good money. But the vast majority of athletes are basically living at the poverty line. Most of the girls I’m around all the time are barely scraping by. It’s just unfortunate.”
In an age of professionals, the fortunate ones now perform into their primes. Saxer will turn 29 in June. Pole vaulters tend to peak in their late 20s. Suhr was 30 when she won gold in London. Saxer says she’s in the best shape of her life and getting better.
“Training is going well. I’m so excited. My first outdoor is this weekend in Austin, Texas. Then I’m at the Olympic training center in San Diego for a week. Then the Drake Relays. I really feel like those next heights are going to come quick. I feel like I’m so close to that next breakthrough.”
Saxer is now based in Boston. She trains at Harvard and MIT, where she’s an assistant coach. Two years ago, she married Justin Sibears, whom she met as a freshman at Notre Dame. Sibears, a Maryland native, works in finance in Boston.
“He’s the biggest sports fan I know,” she said. “He’s from Annapolis, but he would rather see the Bills win than the Ravens. He’s kind of drawn to their story. There’s a Buffalo Bills bar in the Fenway Park area. We go there in the fall and root on the Bills in Patriot territory.”
The Bills’ story is a tale of striving in the face of repeated disappointment. What Buffalo fan doesn’t like a good comeback? It would be something if Saxer came back after what happened four years ago to make the U.S. team.
She’s ranked 16th in the world at the moment. But there are three Americans ahead of her – Suhr (4), Sandi Morris (5) and Demi Payne (12). The women’s vaulters are in the same fix as some high-ranked U.S. golfers, who could miss the Olympics because the national talent pool is so deep.
Morris is 23, Payne 24, so women’s pole vaulting, which became an Olympic sport in 2000, is trending younger.
“Women’s pole vault is ridiculous now,” Saxer said. “Everyone’s jumping out of their minds, but it’s so motivating, too, to know another PR is right around the corner for me. So it makes me think even beyond this summer. I’m still so hungry. I feel there’s so much more for me to accomplish.”