W Power 2024

The good pressure keeps me working hard: Katie Moon

Moon, the reigning Olympic and world champion in pole vault, on excelling in a sport, the need to switch off, and what's on her mind as she goes into the Paris Olympics as the defending champion

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Feb 24, 2024 09:30:00 AM IST
Updated: Feb 22, 2024 02:32:12 PM IST

(File) USA's Katie Moon competes in the women's pole vault final during the World Athletics Championships at the National Athletics Centre in Budapest on August 23, 2023. Image: Ben Stansall / AFP(File) USA's Katie Moon competes in the women's pole vault final during the World Athletics Championships at the National Athletics Centre in Budapest on August 23, 2023. Image: Ben Stansall / AFP

Five months later, Katie Moon will land in Paris with the ambition of repeating what she did in Tokyo three years ago: Win the Olympic gold in pole vault. But she is wearing her tag of a defending champion lightly. "I know it doesn't happen every single time, but the fact that I was able to prove myself on a day it mattered most gives me confidence," says the American, also the reigning 2x world champion.

As the international event ambassador for the Tata Mumbai Marathon 2024 in Mumbai, Moon breaks down the champion mindset and the message she wants to convey to young girls with her achievements. Edited excerpts from an interview:

'For me, pole vault was love at first sight'

I was a gymnast till I was about eight. And all the things that I loved about gymnastics were what I loved about pole vault—the upper body strength, the adrenaline, the flipping upside down. Gymnastics just became a bit too much at an age where I wanted to try all kinds of different sports—it required several hours a day, every single day. I quit gymnastics at about eight years old, and when I was 12, I saw the high schoolers doing the pole vault. I begged my coaches for days to let me try it, and when they finally let me, I loved it immediately. It didn't feel scary, to begin with, to come crashing down from that height because when you start, you don't bend the pole. It's like long jumping into a soft mat. You work your way up later, so it doesn't feel as scary.

'One level took me to the next'

As I kept pole vaulting at every level, I jumped well enough to continue. In my junior year of high school—when you start getting recruited to universities—I began receiving interest. So, I knew I was good enough for the next level. In my final year of university, I jumped high enough to qualify for US nationals. I was placed in the middle of the pack with some of the best, not just in the US but in the world, so I knew at every point that I was jumping well enough to continue. It definitely took time, and at each point, it took years to get to that level from where I could move on to the next. But I just loved it and wanted to keep doing it.

Also read: My best is yet to come: Neeraj Chopra

'Like my role models, I, too, want to tell girls everything's possible'

As far as role models and mentors in the sport go, we had American Stacy Dragila, the women's pole vault pioneer. She won the gold medal in the 2000 Olympics and was the world champion multiple times. She really led the charge for women in the sport. Then, Jenn Suhr became the Olympic champion in 2012. These women showed it was possible for other American women to be great at pole vault. But, growing up, before I knew of them and pole vault, I looked up to our soccer players like Mia Hamm and WNBA players like Lisa Leslie. Then, in my personal life, there was my dad, who was a huge figure in my life. He passed away when I was 16, but before that, he was always around when I was playing sports, taking me to private lessons and making sure that whatever sport I did, I had the chance to be great at it. I am so grateful for that because I know a lot of women don't experience that kind of support. Thanks to my dad, I never felt I couldn't do something because I was a girl. And I want to pass this forward.

Also read: My losses have taught me the most: Lovlina Borgohain

'Your dreams should be your goals'

When I had gone on a retreat with my church group, my father wrote a letter to me. "Set your goals to experience your dreams, and your life will be truly extraordinary," he wrote. And I first Googled the line because I thought there was no way he could be this insightful and could come up with this on his own. Turns out, he did. This is something that I have really lived by because even if I never accomplish the highest level, along the way, I'm meeting some of my best friends through the sport, and my life is pretty great regardless. It is everything he said in that sentence.

'I had to switch off to recharge'

After my Olympic gold medal win, I went through a phase of mental exhaustion, and it took time to regain the hunger. It took a lot of patience, too, which I didn't always have. In hindsight, I wish I was better at being patient with myself. I felt very burnt out; I had an internal crisis of 'who am I if I'm not constantly striving for this dream of the Olympics?'. Because once I achieved that, I didn't know what to do. Besides, the whole year just went by being exhausted from not really getting much of a break. Usually, I get an off-season, but this time, while I wasn't physically working out, mentally, I was always talking about it. I was attending events and doing interviews around it, which were amazing, and I wouldn't trade them for anything, but, in hindsight, I think I should have given myself time not to think or talk about it. I've used this experience moving forward, so after the 2022 and the 2023 seasons, I took six weeks off doing nothing pole-vault-related—no tracks, no gym, just watching a lot of TV flopping on the couch, and also hanging out with family and friends—and it helped me come back refreshed.

Also read: Just show up, everything else will follow: Yohan Blake

'The good pressure keeps me working hard'

In the Paris Olympics, about five months from now, I go in as the defending champion. Will that be added pressure for me? It's definitely pressure, but it has also instilled a confidence in me that is unshakeable because, while this doesn't happen every single time, I was able to prove to myself that on the day it mattered most, I could do it. And that when I stepped on the runway in the most important, stressful, anxiety-inducing moment, I was able to tell my body what I wanted it to do, and it responded. It gives me confidence knowing that I have a lot of control in those situations, that it wasn't a fluke—that it wasn't just the Olympics; I was able to come back even in a year where I struggled immensely, I was able to show up on the day when it mattered. So, it's pressure, but it's good pressure. It keeps me working hard and tells me I can't rest on my laurels.

Also read: Avinash Sable: On the right track

'The decision to share the World Championship gold still makes me ecstatic'

Everyone talks about the World Athletics Championships in 2023, in Budapest, where Nina [Kennedy] and I shared the gold medal. What brought us to sharing a title as important as the world championship? As the competition was coming to the final jumps, I was so fatigued—and the pole vault can become dangerous at that point. When she cleared 4.90 m, my adrenaline just went sky-high. I've very rarely felt that kind of adrenaline spike in my career. But once it crashed, it was done—there was no bringing that adrenaline back up. And, in pole vault, from being 15-16 feet up in the air, if you're not transferring that energy safely into the pit, there's a very good chance you'll hurt yourself. When she came over, it was not even a thought in my head. But as we were talking to the official, I think we both wanted it but were a little nervous to say it. I didn't want to put her in a spot, backing her into her corner because it was a title she hadn't won before, and she might want to go for it. We just kind of tiptoed around until people started saying it, and then it just became what it was. I'm still ecstatic with the decision to share the gold.