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Owen hopes to jump through hoops of an Olympic dream

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She always understood what it would take to compete with the best the world had to offer — dream big, work hard and set your goals high. And nobody may be better suited to fulfill that dream than Melinda Owen.

It’s a big dream for a girl growing up in northwest Montana. Now a young woman, Owen has set her sights on performing on the biggest sporting stage of all. Owen, an all-around athlete at Polson High School and NCAA All-American at the University of Idaho, hopes to extend her distinguished pole vaulting career to the 2012 Olympics.

Owen, the daughter of Bob and Sandy Owen of Polson, finished her vaulting career at the University of Idaho in 2008 after graduating with a secondary school teaching degree. That summer she cleared 13 feet, 9 inches at the U.S. Olympic qualifier meet for the Beijing Olympics to advance to the finals, where she placed 10th overall with a jump of 14 feet, 5.25 inches. She didn’t make the trip to China, but the experience proved that she was close to joining an elite group of vaulters.

And that close-but-no-cigar experience served to focus her resolve to become an Olympian. Now she’s got her crosshairs squarely focused on the London Olympics in 2012, where she hopes to be one of three women vaulting for the U.S. 

She’s headed in the right direction, that’s for sure. Last summer Owen placed sixth at the 2009 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore., clearing 14 feet, 3.25 inches. Just recently she cleared 14 feet, 6 inches to win the California Invitational Relays. In early May she won the Osaka Grand Prix pole vault competition in Osaka, Japan by clearing 14 feet, 8 inches, a personal record outdoors. (Her indoor record is 14-7, set in February in Arkansas.)

She’s a former Montana state champion and two-time WAC champion pole vaulter who doesn’t believe she’s hit the ceiling yet. There’s a lot of hard work and competition ahead, but Owen is up to the task. 

She’s quick to note that she is able to commit to the Olympic effort through generous contributions, either through sponsorship to help with travel to competitions here and abroad, or through the free room and board she receives at the Olympic Training Facility in San Diego, Calif. 

Owen returned to Montana several weeks ago to host the Montana Elite Invitational competition, held at Dornblaser Field in Missoula on June 5. A very select group of top-tier athletes in women’s pole vault, and men’s discus and javelin competed on a sunny Saturday afternoon. 

Owen, backed by a throng of family and friends lining the track, finished second in the pole vault event, clearing 14 feet, 4 inches. As the announcer noted, that would have won her the Big Sky Conference championship if she was still competing in college (13-2.75 won it earlier this month). 

But out of college for two years, she’s focusing on her pole vaulting career now, living and training at the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif. She is training under Ty Sevin. 

And her goal is much higher than 14 feet, 8 inches. A vault of more than 16 feet, six inches by Russian Elena Isinbaeva won the Olympics in 2008, while 15 feet, 8 inches would have won silver. Clearly, she’s capable of reaching the upper end of 15-plus feet. In practice she works on technique with a bungee rope set at about 15-6. She hasn’t made it yet, but then she doesn’t see that as a limit either. 

“I’ve yet to clear it. My hips are high enough, though. I just need to fine tune how correct I am at the depth (from the front of the pit to the bar),” Owen explained. 

You need superior athletic ability to vault high, but the best vaulters and coaches will tell you moving up to the next level is mostly about technique. And that has been perhaps the primal focus of her practices. Coach Sevin has already helped her improve her 16-step approach and some of the small things that help her incrementally jump higher and higher.

The Elite meet in Missoula was a unique opportunity for most of her coaches, current and former, to be present to watch her vault. Sevin was there to coach her through the meet, UM coach and mentor Brian Schweyen kept score, and watching on the sidelines was her high school coach, Darren Gunlock. 

Gunlock started it all, talking Owen into coming out for track as a freshman in high school. But, it wasn’t something she’d given much thought to before Gunlock approached her.

Basketball was Melinda’s passion as a child and in Middle School she planned it all out that she was going to focus on hoops through high school and into college. She’d go in to the gym early in the morning before classes with her older brother, Pat, who would lift weights while Melinda shot baskets. 

“But that fire went out in high school,” Melinda explained. She still played basketball, but she didn’t see that as her main sport. “Volleyball was okay, but then track came out of nowhere,” she said.

Actually, coach Gunlock set it up to come out of nowhere. A family friend, he saw the ability in Melinda and consistently prodded her to give it a try. And when she did find success, it fed her enthusiasm for the sport. 

“I tried pole vault my freshman year because coach Darren Gunlock kept asking me to give it a try ... and all my brothers did it. I tried it once early in my freshman year, but I got scared once after landing in the box and quit vaulting. But little by little he wore me down and I eventually tried it again,” Owen explained. 

By her first meet later in the year she cleared 8 feet, 6 inches, the best jump by any of the girls at Polson. And then, all of a sudden, vaulting was fun. She ran track, too, but pole vaulting became her own thing.

“For me, (pole vaulting) was kind of fun after being in a family where obviously everyone enjoyed athletics, but it came with a lot of pressure and comparison,” Owen said. The Owen clan is spread across two states. Like their cousins, Bob and Sandy’s kids are very athletic and prominent athletes in all of their sports, particularly wrestling. The expectations were high, but it was supportive rather than negative, she said. 

“It was not anything bad ... our family was super supportive. But (vaulting) was really just my own thing. And coach Gunlock said he would always see me through (to graduation before retiring),” she noted.

She didn’t know how much pole vaulting meant to her until her junior year in high school. She broke her foot and missed most of the early part of track season. Then, when divisionals came around — an event that qualifies athletes for the state meet — she didn’t make the entry height and didn’t qualify for state.

“That was the end of the world to me. And it taught me that (pole vaulting) meant a lot to me,” Owen said. “And having someone who cared as much as coach Gunlock meant everything ... his passion for the sport rubbed off on me, for sure.”

She was recruited by coach Brian Schweyen to pole vault at the University of Montana. Even though Owen had a wonderful visit to the school, she decided to go to the University of Idaho, where a cousin was also competing in track. 

“Coach Schweyen never lets me live it down, too,” Owen said of the affection the two have for each other. Owen’s boyfriend lives in Missoula, so she visits frequently. And Schweyen has always made the jumping facility available to Owen during her visits. “And he’s always made himself available and been very helpful.”

She also had a good coach during her later years at Idaho, but she’s learning even more with coach Sevin, who is the full-time jumps coach at the Olympic Center. 

“There’s multiple reasons why I have progressively been getting better and better,” she explained and so many of those reasons come from Sevin’s guidance and coaching. “He’s helped me with techniques, including my runs, but also with the (training) therapies. It’s definitely difficult to learn technique on the runaway ... unless you get to spend time ... in running workouts, for example. And for each one he’s there, critiquing every little thing you do ... And that’s paid off in speed.”

Speed on the runway is critically important to height. The faster you go, the more power you put into the pole, and the more power the pole feeds into you, raising you higher and higher. 

Her training regime varies, depending on the competition schedule. Now, Melinda and teammates Becky Holliday and Chelsea Johnson are jumping three days a week and combining gymnastics, weightlifting and sprinting into their “work” days. Her “off” days are for rehabilitation. 

Weightlifting came with its own unique set of challenges. Though the whole idea of lifting weights is to build strength, Owen found that she was actually building up too much muscle. 

“I’m on the heavier end of pole vaulters. As soon as I started lifting I gained a lot weight,” which is counterproductive, she explained. “So, I had to go to Colorado to come up with a diet plan that would work. I still have the power and strength, but I’m not as bulky as before. I had to eat more protein and less carbs.”

She eats well, she explained, with the help of consistent healthy foods served at the Olympic Center’s cafeteria. All foods are clearly labeled with caloric and content information, which helps her stay within in planned diet. She misses some foods, but not many now that she’s adjusted to the new diet.

“It’s all up to you ... I just have to be careful of what I eat,” Owen said. It was difficult to adjust to a stricter diet at first, but she was surprised at how quickly she and her body adapted. “I don’t eat greasy foods anymore ... if I eat fast food I get pretty sick. I don’t miss it anymore, but I do notice sweets. I really do miss really big desserts. At first I missed it a lot, but I’ve become accustomed to it ... I don’t crave it.”

What she does crave is a medal spot at the Olympics. The women who vault have one leader to look up to in Isinbaeva. Owen said she met her briefly at a meet in Paris, but is very familiar with her.

“(Isinbaeva) doesn’t vault in the U.S. ... but I watch her videos all the time. She’s got almost the best technique in the world for both guys and girls,” Owen noted. 

Technique, physical fitness and mindset are intertwined. Though her technique and fitness are improving, her mindset can waver as it did last week.

“Yesterday was a bad day,” she said with a hint of frustration. She wasn’t making 14-4, a height that has become routine, and she was coming off the mat more and more frustrated with each missed jump. 

That’s when it’s nice to have the services of a sports psychologist available who can put you back on a positive path. 

“Having that team (of coaches and staff) here is really amazing. We’re all working for the same common goal,” Owen said. “So, yesterday we focused on the process (rather than the end goal). I know I’m not going to hit 16 feet in one day. It’s about chipping away at the small things. But I have so much height over it ... and it’s frustrating when I don’t move up right away. I know it will all come in time. I just have to trust the system ... but yesterday I got completely overwhelmed by the frustration.”

What made it worse was that she was getting a huge amount of height, but she was coming down on the bar instead of behind it.

“I thought ‘How long do I have to go through this?’ But my sports psychologist helped get me thinking about how every day I’m getting closer to where I want to be.”

So, the 25-year-old is giving it everything she's got to fulfill that dream of becoming an Olympian.

She’ll next compete on the national stage at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, to be held at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa June 23-27. (Pole vault will appear on ESPN Sunday at about 11 a.m. MDT.)

Like anybody else, Owen is going into the meet with the attitude that she’ll come out of it the winner, hoping that will be the meet where those little things all come together. But she’ll have plenty of competition, including defending champion Jennifer Stuczynski, who set the American outdoor record of 16-1.75 in 2008.

It’s one more step forward in Owen’s dream and she’s looking forward to it. But, she also knows each step comes at a cost and sacrifice from others who are helping along that path.

“I’ve had a lot of help along the way. My coach is working hard at taking care of me, helping me find sources (of funds) for travel ... and I’ve been very fortunate,” Owen said. “I’m so very grateful for all the things my parents have done for me. It gets hard ... my parents are so good, but they are not made of money. And they give so much. But when I came here, I agreed that I won’t work while I’m here ... the top women do that, focus on their main job of getting better at their event. But it does get hard at times.”

Sponsorships help fund her dream and clearing 15 feet may help her draw some bigger endorsements. But, she’ll also gladly accept any size of support from anyone who wants to help. If you would like to contact Owen or help with sponsorship or just keep up with her training, visit www.melindaowen.com.

All that support is boosting her fiscal situation and helping her focus on performance. 

“I think things are finally coming together. I’ve hit (14-8) at almost every meet since then. I’ve got good hip height ... I feel like anytime it will all come together, but I’m still waiting on it,” Owen said. “Technique right now is my biggest goal, but my final goal is obviously the Olympics in 2012. From there we break it down to smaller goals ... and a lot of those are technique stuff. I’d like to hit 15 feet this year, then 15-6 next year, then 16 feet the next year ... I think it’s going to take somewhere around there to medal.”

Owen isn’t sure what her next step will be after this whirlwind run at an Olympic dream, but Montana isn’t far from her thoughts.

“My dream has always been to come back and maybe coach here at UM,” Owen said with a hopeful smile.

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