The Shockingly Fast Learning Curve Of Lianne Kistler

"She's a sponge. She always wants to get better. We give her feedback and then she uses it." -- Matt Anglin, Ballard High School pole vault coach

- - - 

By Cory Mull - MileSplit National Writer

If you were to describe Lianne Kistler's past week in poker terms, you'd likely land on something outrageous. 

That was one wicked, crazy run.

How else can you put into context the Seattle Ballard High School sophomore ascending nearly a foot vertically in the pole vault, with two massive personal records sandwiched between three days of action? 

Kistler was simply playing the hot hand on Saturday when, on her 12th attempt at the Nike Eason Invitational in Snohomish, Washington, she aimed for a US No. 2 mark and sophomore national class record of 14 feet, 1 inches. 


"When I cleared 14 feet, 1 inches, I was more in disbelief," said Kistler, who bumped her personal record best up 11 inches,  from 13-2 to 13-6 to 14-1, within 16 days. "I landed in the pit and laid back a second before I stood up. I didn't jump up right away because I was still shocked." 

Oddly enough, Kistler isn't even the best pole vaulter in her state. 

High School National Record holder Chloe Cunliffe, who soared to a national best of 14 feet, 8 inches at the Arcadia Invitational earlier this month, was scheduled to compete alongside Kistler at Eason before she scratched. 

"There was less pressure," Kistler said of the potential duel that could have taken place. "But at the same time, I didn't go into the meet thinking I was going to hit 14-0 or 14-1. I wanted to have my own goals." 

Funny how that works. 

- - - 

Rapid Improvement

Kistler's series was a rollercoaster. She cleared 12-6, passed at 12-9, and then needed her third attempt to get over 13-0. She passed at 13-3, went to her second attempt at 13-6, and then needed it again at 13-9. She cleared 14-0 on her last try and on her 11th run.

Was it adrenaline at 14-1?

She cleared it with one try. The crowd exploded. 

"I was just so happy for her," said Theron Baker, 44, one of two volunteer coaches at Ballard. "She was working so hard. It was so exciting." 

And yet, describing this all as luck--doing that at all--would also do Kistler a disservice, because her increasingly consistent marks are showing that these successes are anything but fortunate rolls of the dice. 

Her first make at 13-6 came just two days before her record at 14-1. 

"We watch a lot of video and point out things and it's almost an immediate response," said Matt Anglin, 47, who's Kistler's other pole vault coach. "It's the next jump. She can process that information and transition it into the air within one jump." 

Kistler was consistently clearing 13-foot jumps with a set of 12-6 poles before she recently changed over to a series of 13-3 poles. She flipped through heavier and heavier poles on Saturday, moving up her grip each time. 

"She's a sponge," Anglin said. "She always wants to get better. We give her feedback and then she uses it." 

There are crazy stories, and then there's this: The shocking rise of a high school sophomore, whose first clearance in the pole vault just over a year ago was 8-feet. 

Some 14 months later, she's now on the high school all-time list--one of 15 girls to have cleared 14-feet--and fast climbing. 

She's just 16 years old. 

"She's got so much more room to grow and improve, it's hard to say where she'll go," Anglin said. 

"She's definitely the best pole vaulter we've ever had," Baker said. 

One year ago, Ballard High School had a state champion pole vaulter in Chad Cohen who nailed a school record clearance of 15-feet. That same season, junior Celyn Stermer was the runner-in the girls state championship, hitting a school record height of 12-6. 

Kistler, then just a freshman, reached the state championships, too. But she only finished ninth, closing her competition at a height of 10-feet. 

- - - 

Year-Over-Year Improvement 

name2019 best2018 bestimprovement
Lianne Kistler14-111-2( 2-11 )
Ashley Callahan13-611-11( 1-7 )
Grace Hotchkiss12-711-1.75( 1-5.25 )
Eden Henderson12-1011-6( 1-4 )
Olivia Cade12-911-5.75( 1-3.25 )
Payton Phillips13-712-4.5( 1-2.5 )
Windsor Roberts13-012-0( 1-0 )
Madison George12-911-9( 1-0 )
Josie Konigsmark12-611-6( 1-0 )
Journey Gurley12-611-6( 1-0 )
Gennifer Hirata14-013-2.25( 0-9.75 )

- - - 

Setting The Stage

So where did this fast rise originate from? 

There may not be one simple answer, but there are certainly a few factors. 

For starters, Kistler is a state-championship level gymnast. This past season, she won a state title in the vault. As a freshman, she was fourth. She's an all around athlete, which means she can compete on pretty much any apparatus. That institutional knowledge began when she was just 5 years old. 

But her spark to join the ranks of track and field athletes began one day while on the infield. She saw one of her gymnastics coaches--Canadian Carly Dockendorf, a former athlete at the University of Washington and 14-6 vaulter--riffing around near the pit. 

Something clicked. 

"I thought it would be a really cool challenge," she said. 

In her freshman season, the coaches started from scratch, teaching Kistler how to grip the pole. They told her how many steps she needed to take. They saw she was powerful and fast--her current PR in the 100 meter dash is 13.49 seconds. "They walked me through the process," she said. 

There were early signs she was a fast learner. 

"Every week I would improve by six inches," she said. "My PR would stay the same for two weeks, then it would go up six inches. And then it would happen again. At the end of the season, it clicked for me." 

But some things you can't teach as easily. And there are hallmarks in Kistler's gymnastics DNA that carried over: The way she inverts with the pole after take-off. 

The only problem? She had no idea how to turn in the air. 

"She was a little on the wild side fast," Baker said. "Coming to us, her speed was helpful. And she was pretty fearless about the gymnastics part of the vault and getting inverted.

"But when you swing up and you get vertical, you really want to be tight on your pole, so close you can harness the energy of the pole. She would get up there and be away from it and would throw herself backwards. She would go over the bar on her back rather than turn over. She essentially got up so fast she couldn't get back into her vault." 

Kistler knew she had to work on a few things after her first season. Soon enough, she joined the Northwest Pole Vault Club, which is based in Seattle. She spent a summer working on the ins and outs of pole vaulting.

"That helped me focus on my technique," she said. 

Almost immediately, that extra work paid off. Kistler cleared 12-feet in her first meet at Nathan Hale, then scored a school record a week later in a tri-meet, hitting 13-feet. She raised that mark up to 13-2 at another tri-meet, then cleared 13 for the third time just two days after that. 

As a freshman, Baker worked with Kistler on a shorter run-up, only using six lefts on special occasions. By the beginning of her sophomore year, he was training her to be confident with seven and eight lefts. 

"It was being able to take that extra speed and be under control," Anglin said. "That was the natural progression." 

"She's very coachable," Baker said.

- - - 

The Breakout Meet

When the Nike Eason Invitational arrived on the schedule, Kistler was pretty confident in her ability to sky over 13 feet, but her coaches advised her to do something a little outside her comfort zone.

They wanted her to enter the meet at 12-6, the highest starting height of her career. By that point, the rest of the field was topping out. 

"I was nervous about it," she said. 

After a nervy set of jumps at 13-feet, she moved on to the higher heights. She focused on the runway. 

Baker noticed a headwind. 

"After she cleared 13-9 I mentioned it to her," he said. "She hardly even noticed."

Kistler moved her grip up at 14-feet and made a step out. She was approaching the box even faster. 

"I felt like everything was just background noise," Kistler said of the crowd and announcer. "Before every vault I tried to clear my head and focus on the little things." 

One of her club coaches mentioned that an inch higher than 14 would be second in the nation. Kistler, feeling fresh enough to go one more time, decided to get after it. 

"I thought I had more good vaults in me," she said. 

- - - 

Cory Mull is MileSplit's National Writer. You can contact him at or on Twitter @bycorymull