Q&A with Jillian Schwartz
Jewish + Female = Athlete : Portraits of Strength from Around the World
Questions & Answers*
What are you training for now?
Right now I’m training for the world championship outdoors this year, at the beginning of August. National championships are in two weeks from now, where, if we qualify for the top three, we go to the world championships. That’s my main focus, and of course, to go out there and win meets and jump as high as I can.
What does your training schedule look like?
It varies from day to day. I pole vault twice a week and do short sprints, weight lifting. It varies. Sometimes I’ll be in the gym for an hour and a half or six hours. Basically working on speed. The faster you are the higher you jump.
Competition season is going on right now. After nationals, I’ll be heading over to Europe. I’ll spend all summer traveling, competing.
Tell us more about Bell Athletics in Arkansas where you train.
My coach [pole-vaulting legend Earl Bell] has pole-vaulting camps. I came down here my senior year in college when I decided to keep pole vaulting after school. I asked to move down here because it’s one of the best in the world. He understands the technique and the physics and all that. It’s where I wanted to be.
What about law school?
I deferred [admission to Washington University School of Law] right after graduating. If I wanted to go back now I’d have to apply again. We’ll see. For now I’m just going to pole vault. As long as I’m having fun and improving. I’ll take it a year at a time and then decide what I want to do in terms of school or work. I can’t plan too far ahead with the pole vaulting. You never know what will happen.
How old are you now?
You didn’t pole vault until college. Did you want to play it in high school but they didn’t have it, or had you never thought about it until Duke?
My high school and the state of Illinois didn’t have it, until maybe junior year in college. I wanted to try it in high school but we weren’t allowed to. Freshman year in college was the first time the NCAA recognized it as an event. [It was an exhibition sport previously.] Sophomore year I started actually training.
Why did you decide sophomore year to concentrate solely on pole vaulting?
I still did 100-meter hurdles and some long jumps until halfway through junior year. Then I just pole vaulted, concentrated on that.
What have been your biggest challenges and biggest rewards in pole vaulting?
The biggest challenges in pole vaulting, and a lot of sports in general, is the mental aspect, keeping your confidence up and not letting certain situations affect you. You’re not going to be perfect every day, and you need to work through that. Whether it’s weather or even injuries, trying to stay up on it mentally. For sure. Then staying healthy. Not getting injured, making sure you stay ahead of injuries, taking care of your body. Obviously, you can’t compete well if you’re hurt.
I would say the biggest rewards are being able to go out there and trying to be the best person out there. Every time you reach a new personal best, it’s a great feeling. Definitely a good reward is learning new things, getting better at your event. In turn, you start winning more events, which is the goal, obviously, of competing.
How do you decide at what height to jump?
You have time to warm up and practice your vault a few times. Based on weather and facilities, you decide on different poles. You warm up to gauge the environment and then determine where you’re going to start. The meet itself will pick a height to start the competition at and you can start there or higher. Then you can move up in chosen increments, of say six inches, from there. Go by what they set in terms of that.
What is your favorite thing about pole vaulting?
Right now, I love being able to travel all over the world doing what I love and being able to support myself doing that. You meet so many people from other countries, build friendships with people, which is really cool.
How do you support yourself doing pole vaulting?
Nike is my shoe sponsor, so I get paid by them, and then when you go to competitions, there is prize money or there’s an appearance fee. They’ll pay your way out there. It’s a great thing.
What’s it like to fall 15 feet and land on your back? What goes through your mind? Is it hard to trust the pole?
I don’t even notice it. It all happens so fast that I don’t feel much. Then you’re back on the pit. Hopefully you made the bar. By the time you realize if you made the bar or missed the bar you’re already down in the pit.
Occasionally you’ll be in a bad facility, with thin mats, and it could hurt a little. In old days they’d pole vault into saw dust. I couldn’t imagine. They didn’t jump as high, but they couldn’t pay me to do it.
For someone new to pole vaulting, what’s some advice about the sport that you’d give her?
I think the most important thing is to have fun. That’s why all athletes get started. It’s a fun way to get and stay in shape. In pole vaulting, it’s important to find a good coach. There are many out there who don’t know what they’re doing. Have fun and keep learning.
What are the differences between indoor and outdoor pole vaulting?
I think the one good thing about indoor is that you don’t have to worry about the weather element, whether or not it’s going to rain, or if the wind’s bad. It’s much more consistent. Less to worry about. However, you can have meets where the wind is really strong behind you and that can help a lot. It kind of goes both ways. But they’re looked at as the same.
What does it take to be an all-American? [In 2000, she became All-American when she came in third at a competition at Duke.] Is it a certain number of wins?
Yes, it’s the top seven (or eight) Americans at the college national meet.
What is your best sports memory or accomplishment?
One of the coolest things was last year at the Olympics. To walk into the opening ceremonies, waving American flags. The atmosphere was amazing. Definitely one of the best moments.
What motivates you?
Knowing I haven’t reached my potential yet. There’s a lot more left. Jumping as high as I think I can keeps me going. Seeing others doing higher motivates me to keep up with the best people in the world.
Who are your role models?
I don’t know. Definitely a lot of people have influenced me. My coach is for sure a big influence, in my athletics anyway. And my parents.
How does it feel to be a role model for others?
I think it’s kinda cool. People can learn from what I’m doing or if I can help kids out getting started in pole vaulting or any athletics, it’s a cool deal.
Any stereotypes or challenges women face in pole vaulting?
Yeah, I think a lot of people don’t view women as being really good pole vaulters. If you look at the way men jump, there are not many women who jump the same way. It’s technically different. There’s the potential for women to be jumping a lot higher than they are. Except for a few girls. At least that’s the view from some of the male pole vaulters. Out there, people who don’t know much about the sport, it’s great to watch. More extreme perhaps than the other events.
Thoughts on being a Jewish female athlete?
It definitely is a pretty small group of people. It’s really cool to be able to represent the Jewish people as a group and to be able to be a role model.
What opportunities have you been given because of sports?
The biggest for me is the opportunity to travel around and see a lot of things others haven’t. The friends I’ve made are amazing. It’s a pretty close group of people. To be able to go visit people in other places is just awesome.
This isn’t your first calendar. What was it like to appear in the 2004 Vaultgirls Calendar?
Two of the other girls decided to put it together to raise money. We flew out to L.A. for the photo shoot. It was a great experience. There were six of us, so all the girls had two photos, one athletic, one beach. We didn’t make a whole lot of money off it, but it was fun.
*All interviews were conducted by Jodi Werner Greenwald, the calendar author, for express purposes of the Jewish + Female = Athlete project during 2005.