McKenzie Gravo has ascended to heights never before reached by freshmen pole vaulters at Concordia. Literally. Possessing the grace of Shawn Johnson and an endearing smile, the native of Henderson, Nev., is part of the next wave of great vaulters for the powerful Bulldog track and field program.
Cassie Starks, a 2015 graduate, is the current indoor and outdoor pole vault school record holder. For now. Says Concordia vault coach Jason Berry, “If it’s not McKenzie it’s going to be Allison Brooks (breaking the record). She’s right behind her. You look at freshmen that we’ve had here, McKenzie has by far the highest personal record for a freshman.”
A former avid gymnast, Gravo owns an outdoor pole vault clearance of 12’ 1 ½” – better than all but four female vaulters in all of the NAIA. Athleticism has never been a question for Gravo, who used to spend four-and-a-half hours daily training as a gymnast. Considering her incredible development as a freshman, the end-game possibilities appear limitless for the now two-time GPAC titlist.
The stage has never seemed too big for Gravo, who placed fifth at the 2016 NAIA indoor national championships. She’s jumping nearly two feet higher than she ever did previous to college while continually pushing her own boundaries.
“It’s kind of surreal. I don’t even think it’s real,” Gravo said of her early success. “It’s shown me the potential that I have. It’s really helped my confidence. Coming in here I thought maybe I could get to conference. I didn’t know if I could get to nationals. Now it’s, ‘I can do this. I can do that.’”
Talk to Gravo and you get the impression that confidence has always come natural for the athletically gifted product of Green Valley High School. Described by Berry as a “free spirit,” Gravo playfully chats it up with the competition during meets. It’s a free-and-easy style that has gotten results.
She smiles from ear-to-ear, engages in pleasantries with you, then jumps higher than you.
“She’s a very friendly person, very outgoing,” Berry said. “She’s someone that has endeared herself to not only her teammates but also the competition. They all know she’s really good but she’s very humble and she’s very sweet about the way she carries herself. You know she’s going to try to beat you, but she’s nice about it.”
Gravo didn’t have a clear leader when she began looking at different colleges. She liked Olivet Nazarene in Illinois. Other schools in Colorado and Washington emerged as contenders. She still had a visit scheduled to Concordia. She wanted to cancel it. She was ready to move to Washington. Her mother convinced her to take her visit to Concordia. Her flight had already been purchased.
Good move. Says Gravo, “As soon as I walked in the building I knew this was the place. I could see myself here. Once I met Jason that sealed the deal. He’s such a great coach and he was so personable. I was like, ‘this is where I need to be.’ It was a gut feeling I had.” She also liked how Berry helped transform Starks from mediocre high school vaulter to school record holder.
And so Gravo received a scholarship as a pole vaulter, something she would not have predicted as a youngster when she desired to go to college for gymnastics. She began as a gymnast at the age of three or four when she took classes. Then she started competing around fourth grade.
The physical demands and long training hours took their toll. Gravo broke her wrist four times, dislocated her shoulder, suffered numerous muscle tears and endured severe back pains. The mental anguish was also becoming an issue. She didn’t enjoy the toil like she used to, but she wanted still wanted to be an athlete. Switching to pole vault made sense. It was something her father and uncles had competed in.
Because pole vaulting requires such attention to technical detail, Gravo had to go through growing pains. She didn’t start vaulting with regularity until her junior year of high school.
“It didn’t come as easy as I thought it was going to come,” Gravo said. “I was pretty athletic from gymnastics and well-coordinated. It was just different. It was different how you went about things. I know when I first started out, if I didn’t make a PR or do really well I would get so mad. Pole vaulting has taught me how to learn to deal with things.”
Despite the late start, Gravo was still a state qualifier with a bright future ahead of her. Berry firmly believed it. Says Berry, “I knew she was going to be good. It was about trying to convince everyone that she could be really good. Some people were like, ‘she’s only a 10-something vaulter.’ I’m like, ‘trust me, she’ll be good.’ She’s proving me right so far. What I’m excited about is she’s jumping this high and she’s got a lot of things she can fix and a lot of growing to do. I’m excited about her potential.”
That word potential is thrown around a lot for someone who is already a GPAC champion and an All-American. The next domino to fall could be Starks’ outdoor pole vault record. Gravo will give it her best shot this year, knowing she’s got a lot of vaulting left in her. Says the confident Gravo, “In years coming up it’s going to be my name on the board.”