Twenty-five thousand dollars. Stacy Dragila had never seen that much money. But that's how much she won on March 9, when she beat the world-record holder, Emma George of Australia, in the women's pole vault at the world indoor track and field championships in Paris.
Or so she thought. A month later, back home in Pocatello, Idaho, Dragila, 26, had test-driven a new car and was looking at houses with her husband, Brent, when she received a letter from the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the governing body of track and field, saying she had violated IAAF rule number 18.17. The money was being withheld, Dragila was informed, because she had folded the bib showing her entry number in Paris, hiding the name of the meet's primary sponsor, Mita. Dragila's skimpy singlet had been barely big enough for a bar code, much less a bib. "I'm not blaming anybody. It was my own negligence," says Dragila, who wrote letters of apology to Mita and the IAAF. In May she received a check for the $25,000.
After her performance two weeks ago at the U.S. nationals in Indianapolis—she successfully defended her title with a vault of 14'1�"—she confirmed her status as a champion, but she is still cautious about her future as a pole vaulter. "It's going to take some time for women vaulters to get recognized," she says.
In the spring of 1993 Dave Nielsen, Idaho State's track and field coach (and a former pole vaulter himself), looked down his roster and chose Dragila and a few other women to try the pole vault. That was the year that Melissa Price got women's vaulting off the ground by competing for her Kingsburg, Calif., high school, and coaches everywhere saw the beginning of a trend. "It attracted so much attention," says Bob Fraley, the men's pole vault development coordinator for USA Track & Field and now Price's coach at Fresno State. "I mean, a massive amount of coverage from TV and newspapers."
Dragila had the perfect background for the event. As a child in Auburn, Calif., she did gymnastics until she was diagnosed as asthmatic and had to quit. Then she got into rodeo: breakaway roping, goat-tying and team roping. At Placer High she went out for track and field. "I tried everything," Dragila says. "I liked the relays, I tried the hurdles, and I played around with the long jump a little bit." After graduating from high school, she attended Yuba ( Calif.) College, where she played volleyball and ran hurdles and relays on the track team. In Dragila's second year, Yuba's track and field coach, John Orognen, asked, "Why not try the heptathlon?" Dragila liked the variety of the event, and it became her ticket to a scholarship to Idaho State. But the heptathlon would not be her signature event for the Bengals. Nielsen saw in her a strong, light athlete—Dragila is 5'7", 140 pounds—who was game to try something new, namely the vault. What he could not predict was how hard Dragila would continue to work at her new specialty, even after exhausting her NCAA eligibility and beginning graduate school in physical education administration. Says Nielsen today, "Here is someone who is truly breaking ground."
Despite getting a share of the indoor world record—14'5�"—in March, Dragila has not found sponsors. She called Nike and Adidas, but, she says, those companies told her that they wanted to invest in a more established event. "Sometimes I get discouraged," says Dragila, who is an assistant women's track coach at Idaho State. "I feel I'm putting a lot of other stuff on hold. [She dropped out of graduate school last year, with plans to resume next fall.] But Coach Nielsen tells me, 'If I had had the talent you do, I'd have been an 18-foot vaulter.' "
Finding competition is another issue. The meet in Paris was the first world championship to include women's pole vaulting; the event will not be part of this summer's world outdoor championships in Athens. As for the Olympics, the 2000 Summer Games are in Sydney, and George, whose world outdoor record is 14'11", may be Australia's best hope for a track and field medal. "If Australia has any influence," Fraley says, "they would add the pole vault there."
For now, Dragila will have to be content with competing on the European Grand Prix circuit this summer, trying to earn the recognition, as well as the prize money, she believes she deserves.