Ekaterini Stefanidi of Greece leans on the metal railing rounding the track, her neck craned up into the stands.
Moments after missing her latest attempt in the pole vault, her gaze is locked on Mitch Krier, her husband and coach, as she tries to hear — more like lip read — his instructions over the din of the crowd.
His demeanor is calm. His delivery is unruffled, bordering on serene, even as he attempts to make sure the words get from his lips to her ears.
Since they have been together, if there is one thing he has become good at it’s the art of reading her as an athlete.
“I think there will be some athletes that do react better to yelling but I don’t and I don’t recommend it,” Krier said. “As a coach, it’s important to realize what motivates athletes, what style of coaching they like. I recognized early on that Kat reacts to a more positive environment.”
The supportive coach-athlete environment that Krier has created for his wife has, in two years, catapulted Stefanidi from being a solid professional competitor to the preeminent pole vaulter on the planet and a gold-medal favorite ahead of the 2018 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, England.
The coaching approach is also a far cry from the environment in which she grew up, and how she was coached during her formative years in the sport. That abrasive style of mentoring was so institutionalized that it was nonchalantly shrugged off as culturally accepted despite being harmful enough to trigger an eating disorder which took years to get under control, and suffocating anxiety that nearly drove a would-be champion out of the sport.
But neither that debilitating environment, nor the challenges of assimilating in the U.S. as a collegiate student-athlete, could extinguish the passion for competition that burns inside her and helped forge the strength to persevere.
“I feel like I could have had a different career if it weren’t for that,” Stefanidi said. “Obviously, I can’t know what would have happened for sure, but I think I could be jumping higher right now. I think I could be jumping what I’ll be jumping in two years, maybe, if things go right. I think I could have been top five or 10 in the world for many more years. I think I could’ve jumped 15 feet at an earlier age and been all in big championship in finals, if nothing else. I missed out on all of that, and I’m making it up now.”
Stefanidi leans back in her chair in a nondescript ballroom on the mezzanine level of the Park Central Hotel on a dreary winter night in Manhattan, keen on sharing her story. She holds a banana at arms length, which will remain uneaten, as well as a handful of Nike t-shirts for Krier, one of which he will be wearing two nights later at The Armory when he coaches her to victory at the 118th NYRR Millrose Games.
She starts at the very beginning. She was born in Cholargos, Greece, a town of approximately 31,000 people situated about four miles northeast of the Syntagma Square in Athens. She and her younger sister, Georgia, spent their early years in Pallini — a smaller, nearby municipality in East Attica lying in a plain between the mountains Penteliko and Hymettus.
To hear Stefanidi tell it, she grew up in the suburbs but her hometown “definitely doesn’t feel like you drove through a 10,000-person town and then to another one, because everything is kind of connected to Athens.”
Both of Stefanidi’s parents were accomplished athletes. Her father, Georgios Stefanidis, was a triple jumper and later played in A1 Ethniki, the first-tier Greek basketball League. Her mother, Zoi Vareli, was a long sprinter who competed primarily in the 400m.
Stefanidi wasn’t initially funneled into track and field. Her parents allowed her to experiment in a variety of sports. However, it was only a matter of time before her natural talent dictated the course of her future.
“I don’t even know if I’m actually remembering it or if I heard stories of it, but later on I was pretty good at gymnastics, but I never really did gymnastics,” Stefanidi said. “I played ping-pong (table tennis) for like a week and then we went for gymnastics for, I don’t know, a month, maybe. I did ballet for a little bit, but it was interrupting my afternoon nap so we stopped it and went to basketball and volleyball. I tried many things.”
Most of the local track clubs held youth meets, grouping first- and second-graders and third-and fourth-graders. Gifted with speed, Stefanidi was able to show up and win sprint races and jumping events immediately. The unbridled success continued through fourth grade, but when Stefanidi hit fifth grade and began competing against girls who had started to train formally, the victories came fewer and farther between.
“My dad would be like, ‘Well, this is what happens and now you actually have to train too,’” Stefanidi said. “You can’t beat the people who are training when you’re not training.”
Stefanidi began training in the sprints. The following summer, she and her father tuned in to the track and field competition of the Sydney Olympics on television. After watching Americans Nick Hysong and Stacy Dragila sweep the gold medals, he had an epiphany.
“I couldn’t tell you who we were watching, the men or the women, but I do remember my dad saying, ‘Do you like this? This could be cool,’” Stefanidi said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, sure.’ I mean I didn’t even know if he was being serious.
“But my dad had connections in the federation, so we went to the Olympic Stadium in Athens and met with the federation coach at the time. On the very first day he had me drag the pole and flop into the pit, and he said, ‘Oh I think you can be really good.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, cool.’”
While the Games has served as the stimulus to take up a sport for countless athletes worldwide, Stefanidi says that, in truth, she was never “inspired” to begin pole vaulting as much as she was “pushed toward it” by her father.
“It took me a few years to really love pole vaulting,” Stefanidi said. “At first, I wanted to stay home in the afternoons and play with my friends, and now I couldn’t do that anymore because I had to go practice. I didn’t love that. I think one of out of 100 kids knows what they want to do or what inspires them at that age.
“I would definitely say what kept me in the beginning was the variety of the training. I could not be a sprinter. I would just run and run. We did gymnastics, we did pole vaulting, we did lifting later on. At that point had so much variety for me that I had never really done something that much and it was more fun. At sprinting I did go to like the local track club for a month or something and it got boring to me.”
Success certainly helped captivate Stefanidi.
Although her coach, Panagiotis Simeonidis, kept her with the beginners because she was so new to the sport, Stefanidi recognized right away that she was the best jumper among her peers right out of the gate. In her first competition in the summer of 2001, at age 11, she cleared 2.30m/7-6½ and set a world age-group record even though she had yet to develop the strength to bend the pole.
The following June, despite dealing with a nagging hamstring injury that took her to a dozen doctors before a chiropractor was able to fix the problem, Stefanidi improved her personal best to 3.40m/11-1¾ and established a new age-group world record for 12-year-olds.
“My coach kept me what we call straight poling for a long time on purpose, not only because I was 11 years old and couldn’t really bend a pole, (but also) because I think it teaches you the fundamentals,” Stefanidi explained. “When I was 12 I could actually straight pole 10 feet. I think a lot of the elite vaulters right now cannot straight pole 10 feet. Today, I only straight pole 11½ feet so it was huge at 12 to be doing that.
“From the very first week I had a very good sense of how to manipulate the pole, and I think that’s what my coach saw the first day and he said, ‘I think you can be good.’ It wasn’t that I was fast or athletic or tall or strong. When we start training new kids, I can see when a girl or a guy can create momentum on the pole versus just hanging on them. There’s a big difference in equally athletic kids.”
With more training and competition experience, Stefanidi’s trajectory — and resultant assault on the record books — continued to soar.
In 2003, she competed outside mainland Greece — in Cyprus — for the first time in her life.
“I remember sitting next to my best friend who had also qualified and we were freaking out. He hadn’t been on an airplane either,” she said.
That summer, Stefanidi improved her PR outdoors and the 13-year-old age group world record to 3.90m/12-9½.
The following year, Stefanidi competed internationally for the first time at a street vault set up in Old Town Square in Prague. She was one of four competitors to clear 4.10m/13-5¼, but finished fifth on a countback.
“I had never competed on a raised runway before,” Stefanidi recalled. “I jumped a PB of 4.10m and one of the opposing coaches freaked out because I had jumped 4.10m and I was only 14. Halfway through the competition I had to pee, so I went to a McDonald’s, which was positioned close by the runway. There was a lady standing by the toilet door saying I had to pay money to go for a pee. That was also the first time I had ever experienced having to pay to pee!”
At the Greek national junior championships later that year, she broke the national junior record and set a new 14-year-old age group world record with a winning mark of 4.14m/13-7. For perspective, that mark would have place her fifth at the NCAA outdoor championships that year.
“I really started paying attention to the records after the second one,” Stefanidi said. “I don’t know if any other girls were jumping at 11 years old. At 12 it was cool (being a world record holder), but it was also like, how many kids really jump at 12? But at 13 it was a big mark. I jumped 3.90m, which is like what boys tried to do.”
Putting precocious age group records aside, Stefanidi really established herself as an emerging talent internationally as a 15-year-old in 2005. In February of that year, she set a national junior record and world youth record indoors with a clearance of 4.37m/14-4 in Athens. Later that summer, she improved her national junior record outdoors three times, the last being a 4.30m/14-1¾ mark that earned her gold at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Marrakech, Morocco.
“I had jumped 14-4 indoors but had an up-and-down outdoor season, so we went in not as confident as we would have been in February or March,” Stefanidi said. “There was another girl from Venezuela (Keisa Monterola) who had jumped the same height as me, and whenever we would see her around my coach would tell me, ‘Oh look at her. She’s definitely going to win.’ That’s the kind of motivation the coach would give to me.”
Panagiotis Simeonidis is hardly the first coach to ever employ reverse psychology tactics in an attempt to motivate his athletes. But when Stefanidi is asked about how she reacts to this type of coaching style, she shifts uncomfortably in her seat and clasps her hands tightly as she begins to explain.
“I think it’s not just the coaching style, it’s the whole culture that’s a little bit that way,” she said. “My father was that way too. He would be more on the negative side. I didn’t love it, but at the time that’s all there was so I didn’t have a comparison.”
When posed with the question how she managed to not be completely turned off to the sport because of such negativity, Stefanidi almost matter-of-factly shares anecdotes of verbal abuse unimaginable by today’s American standards, but seemingly acceptable in the Mediterranean culture in which she grew up.
“At 12 years old, the coach was swearing at me,” she said. “I was the only — I mean there were a couple of other young girls but obviously I was the much better one and everybody else that was as good as me was 25 years old. He would swear and scream at them so then very soon after that he was swearing and screaming at me at 12. But it really was the normal thing.
“He would say bad words to me. The equivalent or translation would be calling a girl a douchebag. After I jumped, he would swear at me, then he’d swear to the next person that jumped. So it wasn’t a personal thing. Let’s say I would run through, he would tell me, ‘Oh you piece of shit. What are you doing? Why do you think you’re going to be a pole vaulter?’
“But the culture is that way too. I yell at my mom like this sometimes and a minute later we’re fine. It wasn’t like a personal thing where anybody got offended at all. It’s hard to explain.”
In a 2015 Sports Illustrated article on abusive coaching on the collegiate level, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a social psychologist who runs the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology (PEP) Lab at North Carolina, stated that negative emotions grab people’s attention more easily because, for evolutionary reasons, survival in prehistoric environments often depended on sudden alerts.
“So there’s a perception that the best way to get what you want out of employees or players is by negativity or threats, or being stressful or intense,” Fredrickson told SI. “But in terms of bonding, loyalty, commitment to a team or a group and personal development over time, negativity doesn’t work as well as positivity.”
While it may be easy for Stefanidi, now 15 years removed, to brush off Simeonidis’ bullying tactics as culturally acceptable, negative coaching always inflicts mental, physical, or emotional damage.
The verbal abuse directed at Stefanidi wasn’t isolated to swearing, and often crossed the line to body shaming.
“We weren’t even pole vaulting,” she recalled. “I think we were doing some hurdles and I’ve always been scared of doing the double leg. In fact, I do them now but I’m still scared of them. I was like 12 or 13 and I would like do two hurdles and stop and be scared. (Simeonidis) would say, ‘Well, if you cared a little bit, lose a little bit of weight you’d be able to do those and be pretty.’ I said, ‘I don’t care to lose weight to be pretty.’ I talked back and I should not have done that. I couldn’t even tell you what he responded with but he screamed so loud that the whole stadium turned and looked at us.”
Stefanidi experienced perhaps the most pressure about her physique in 2006. As a 16-year-old still going through puberty, she said she put on about two kilos, or four pounds. At 5-foot-7 and an athletic 130 pounds, she was far from what anyone would consider obese. But when looking at her modest season’s best of 4.10m/13-5¼, all her coach and father could see was four pounds keeping her from raising the bar.
“I couldn’t see that I was like bigger or fatter,” she said. “I liked what I saw in the mirror, which I think was part of the problem maybe. They were seeing something that they didn’t like and I didn’t mind what I was seeing and that was always one of the fights.”
At home, whenever she picked up a slice of bread and dipped it into a bowl of olive oil, Stefanidi’s father disgustedly told her, “Go ahead. Eat, eat.” Sometimes she caved to the sarcasm and put the bread down. Other times, she grabbed a second slice and ate it out of spite.
High school provided little shelter from the pressure.
“My coach was having an affair with one of my teachers, and the cafeteria is where I did most of my cheating,” Stefanidi said. “I would go buy things and she would spy on me. Then I would go to practice and he would say, ‘Oh, you ate two donuts today.’”
Eventually, Stefanidi says she became borderline bulimic.
“I had become very obsessed with food,” she said. “I would go four or five hours without eating a thing and then I would binge. I went through periods when I would be on a strict diet for a couple of days and then the next couple of days I would eat everything in the house. I wouldn’t go and puke, but my parents would leave the house and I would open all the cupboards and try to find snacks.
“They would try not to buy anything to have in the house, but I knew that they were buying little things for them and hiding them. I would search the kitchen to find the dumbest things that if I were starving I wouldn’t eat now. Like stupid biscuits and stuff like that. I ate them because they were prohibited.”
According to the Global Burden of Disease Study, bulimia nervosa was estimated to affect 3.6 million people globally in 2015. Research conducted by the Eating Disorders Coalition, 1.5 percent of American women suffer from bulimia nervosa in their lifetime. Onset is primarily seen in women aged 13 to 20, but studies report both disorders in children as young as 6 and individuals as old as 26.
The Massachusetts Eating Disorders Association cites the following statistics on teen eating disorders:
- 15 percent of women 17 to 24 have eating disorders
- 40 percent of teenage females have eating disorders
- 91 percent of female teenagers have attempted to control their weight through dieting
Her confidence shaken — “They made me believe that it was not possible to be jumping the same because of two kilos,” she said — Stefanidi reached her breaking point that summer. She passed up the opportunity to compete at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Beijing and quit pole vaulting.
“I just went to vacation with my friends,” she said.
By the winter of 2007, Stefanidi had spent a sufficient time away from the sport and was ready to come back. She decided not to return to Simeonidis, but instead began training under Georgia Tsiligri, one of his former athletes who had just retired.
That summer, she won her fourth consecutive junior national championship and took a silver medal at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic. She cleared a season best 4.25m/13-11¼ each time.
“I had the attitude that I’m just going to go back to pole vaulting and have fun,” Stefanidi said. “It was cool because it was like I had just trained for four or five months and I was back to the same level almost.”
While Stefanidi’s mother was steadfastly supportive, her father still believed that because she had gained weight she was somehow wasting her God-given athletic ability. Their relationship remained frosty.
“There was almost a two-year period that my dad, we would live in the same house, and he wouldn’t talk to me,” she said.
Needless to say, when brochures for American colleges started arriving, Stefanidi naturally couldn’t wait to put an ocean between her and Greece. Her father, being as much of a stickler for academics as athletics, was also eager for her to capitalize on higher education opportunities.
“The first letter I got was from Harvard,” she said. “Not knowing at all the process and how it works, my dad just like packed me a bag and said, ‘Ok, you’re off to Harvard.’ I said, ‘I’m sure there is a process to this.’”
Stefanidi found help with the applications and with taking the SATs and was advised to apply to USC and Stanford, for the quality of the education and track programs each offered.
“I knew what Harvard was and I had heard of Yale and Princeton but I had not heard of Stanford,” Stefanidi said. “But we contacted Stanford. Edrick Floreal was the head coach and Kris Mack was the pole vault coach. We said this is who I am, this is what I’ve done, are you able to offer me a full scholarship? Stanford never recruited me. We contacted them. They said, ‘Absolutely. Get in and we’ll offer you a scholarship.’ And I did.”
That summer, Stefanidi’s parents took a long vacation to the United States. After visiting New York and Las Vegas, they drove to Palo Alto to scout out the Stanford campus. Their daughter had yet to ever step foot on American soil.
“I landed in San Francisco and my parents came and picked me up from SFO and I was crying,” Stefanidi said. “I wanted to go back home and they were like, ‘Just wait we’ll go to the campus, you’ll see.’ So we’re coming in and turning onto Palm Drive and coming down that road and I’m like, ‘Oh, this is not so bad.’ The first encounter with the campus definitely immediately changed my mind.”
Stefanidi quickly realized that while she had good academic English, the same could not be said for conversational English, as she struggled with the colloquialisms Americans take for granted in speaking every day.
“I remember I would get headaches in the class trying to follow what the professor was saying, and I had a very hard time taking notes in English,” she said. “So my whole first year there were Greek English notes. Eventually, I realized that wasn’t going to be very beneficial eventually. I made myself take them all in English and it was harder. I would miss things.
“The hard part was the slang. Once I got closer to my teammates and we would go out, one of my teammates would always say, ‘Oh, you’re such a party pooper,’ and I would say, ‘What’s a party pooper?’ I was never taught that word.”
A moment later Stefanidi cracks up laughing as she recalled another English faux pas.
“I was taught British English, so rubber in British is an eraser, what you would erase a pencil with,” she said. “So I was in a study group and this is the first week. So this girl who doesn’t talk very much because I’m worried about making mistakes, blurts out, ‘Does anybody have a rubber?’ Needless to say, I made some friends that day.”
Language wasn’t the only challenge that she faced. The ability to control her weight resurfaced.
“I gained the ‘freshman 15’ and then some,” Stefanidi said. “I was the fattest I have ever been in my life. I never ate anything crazy, but bread was my nemesis. Two times a week they would have breadsticks and I would take 10 breadsticks. The rest of my plate looked perfect. You had some meat, some salad but then a whole plate of breadsticks. Same with cookies. I would take literally 10 cookies. I never like went in and ate four steaks. That, actually, might have been healthier.
“Somehow, I managed to jump 4.13m and break the freshman school record that year. I probably should have only jumped 3.80m given how fat I was.”
Stefanidi returned home to Greece over the summer of 2009. Now nearly 20 pounds heavier than when she left, home life with her dad was “a disaster.” Additionally, carrying that extra weight was causing knee pain and rather than risk injury, she shut down her season and did not compete at the European championships.
During that time, Mack left Stanford and was replaced by Cardinal alum Toby Stevenson, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist. Motivated by that coaching change, Stefanidi worked hard in training and ate better to lower her weight ahead of her sophomore season.
“Before the Athens we were making bets, and I had chosen him to win the Olympic gold,” Stefanidi said. “I liked him very much because he is the exact opposite of the system I grew up in, very focused, very robotic. He had fun and he just ran down and pole vaulted. I think that gave me this new motivation. I was excited to go to practice again.”
But Stefanidi continued to struggle during her first quarter of her sophomore year. Before she was to return home to Greece for winter break, Stevenson pulled her aside and asked her point blank if she really wanted to pole vault. She broke down and cried.
For the first time since briefly walking away in the summer of 2006, Stefanidi had serious doubts about continuing to pole vault.
If she quit, she would lose her scholarship to Stanford and would be unable to continue her education, as need-based financial aid was only available to U.S. citizens. She could not apply for any academic scholarships because she didn’t have a green card. Gone would be any hope of returning to Greece with a degree to practice chiropractic medicine.
With no other options, she decided to tough it out and returned to Palo Alto with a renewed sense of resolve. In her first meet back, Stefanidi jumped 4.25m/13-11 ¼ to finish third at the UW Preview and earn an automatic qualifier for NCAAs.
“I don’t remember anything about it,” she said of the competition. “The only thing I remember is that at the team meeting that night everyone said, ‘We need to pull a Kat,’ meaning get the automatic qualifier right away.”
That one meet altered the course of Stefanidi’s career simply by restoring her confidence. Always a consistent performer, she jumped over 4.20m 10 times the rest of that season. The excitement of her coaches and teammates improved her mental and physical well-being. Soon, she was no longer binge-eating.
“I would still eat breadsticks and cookies,” she said, “But I would have one, not 10.”
The improvements became evident on the track. In 2011, Stefanidi recorded a personal record for the first time in six years, jumping 4.41m/14-5½ indoors and 4.45m/14-7¼ outdoors, a mark she cleared in finishing second at the European U23 Championships and then equaled in winning bronze at the World University Games in Shenzhen, China. She also finished second at the NCAA indoor championships, won her first Pac-10 title outdoors, and finished third at the NCAA outdoor championships.
The following year, Stefanidi finished third at the NCAA indoor championships, repeated as Pac-12 champion, and won the NCAA outdoor championship, missing a shot at the Olympic standard at the conference meet by a quirk in the competition format.
“They had this terrible progression,” she said. “The girl I was competing against (Logan Miller of Washington) PR’d by a foot at 4.38m. I made 4.48m to break the school record and she passed to 4.58m when I could have put the bar at 4.50m and tried to get the Olympic standard.”
Shortly after graduating from Stanford with her degree in psychology, Stefanidi jumped 4.51m/14-9½ at a low-key meet in Livermore, California, for a new PR, a new Greek U23 record, and the London Olympic qualifying standard. She went on to finish fourth at the European Championships but at the Games was unable to make it out of qualifying.
“Amsterdam and London that year were the two worst conditions I have ever jumped in,” she said. “I don’t think Jenn (Suhr) gets enough credit for winning at 4.75m in London because it was that terrible.”
The following fall, Stefanidi found herself balancing the burning desire to make it as a professional with the realities of needing to financially stoke the fire fueling that dream. She wanted to stay at Stanford for at least another year to pursue a master’s degree or even a Phd., and found a way through a fellowship that allowed her to train and work as a teaching assistant.
Over the summer, however, Floreal left Stanford for the head coaching position at the University of Kentucky and brought his entire coaching staff, Stevenson included, to Lexington. Stefanidi began commuting back and forth to San Jose Community College to train.
In January of 2013, Stefanidi found herself applying to PhD programs knowing that she needed to in order to maintain her student visa. At the Pole Vault Summit in Reno, she met Krier, who was a personal trainer at the RISEN Performance training facility in Phoenix, and Hysong, the 2000 Olympic champion and pole vault coach at Arizona State and RISEN.
“I liked Mitch because I went and visited and I liked the atmosphere that they had where we trained,” she said. “I chose ASU and moved to Phoenix that March to train with Nick that summer.”
Transitioning from the more strength-focused training regimen she was accustomed to under Stevenson to the more explosive, speed-oriented training of Hysong led to foot injuries that forced Stefanidi out of competition the summer of 2013. The following summer, she showed tremendous promise, earning three personal records on the Diamond League circuit — the high bar being a 4.71m/15-5½ clearance at the Herculis Meeting in Monaco — and winning her first medal on the senior level, a silver at the European Championships in Zurich.
“The Greek federation wouldn’t allow me to bring Nick as my coach to Zurich,” she said. “I randomly had to ask Tina Sutej’s coach from Slovenia in the stands if he could help coach me. It was stressful but I think it kept the fire going not having won that one.”
Stefanidi went into 2015 excited. She could see that Hysong’s training was taking hold and her results were improving. Confidence was high after the indoor season, during which she set a new Greek indoor record of 4.77m/15-7¾ at altitude in Albuquerque and finished second at the European indoor championships. But she developed a nagging hamstring issue during the outdoor season and was unable to reach the final of the world championships in Beijing.
“I don’t even want to call it injury because it was not,” she said. “But because I’ve never had it before it affected me a lot more mentally. After I didn’t make the final in Beijing I was upset, but it was kind of expected because I hadn’t had a great season.”
In May of 2015, Stefanidi married Krier, who quit his jobs as a self-employed personal trainer and contractor and began coaching his new wife full-time. The couple moved to Ohio and began training at SPIRE Institute in Geneva. The change in coaching styles between Hysong and Krier made a world of difference.
“Nick was 10 times more positive than my first coach but I think he still didn’t know how to motivate me,” Stefanidi said. “He would say things like, ‘Oh Natasha ran faster than you, she’s going to jump higher than you.’ To him that was his way of motivating but that doesn’t work for me.”
“It helped that we were best friends before, so when Nick would say something like that I would see much it would piss her off and shut her down instead of help her,” Krier added. “So I got to see a different side before I coached her, how she is and isn’t motivated. I believe in pole vault you have to be confident to know what you’re doing so I went in to progress her so slow and I knew she needed to get back to some basics and fix a few things to be really confident.”
That confidence began to snowball in May of 2016.
American Sandi Morris injured her wrist that month when her pole snapped during competition and was forced to cut short her European season to heal before the Olympic Trials. With her chief rival sidelined, Stefanidi was able to score victories in Rabat and the Golden Gala in Rome. After a runner-up finish at the Diamond League meet in Birmingham, she set a new national record of 4.86m/15-11¼ in Filothei. Then came victories at the Greek nationals, the European championships, and the Diamond League meets in Monaco and London.
After London, Stefanidi returned to Ohio to get back on the same time zone as Rio de Janeiro before heading to the Olympics. Physically and emotionally drained from the long season — Krier said he and manager Karen Locke “literally had to drag her out of the hotel to the meet” in London — Stefanidi decided to take a couple days to rest. When she returned to practice, on her first jump attempt she felt hip tightness. No big deal. Take another day off. Two days later, same thing.
“At this point it’s like the end of July and my chiropractor is in vacation,” Stefanidi said. “Nobody’s working. Everybody’s away. I was even thinking about going back to Greece to our Greek chiropractor. So we went into Rio having had two weeks of not training and having not jumped since London almost a month earlier.”
Going into the competition, Krier reminded Stefanidi that nothing had changed. She was still the same, fit pole vaulter she was earlier in the summer. Three days before qualifying, she took her first jumps on a short run up and short pole just to regain her feel. Unlike four years earlier, she was able to qualify for the final on her first attempt at 4.60m, a definite confidence boost.
She needed it, as the final turned out to be tenser than imagined.
Stefanidi and upstart Eliza McCartney of New Zealand were the only two of six athletes with a clean ledger over 4.70m/15-5, while Morris sat in third. McCartney, who had struggled mightily in qualifying, made a surprise first-attempt clearance at 4.80m/15-9 to take the lead from Stefanidi and Morris, who each needed a second jump to clear that bar.
McCartney was unable to clear 4.85m/15-11, while Stefanidi and Morris each got over on second tried, putting Stefanidi in the lead by virtue of two missed attempts to Morris’ three. Neither was able to clear 4.90m/16-0¾, making Stefanidi Greece’s seventh female Olympic champion after Voula Patoulidou, Athanasia Tsoumeleka, Fani Chalkia, Sofia Bekatorou, Emilia Tsoulfa, and Anna Korakaki.
“I don’t have a very good memory of that day at all,” Stefanidi said. “I remember at one point, Sandi said ‘I don’t feel like we’re at the Olympics.’ And at that point I think I knew I had won because I felt like I was in the Olympics and she didn’t seem to have that same fire or feeling.”
Back home in Greece, Stefanidi became an overnight national hero, achieving the type of rock star status typically reserved for Europe’s top Premier League soccer stars.
“First of all, we almost missed our flight from Paris to Greece,” Stefanidi said of her triumphant return. “I was wearing Nike stuff but I knew when I went to the reception I needed to be wearing Greek Olympic stuff. I figured when we got there I would get my suitcase, change and put on some makeup. Well the plane lands and there are photographers standing on the tarmac waiting for me. I had the wrong clothes on and looked terrible. Fortunately, the president of the federation told the photographers not to take pictures until I could change.”
“Random citizens, not like media, just random citizens drove hours to the airport just to come sit and watch her come back,” Krier added. “We spent two hours at the airport probably with media. We get in the car and they don’t say a word to us about where we’re going. Cars are following us and honking with the Greek flag. And we’re like, ‘What is going on, and we’re so tired. We don’t know what’s happening.’ And they drive us to a parade and to another parade and we had a party that night. It was crazy.
“In Greece, she’s like LeBron James. I mean she walks into a restaurant and people come up to her for pictures. People see her on the road in her car and if she stops for food on the side of the street people will pull in behind her to get autographs. I mean it’s cool, it’s awesome for the country, and it’s really an amazing feeling, but if that were happening all year I think it would be hard to stay focused and maintain. So I think it’s really good to be out on our own.”
After the post-Olympic whirlwind, Stefanidi and Krier were relieved to return home to Chesterfield, Ohio, AKA “the middle of nowhere between Cleveland and Geneva,” and the anonymity that comes with that.
After nearly a two-month break, she resumed training for the 2017 season later than normal in an attempt to reduce the grind. The confidence gained in becoming the Olympic champion spilled over into the following season as she completed an almost blemish-free campaign, winning all but one low-key indoor meet. She repeated as the Diamond League pole vault champion, won at the European Championships, and captured her first World Championships gold medal, clearing a personal-best and national record 4.91m/16-1¼ in London.
“Coming back from Rio I think it was very easy,” Stefanidi said. “Personally, I understand why after a bad year people get motivated to come back, but I think success motivates me the most. I think being at the top and staying there motivates me more than being somewhere in the middle and getting to the top.”
Stefanidi is unequivocally the best pole vaulter in the world right now, riding an 19-meet winning streak and a level of consistency in the event surpassed perhaps only by the great Yelena Isinbayeva. But unlike the Russian, who thrived chasing world record clearances, Stefanidi is driven more by competition.
“To me, 5 meters is the same as 4.92m or 4.99m, which would be a PR,” Stefanidi said. “ It just happens to be this number that we consider big. That being said, I am more interested in every single championship. World indoors is the only gold I don’t have, so that is my biggest motivation right now. After that, I am looking forward to this new cycle of trying to defend all of my titles. I look forward to that pressure and consider it a privilege.”
“She honestly loves pole vaulting and has a fire for competition,” Krier added. “She has these motivators but they come second to just pure love for the sport. That’s why she does it.”
Stefanidi glanced over her left shoulder at Krier sitting behind her, then faced forward to offer this slight correction.
“I pole vault because that is who I am,” she said. “I have pole vaulted for 18 years, a longer period of my life than I haven’t pole vaulted. When I first came to Stanford and people would ask me what I did I said, ‘I’m a pole vaulter.’ It has become my identity.”
What would she be had all of the negativity driven her from the sport?
“Honestly, I have no idea,” she said.