Katie Nageotte won the Olympic and World Champs gold, yet her last year was full of agony and ecstasy. Stuart Weir, in his 120 story for us (119,000 words) in 2022, put this together for us as an exclusive. We are most grateful to the senior writer for Europe of RunBlogRun.
Katie Nageotte, Olympic and World champion
To win the Olympics and the World Championship within a 12-month period is beyond most athletes’ dreams, but it happened to Katie Nageotte. It sounds like a perfect year but actually, it was anything but!
Katie went to the 2021 Diamond League final, a month after the Olympics, and failed to clear the first bar she attempted. Not very Olympic champion-like! She recalls that she was in no state to compete: “I was still holding on by a thread, running on momentum. I was already beginning to crash mentally, physically, and everything. And in the two weeks between Pre and Zurich, I crashed in a way that I’d never experienced. My practices were terrible. It was one of those things that I knew exactly why it was happening, but I couldn’t motivate myself for anything. I was trying everything like telling myself the prize money was good, that if I won, I would get an automatic entry into the World Championship – which for an American athlete is huge. I wouldn’t have to worry about trials. Winning that lovely Diamond League trophy that was sitting in front of me. But not one thing could conjure up any motivation. It was sad because you never want to do that and I never want to finish my season that way.
“I walked up to Brad and said, ‘I have nothing left to give. I had just shut down. And as much as I hate that because the Diamond League final is huge and I didn’t want it to look is as if I just come in and didn’t care, I was really hoping that meet adrenalin would kick in. But it didn’t. Brad hugged me and said, ‘you won the Olympics, don’t be sad. Usually, when I have a meet like that, I am really feisty and want to get back out. That night I was just thinking, ‘I am so happy to be done for the year’. It shows that we’re human and all have our breaking points. It’s the reality of the sport. You need to take breaks, and I was ready for mine”.
World Athletics Championships
Eugene, Oregon, USA
pole vault, Nageotte, USA, photo by Kevin Morris
In the winter, she found that she was greatly in demand as an Olympic champion. Invitations to do interesting things flowed in. As she says, “I got all these incredible experiences because I was the Olympic gold medalist. That was wonderful, the coolest experiences – I wouldn’t trade them for anything”. But there was a price to pay: “Even though I took an off-season [after the Olympics], it was associated with my win. But when I started training again, I felt I’d never got away from it, mentally and emotionally, and that’s normally a big part of the off-season.”
When she started to compete in 2022, she came second in the US Indoors and again second in the World Indoors with 4:75. She showed Good performances, but she was still aware that everything was not right: “I was happy with that because I was really struggling. But throughout all of the year, my motivation was low, and it was a very frustrating feeling. But I realized that I was burned out from the year before, and I didn’t really get a break in the way I needed one. And when I started competing again, I realized how burnt out I felt. It was a struggle, and that continued pretty much the whole year. But I was really happy to know that I could still compete well at the top level while feeling that way, that it was still there in me. But it was tough”.
The Tokyo 2021 Olympics, Katie Nageotte, Anzelika Siderova, Holly Bradshaw, photo courtesy of Stuart Weir
And if that wasn’t enough, she got COVID right after the start of the outdoor season for the second time, which produced some lasting, nasty side effects: “It was like a brain fog as I’m coming down the runway like I can’t pull the trigger and move explosively into the take-off. It is really difficult for me, a combination of how I was feeling, the struggle with my motivation, and then the effects of COVID on top of that. It was just the perfect storm; unfortunately, I didn’t have time to bounce back the way I did in 2021.
“I went straight into the competition, and I think it was just the combination of the two things. I really struggled, and it was not a very fun time. And I said to myself, ‘maybe this is what it’s like. I’m 31, and I have accomplished my greatest dream. Yes, I would like to break records and things like that. Maybe, deep down, this was all I wanted to do, and now I’m getting married, and perhaps I’m ready to move on to the next thing in my life. But it was a very frustrating feeling, knowing that I had more potential and knowing that I was capable of more, but I just couldn’t make myself care – I did care because I was crying all the time – but I couldn’t pump myself up. I couldn’t make my body care if that makes sense”.
Katie Nageotte, gold medal, Women’s pole vault, World Champs, Oregon 22, photo by Kevin Morris
After struggling through the early season Diamond Leagues, she went to the US trials, desperate to qualify for a home World Champs, but knowing that being the Olympic champion counted for nothing in the brutal US selection rules of first three or bust! And, of course, it wasn’t straightforward: “During USAs, there was a point early in the competition when I was down to my third attempt, and I knew that if I missed, I was definitely not on the US team for the World Championships. And I remember saying to myself, ‘OK, this is your moment. Do you still want it? This is when we’re going to find out. And I remember picking up the pole and saying, ‘I’m not done yet. I cleared it and went on to make the team. I was also beginning to deal with an Achilles issue at that stage. It wasn’t in danger of rupturing, but it was my take-off foot and was painful. So at the least, it was distracting”.
She had made the team for Oregon but not in the shape she wanted to be in. She decided that the World Championships in July, unusually early, would be her final event of the year. The challenge was to be in a state where she could do herself justice.
Katie Nageotte, gold, Sandi Morris, silver, Women’s pole vault, photo by Kevin Morris
“Mentally and emotionally, I was struggling, and even my body was telling me in every possible way that I needed a break. There was a lot going on emotionally during the year, but I think that just comes with the territory, post-Olympics”. Realizing that it was post-Olympic blues, which affected many Olympians, was slightly reassuring but didn’t help a lot.