RCW: Against the Odds
The thrill of competition is something athletes look forward to, often crave, throughout their entire season. Collegiate track & field athletes are lucky because they get two seasons each year: indoor and outdoor.
Junior Alexis Romero is no stranger to the excitement or exhilaration of competition as she participates in one of the most thrilling events of them all — pole vaulting.
“I just love competing. I like practicing, but I live for the adrenaline rush in competition and that feeling of making a bar and hearing the crowd cheer,” she said.
The Reno, Nevada native began pole vaulting her freshman year at Wooster High School. She had just quit gymnastics in order to allow herself to have a more normal high school experience, so at that point, Romero was just trying another sport. It wasn’t until her junior year, when she started jumping higher, did she come to realize her dream of vaulting at the collegiate level.
She remembers attending the Reno Pole Vault Summit her junior year and seeing athletes there from the University of Kansas. Held annually, the Summit attendees include not only athletes, but coaches and parents as well, in different levels of groups ranging from beginners to masters. The Summit strives to teach the conceptual development of safe, modern pole vaulting and everything that goes along with the popular track & field event. From that moment in 2013, Romero knew that Kansas was where she wanted to go to college and where she wanted to try pole vaulting at the Division I level.
From there, the road to becoming a Jayhawk for Romero was led by a domino effect of coincidences. Her coach at Wooster High School, Randy Bryant, is originally from Kansas and happened to know KU’s pole vault coach, Tom Hays. Additionally, Bryant’s brother, Darren, is a meet official for Kansas track & field.
Two years later, the connections Romero had to Kansas helped her in attending and pole vaulting at her No. 1 choice for school. She has since worked her way up through KU’s all-time top-10 list of vaulters, holding the record for the No. 6 spot on the outdoor list with a clearance of 4.21 meters (13-9.75 ft.) and the record for No. 5 on the indoor record books with a clearance of 4.15 meters (13-5.25 ft.).
However for Romero, the thrill of competing was almost taken away permanently due to a labrum injury just before her sophomore season.
Romero was participating in fall training when she noticed her hip would hurt after squatting or lifting. Sometimes even after sitting for a long time Romero noticed her hip felt inflamed. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed that her labrum was torn and would require surgery.
While the doctor advised surgery to fix the torn cartilage since cartilage won’t heal by itself, others with Kansas Athletics wanted to exhaust all possibilities before surgery, whether that was strengthening her glute muscles surrounding the labrum in order to reduce any pain she was having or extensive physical therapy.
After some back-and-forth discussion with her trainers, doctors and parents, Romero made the decision to go ahead with the surgery.
“My parents said, ‘You’re still early in your collegiate career and if you want to get better, you obviously have to get stronger and faster. But if you can’t do the workouts now, how are you going to do them later?’ Ultimately, they were worried but had faith I was going to be okay,” she said.
Stephan L. Prô, MD, at OrthoKansas did the procedure in December of 2016.
Physically, Romero’s recovery went a lot smoother than expected. Due to rehab procedures in anticipation of the surgery, physical therapy afterward was easier for her. Easy enough that she was an entire month ahead of schedule. She was jogging on the ground after five months and after six, she was back on the runway. Mentally, however, it wasn’t as easy for the vaulter.
“I had the surgery and was doing my rehab while everyone was in season, traveling and going to meets, so it stunk to sit behind while everyone was competing. I think once I had the surgery, I knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel. I knew I was going to get back, so it wasn’t too bad,” Romero said.
The light at the end of the tunnel came quicker than she imagined, and she is proud of her expedited recovery process.
“I felt like I proved them wrong a little bit, like, ‘I can do this.’ I feel like some people doubted my situation, but I knew I was going to do what I could to get back to where I was,” Romero said. “I was just happy to be pole vaulting again, but it was also really satisfying.”
Often, injuries mark the end of an athletic career and those athletes are faced with the question, “What do I do now?”
Romero is fortunate enough to have overcome her injury and is back competing. From that injury she also knows what she will do next — apply to physical therapy (PT) school. The junior says she’s always had an interest in PT, but her passion for it stems from the duration of her own injury and recovery process.
A former sports medicine graduate assistant with the track & field team, Savannah Burks, was crucial in Romero’s recovery. Making going to rehab fun and her supportive and encouraging nature is something Romero will never forget.
By making the rehab exercises into games and ensuring the PT wasn’t so monotonous, Romero said that Burks always had a positive outlook in the training room and was a great asset to the staff.
Burks, who is now living in San Antonio, Texas and working at Robert E. Lee High School as an athletic trainer and health teacher, says that knowing she’s impacted Romero like this is humbling.
“Working with athletes is rewarding on many levels. By far the most satisfying is seeing them succeed after college. Not only have I helped her overcome a substantial adversity, but influencing her to go out and help others is so fulfilling,” Burks said.
Burks said that her and Romero had many discussions about what life held for the pole vaulter once school and track were over, and that helping people is what Romero needs to be doing.
“Alexis and I developed a great working relationship that has transitioned into a friendship,” Burks explained. “Her character and personality are ideal for cultivating meaningful interactions and connections. I think she will not only excel as a physical therapist, but far exceed the expectations of her patients as she provides them the tools to reach their goals, like she has reached hers.”
Romero, as an athlete, is goal oriented. Burks uses this and adapts it to the athlete. She believes that making attainable short term and long term goals is key. Burks also walks through the rehab as a whole with them, so they understand what the road to recovery looks like. Realizing that overcoming injuries is more than a physical barrier, and addressing the mental component of the challenges they will be facing, makes for a more successful process. Ultimately, Burks implores that compassion, understanding, and empathy are unmatched rehab tools and those qualities stuck with Romero.
“I want to be that person for somebody; to help them get through an injury or whatever they’re struggling with, physically or mentally,” she said.
Aside from a supportive training staff, Romero found the same backing from her Jayhawk teammates. Always positive and encouraging herself, the junior is still grateful for their help, even if it was just small gestures.
For example, fellow junior pole vaulter Morgan Griffiths pushed Romero around in a wheelchair during a whole day at the mall and when the two girls, along with former track & field athlete Dylan Poirier, got coffee, Poirier carried her coffee for her.
“It was the little things that meant a lot,” Romero said.
Those “little things” helped Romero not only get back to her sense of normalcy, but then onto bigger and better things as well. Her first meet back was a milestone for the vaulter. She was aware to not put too much pressure on herself, knowing she hadn’t competed in a year and a half. But the thrill of competition she has always craved was still there.
“My mindset going in was, ‘I’m just happy to be here. I don’t care how high I jump, I just want to have fun because I’m doing this again. I’m grateful for the opportunity to just be pole vaulting again,'” Romero said.
Against the odds, Romero made a full physical recovery from her torn left labrum and had her best meet ever during her redshirt-sophomore season at the 2017 Big 12 Conference Outdoor Track & Field Championship. She cleared every bar on her first attempt and finished in third place overall with a personal-best clearance of 4.21 meters (13-9.75 ft.).
As for the remainder of this 2018 outdoor season, Romero’s biggest goal is to make it to nationals. Before getting there though, there are the conference and Regional meets in which to prove her ability and talent is back on track to not only others, but herself as well. As this year’s Big 12 meet nears, to be held this weekend in Waco, Texas she aims to place higher than last year.
“So far, the best I’ve placed is third, so I want to place second or first. It’s been getting better every year, so I want to keep it going,” Romero said.
As her goals for her senior pole vaulting campaign grow, as well as her future career ambitions, Romero does reflect back on her time in Reno. The now-KU junior held the Nevada state record for pole vault, clearing 12-8 ft., from 2014 until just last year, an important accolade in itself. But most importantly, Romero thinks back to that fateful summit when she first saw the student-athletes from KU and how her journey has now truly come full circle.