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Olympian Began Pole Vaulting At Highland High School

Milton Lau Photography
Anicka Newell begins a vault at the UNM Classic 2020 Indoor in February 2020. The Albuquerque native is on Team Canada in the Tokyo Olympics

It’s been a long road to the Tokyo Olympics for Albuquerque resident and Highland High School grad Anicka Newell.

The pole vaulter has dual citizenship in Canada where she was named to the Olympic team in 2016 for the Rio de Janeiro games. But Newell says she choked in that competition. Then she had to wait an extra year as the 2020 games were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Her parents, Tim and Marina Peters Newell, said the extra time actually worked in Anicka’s favor. They will watch her compete in the pole vault final at 4 a.m. Mountain Time Thursday from their home in Albuquerque. 

TIM NEWELL: She had gotten injured last year, just prior to the Olympics. She would have made them but she would have been hobbled at the Olympics. So she said she did cry for two hours solid when they postponed them. But then as the time progressed, she realized that it could work in her advantage. And it really has. She's jumping much better this year with that extra year of preparation.

KUNM: Now, I read that she got started with gymnastics, but switched over to pole vault when she was at Highland High School. Can you all tell me about her process of switching over sports?

TIM NEWELL: She would have lived in the gym. And that is a brutal sport. And it costs some back injuries to her spine, some cracked protrusions off the spine. So the doctor said, ‘Well, you can't do this anymore.’ It's such a brutal sport. You know, gymnastics, it really is on young women. So you know, she was trying to find something she liked. She went out to the track team for Highland doing this and that and then the coach goes, ‘Hey, why don't you go try pole vaulting, and here's a stick.’ And so you know, she just kind of hacked over the bar, but by the end of the season, she can stunned everybody and ended up being a state champion. And there it was just kept on going. And it is just a migration of this gymnastics kind of skill of coordination, body coordination, that allaround strength, just is a natural translation tryna technically meant like pole vaulting.

KUNM: One of the major stories of the 2020 Olympics has been mental health and athletes. We had tennis player Naomi Osaka earlier in the year mentioned her mental health and the big star of the Olympics is Simone Biles stepping out of all the events outside of one that she just competed in recently. Mental health is a huge problem, huge thing to recognize within athletes and the world is starting to. Your daughter training so hard for such a very long time, the 2016 Olympics and here we are at the 2020 Olympics. Has she mentioned any mental health struggles with just the pressure to not only perform, but to keep herself playing at an elite level? Has she spoken to you all about anything?

MARINA PETERS NEWELL: Yeah, she has definitely, you know, come across roadblocks that are mental. I don't think there are athletes out there that haven't done that. And she's worked from time to time with some sports psychologists on you know, these issues. She's read books, she's tried to figure out systems that work for her. And I think this is the first year where she really feels mentally solid. That doesn't mean that she you know, hasn't run into hiccups. But she knows how to deal with them. And she knows how to accept them. I'm particularly proud of that progress that she's made and would absolutely go down on record as saying that I support Simone and Naomi. I'm very proud of the kinds of stance that they're taking.

KUNM: When was that moment where you both realized watching your daughter possibly was it in high school or before when she was into gymnastics? Or when she switched over to pole vault in high school? When was that moment that both of you realized, 'Wow, our daughter's really good. And she may have a shot at the Olympics.'

TIM NEWELL: I don't know about the Olympics, but I knew she was really good because in high school, she cleared 12 feet which at the time, put her in, I think the top 50 in the US and she was clearing it like 'Wait, this girl's going over on her butt sticking down' and I was like, 'Okay, she has absolutely no form. She doesn't know what she's doing. And she's already in the top 50 of the US so she has definitely can get go a long way if she so desires.'

KUNM: So what are your plans for watching her tomorrow morning?

MARINA PETERS NEWELL: We're setting up the TV outside. A bunch of chairs are going outside and friends and neighbors are all invited. 

KUNM:  That is absolutely wonderful. Well, I want to thank you both. Congratulations to you both. Best of luck to her.

TIM NEWELL: Thank you.


UPDATE: KATC News reports Newell was unable to clear the 4.50 meter height during the finals Thursday morning, Aug. 5, in Tokyo.