Soaring through the air, upside down, gaining the power to launch over a bar 14 feet off the ground might seem like a nightmare to some. For East Carolina’s All-American pole vaulter Sommer Knight, defying gravity is part of the thrill.
“I don’t feel like I’m that high off the ground,” Knight said. “You don’t know you’re that high up, but I’m also not scared of heights so maybe that has something to do with it.”
Knight recently finished her final season at ECU with a first-team All-American honor following an eighth-place finish in the pole vault at the NCAA outdoor national championships in Eugene, Ore.
Knight cleared a height of 4.30 meters (14.1 feet). Her school-record height of 4.35 (14.3 feet), set in 2021, was just out of reach on this day as she fell short on three attempts.
She finished her career as the Pirates’ indoor and outdoor school record holder in the event. Also found on Knight’s resume are three American Athletic Conference titles and two All-American selections. This past season was Knight’s second that ended at the national championships after she finished third in 2021 with her school-record height of 4.35 meters.
What Knight was able to accomplish is the finished product following nearly a decade of dialing in her abilities. But pole vaulting was never part of the plan until it was the only plan, and the sport helped usher her to places she never figured she would land.
A young Knight had set her sights on a volleyball career. She played volleyball for Woodland High (S.C.) and competed on a club team in the high school offseason. She said she didn’t plan to play any other sports in high school, and all but ruled out track and field because she thought it would involve too much running.
The field option didn’t appeal to her, either, as Woodland didn’t even have a pole vault option. But Knight became a pioneer when a teacher at the school — a former pole vaulter — wanted to start a program. She began recruiting kids and ended up convincing Knight to try the sport.
Knight became the first pole vaulter at her high school and went on to win two state championships.
Her success earned statewide significance when the South Carolina House of Representatives recognized Knight in 2017 with a resolution congratulating her after she cleared 13 feet to set the high school pole vault state record at the Class AA state championship meet. That performance helped Woodland High win the state title.
But first, she had to learn how to pole vault, a discipline that Knight found requires attention to detail along with countless benchmarks to clear before taking to the skies.
“There was a lot to learn,” Knight said. “It was a slow process. People will ask me, ‘How do you learn to do that?’ There’s a lot. First, you pick up a pole then you learn to hold it. Then you learn to run with it.
“The whole first year I never even bent the pole. I only jumped like 9 feet. It’s a slow process of learning each step to working toward putting it all together.”
While Knight was learning the intricacies of pole vault, volleyball was very much a part of her life and future plans. It wasn’t until the spring sports season of her senior year of high school that she didn’t play for a club volleyball team.
Logistics with various teams didn’t work out so this time the focus was solely on track and field.
“In high school pole vaulting was fun because I just knew I was going to college for volleyball,” Knight said. “In my senior year I didn’t play club, and I focused on pole vault. I got some interest from different schools, some Division II and small Division Is, and it wasn’t until March of my senior year that I figured out I was coming (to ECU).”
Knight said that most of the top pole vaulters have a background in gymnastics, which includes much of the same body control movements, strength and flexibility required to compete at a high level. For Knight, her gymnastics career ended at age 10.
But she retained much of the body awareness she attained and she continued to get faster and stronger as she got older. All of that provided the perfect mix of athleticism for Knight to make a charge at the track and field elite.
She was the final qualifier for the outdoor national championships in 2021 and went on to produce an ECU-record vault of 4.35 meters to finish in third place. The following season she was no longer an unknown. Her senior year in 2022 was surrounded by expectations.
“Every sport is 90 percent mental and I think pole vaulting is 99 percent mental,” Knight said. “There’s too many things to think about and the past two years I really focused on being the best I could be.
“It was different this year because last season I was just starting to hit that high and break into that higher level and no one was expecting me to do anything,” she said. “So it was really trying to enjoy the year and repeat last year. We didn’t change too many things but there was this added pressure around the season. It had a different feeling knowing that because of last year everyone was expecting you to do it again.”
In many ways Knight did do it again. She made the national championships in consecutive seasons and although she didn’t top her school record set in 2021, she was much more consistent throughout the year.
She said that in her record-setting year she only cleared 14 feet twice, maybe three times. In 2022, she cleared 14 feet seven times.
Knight, whom Pirates track and field director Curt Kraft called the “face of the program” and “absolutely one of the most wonderful people in the world,” will continue to train in Greensboro with an eye on competing in the future.
She also started a nursing job this summer.
“I learned to just enjoy the process,” Knight said. “And because it was my last one, it was really about trying to enjoy the year.”