Prep girls track and field: Northwestern's Nelson follows family tradition of state-qualifying pole vaulters

Abby Nelson was just 3 years old when she first started "pole vaulting," getting a little PVC pipe to bend. Nelson had other interests through her elementary years and didn't really start vaulting again until eighth grade, clearing 7-foot-6 at on...

Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.comNorthwestern’s Abby Nelson clears the bar on her way to the pole vault title at the 39th annual Simpson Invitational at Wisconsin-Superior earlier this season.
Jed Carlson / Northwestern’s Abby Nelson clears the bar on her way to the pole vault title at the 39th annual Simpson Invitational at Wisconsin-Superior earlier this season.

Abby Nelson was just 3 years old when she first started "pole vaulting," getting a little PVC pipe to bend.

Nelson had other interests through her elementary years and didn't really start vaulting again until eighth grade, clearing 7-foot-6 at one junior varsity meet, tying for the win with a middle school boy. She didn't get serious about it until the next year, and this weekend she will compete in her fourth straight Wisconsin Division 2 state meet at Veterans Memorial Stadium in La Crosse, Wis.

Wisconsin-Superior recruit Michael Knaack will compete in the boys 200 for the Tigers, while fellow senior Journey Amundson will compete in the girls triple jump after winning sectionals in a school-record 35-8.

Nelson, who won sectionals in a school-record mark of 11-3, is the top seed in Division 2 but knows the sport of girls vaulting has come a long way.

"This year is the toughest we've ever had it," Nelson said. "My freshman year I went 9 feet and made it to state. This year, you pretty much had to go 10-6 to make it, and at state, you'll probably have to go 11 feet just to make the top five. You're still going to have to work at it."


Family tradition

While the Nelson family resides in Iron River, Abby's father Bruce, a 1982 Northwestern graduate, grew up in Wentworth.

Bruce Nelson won the Class B boys pole vault title in 1982, with his vault of 14-6 breaking the state record of 14-3 set by his brother Doug Nelson in 1980. Older brother Darrell Nelson won a state title in 1978 at 13-9. Bruce Nelson went on to be a four-time All-American at Wisconsin-La Crosse, holding the school record for six years with a vault of 16-1. Doug Nelson held the school record at Minnesota Duluth and Darrell Nelson competed at La Crosse.

How did this all start?

"Basically," Bruce Nelson said, "the phy ed teacher saw my brother Darrell climbing a rope and doing stuff in the gym, and he told him, 'You should be a pole vaulter.' I think he was in eighth grade. That's how it started."

While Darrell Nelson didn't start vaulting until ninth grade, Bruce Nelson, with his older brother leading the way, started vaulting in the backyard in third grade in 1973.

Bruce Nelson, 55, has coached pole vaulting for 32 years. He has coached more than 40 Northwestern athletes to state in the pole vault, and has worked with another 10-plus state-qualifying vaulters from area schools.

The Tigers have qualified girls for the state meet in 15 of the past 16 years, and this will be the 14th time a Nelson has competed at the state meet in the pole vault for the Tigers.


"The vaulting tradition at Northwestern has been around a long time," Bruce Nelson said. "The tradition has been pretty strong."

Fearless focus

Abby Nelson is one of four siblings who have taken up pole vaulting. Brother Jon Nelson didn't go out until his senior year at Michigan Tech and cleared 15-6.

Soaring more than 10 feet in the air with your back to the ground isn't for anyone. Of all track events, pole vaulters are probably the most fearless.

Nelson paused when asked if she had any fears, then said, "I'm not really afraid of a lot of things."

Nelson broke a pole once. The pole snapped but fortunately she hit the edge of the mat on the way down.

"It was a little scary, but it wasn't bad for me," she said. "But I think it almost gave my dad a heart attack."

Besides track and field, Nelson has competed at the state meet in cross country three times and is an accomplished wrestler, competing at the girls state meet four straight years and winning at 96 pounds her junior year. That year, she went 15-14 - against varsity boys.


During Abby Nelson's sophomore year, she finished second at 88 pounds at the national girls wrestling tournament in Fargo, N.D., with more than 200 wrestlers competing in the various weight classes.

"The easiest way to explain Abby's character is she wrestled boys who were ranked in state or placed in state," Bruce Nelson said. "They beat her, and she'd be madder than heck because she thought she should have beaten them. She thinks she should beat everyone."

Wrestling is the Nelson family's other family tradition, with the Nelson brothers all wrestling, but the female variation of this tradition is relatively new and part of a growing national trend.

According to the U.S. Wrestling Foundation, women's wrestling is not only an official sport in the NAIA but is an Olympic event and fastest-growing high school sport. Bruce Nelson said about 50 colleges carry it, with Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where Abby will wrestle and vault, just adding it.

"I like wrestling," Abby Nelson said. "It makes you mentally tough."

Nelson recently picked up gymnastics as well, but she does all these other sports to train for pole vaulting.

"That's her passion," her father said.

At 5-foot-3, Abby Nelson is at a disadvantage in the pole vault. Bruce Nelson said it's simple physics.


"Being small, you have to be perfect on every jump," he said. "When you're taller, your pole isn't as low to the ground when you take off. The smaller you are, every mistake magnifies. You won't find world-class vaulters that are under 6-feet tall for the guys. They're all tall."

Abby Nelson will never use that as a crutch.

"Abby doesn't even know it's a problem," Bruce Nelson said. "First of all, she has an incredible drive, she's just incredibly driven and extremely competitive. She works hard, she's fast, she's strong and she's athletic. That's a great combination."

But will that lead to a state title?

That remains to be seen, but Abby Nelson certainly has the right mindset.

"That would be amazing if I won state, but I have to work for it to get it," she said. "My goal is to go 11-6 or 12 feet, but I'm focusing more on the process than the results. One girl has hit 11-9, but she didn't do that at sectionals or regionals, so it's anybody's game right now. I'm just going to go out there and give it my all, and as long as I do my best, I have nothing to worry about."


Prep status: Northwestern senior


Age: 18

Sports: Track and field, wrestling, cross country and gymnastics

GPA: 3.5

School activities: Choir, volunteering

Family: Father, Bruce; mother, Brenda; siblings Seth, 30; Andrew, 29; Allison, 26; Jon, 24; James, 21; Hannah, 16

Pets: A Labrador Retriever Cottie and Bently, a poodle

College plans: Attending Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where she will wrestle and compete in track and field while going into psychology/counseling

If I could meet one person - dead or alive - who would it be? Elvis Presley
One thing people don’t know about me: I love to draw
My ideal vacation: A second trip to Hawaii (went there once for a choir trip)
The toughest athlete I’ve competed against: Former Osceola pole vaulter Mickey Gearin
If I had a million dollars, I would: Donate half of it to charities and then pay off my college
Fear or phobia: I don’t like going for walks at night because I used to be afraid of a bear mauling me
Hobbies: Swimming, fishing, collecting rocks/agates
Car I drive: 2001 Ford Ranger with 250,000 miles
Favorite home-cooked meal: Mom and dad’s chili
Favorite books: Nancy Drew series
Favorite quote: “If you feel like quitting remember why you started”
One thing at the top of my bucket list: To go 12 feet in the pole vault (she has done it in practice but not a meet)
Favorite singer: Kelly Clarkson
Sports-day superstition: Wear Superman socks for track, Captain America socks for cross country and Wonder Woman socks for wrestling
Last website I visited: Stevens Point athletic website
Social media of choice: Snapchat
Favorite celebrity: Sandra Bullock
Dream job: To be a counselor, because I’ve liked helping people. I’ve been on three mission trips (through Mission Covenant Church)
Three people I’d want in a golf foursome: If I did bring people, I’d bring some of my friends who aren’t good at golf because I’m not good at golf, so then we’d all be bad: Allie Peterson, Audrey Edwards and my sister, Hannah


Jon Nowacki is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune
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