Thomas Jefferson pole vaulter Jenna Appleton took a huge risk.
She traded in her love of distance running for a vaulting pole.
During her freshman year, Jenna Appleton was diagnosed with anemia. The diagnosis forced her to put distance running on the back burner. As a result, she was introduced to pole vaulting. Since then, Appleton broke the school vault record in 2016 when she cleared 11 feet, 1 inch. And she will make her second straight appearance at the state tournament in the pole vault later this month.
To top it off, Appleton was one of approximately 1,200 students accepted to the United States Naval Academy in January. She’ll join the Brigade of Midshipmen on June 29, and she will also attempt to walk on the Midshipmen track program as a pole vaulter.
“I sure didn’t think I’d be pole vaulting,” Appleton said. “I can remember ever since first grade, being a little girl and having a dream of being a collegiate runner. I went on to win district championships in seventh and eighth grade.”
New Dream, Same Track
Over the course of her freshman season at Jefferson, Appleton, who’s described by her sprint coach Michael Welch as “extremely friendly and encouraging,” grew sluggish and depressed.
After a freshman season filled with poor distance races, she decided to get her blood drawn.
Doctors discovered her iron levels were extremely low, and her depression was a symptom of the anemia.
“When I found that out, I was actually rejoicing,” Appleton said. “There was an actual reason why I’m not doing well, and everyone was happy because we were able to find solutions.”
Both of her parents, Maj. Thomas Appleton (retired) and Capt. Julie Appleton (retired) were shocked to learn of the diagnosis.
Julie Appleton said learning about anemia was a challenge.
The family had to learn about the process of iron intake and ultra monitors, among other areas of unfamiliar territory, and how they all played a role with their daughter’s condition.
“It wasn’t easy,” Julie Appleton said. “We had to do all kinds of lobbying with the pediatrician, but through it all, we continued to find solutions.”
Since Jenna Appleton was a distance runner, her body didn’t take to the doctor’s first prescribed iron intake for her.
“We learned that not all runners react to the same level,” Julie Appleton said. “Some runners need a higher level, and Jenna’s body just needed more.”
The doctors also recommended Appleton lay off the distance running.
In that moment, she remembered something she saw as an eighth-grader on the Jefferson track website that drew her to pole vaulting. It read: “I teach kids how to fly.”
Appleton needed something to cheer her up because of the anemia and poor race times.
That something was pole vaulting.
Despite never vaulting before, by the end of her freshman season, Appleton cleared 8 feet and then 9 feet, 6 inches, the average state champion height for girls, by her sophomore year.
It was then, Appleton had to make a tough choice: pursue running with limitations, or see just how high she could set the vault bar. Appleton chose the vault. To make her decision easier, she traded in distance running for sprints so she could still run, just not as much.
“Something in my heart just knew that vaulting was the way to go,” Appleton said. “I took some time, running in the offseason, but I took some time to reflect on what I really wanted to do. That was pole vaulting.”
The day was May 4, 2016, at the Federal Way All-City Meet. Prior to the meet, Appleton’s best vault was 10 feet, 6 inches.
She was the last person in line to vault that afternoon.
She cleared 11-1 with room to spare. Welch wasn’t there to see Appleton break the record. It was the roar of teammates and spectators that caught his attention.
“She’s always about to break it, and I swear I always miss it,” Welch joked. “I missed it because I was all over the place that day. She was the only one left to vault. It was pretty exciting, but, of course, her focus went immediately to 11-6.”
Welch was correct. She has since focused on her next personal best.
On the track, Appleton’s been working with teammate Michael Nguyen’s 12-foot vault pole.
She used it in a meet for the first time on May 3 at this year’s Federal Way All-City Meet. It was also the first time she landed a full vault at 12 feet.
For Appleton, it was simply the next step.
A 12-foot vault pole is exceptional, even at the collegiate level.
“It is a bit intimidating, but you can’t let it psych you out,” Appleton said. “I’ve told myself I have to do this, but don’t be scared. Vault just like the last one.”
Of more than 4,000 female applicants, Appleton will be one of just over 300 women admitted to start her freshman year at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in June.
She’s following in her parents’ footsteps with a military career.
Despite growing up in that environment, Appleton’s parents were shocked when they learned of their daughter’s interest in the Naval Academy.
“She’s charted her own course,” Julie Appleton said. “We told her it’s not an easy path, and it’s not a regular college, either. As a parent, you hope for the best, and we’re absolutely certain she’s up to the task.”
Jenna Appleton made the decision to pursue the Naval Academy early her junior year. She said she knows it will be extremely hard, but she’s excited for the challenge.
Her excitement grew when she attended a track camp at the Naval Academy last summer, where she bonded with the Midshipmen pole vaulters and vault coach Steven Sarigiannis.
Appleton learned their 2016 walk-on height was 10 feet, 4 inches. She’s hoping to walk on to the program with achieved heights of 11 feet.
Until then, Appleton won’t risk her confidence. Instead, she’s staying the course.
“I know there’s a good chance I could walk on, but first I’m working on this 12-foot mark to help my team go as far as we can this year,” she said.