It was a sinking feeling LSU senior pole vaulter Lisa Gunnarsson hadn’t experienced in more than a year.
Gunnarsson, the nation’s top-rated pole vaulter at 14 feet, 10 inches, was favored to defend her indoor title on Feb. 26 at the Southeastern Conference championships in Fayetteville, Ark. and wound up third at 14-3 ¼.
The native of Paris, France didn’t dwell on excuses for a sub-par performance, such as a nagging foot injury that cut back her training, or because of the unique runway at Randal Tyson Track Center.
What’s happened, though, it’s added fuel to her fire and in the two weeks since the SEC meet, Gunnarsson returned to practice with a greater sense of purpose she believes will serve her well in the NCAA men’s and women’s championships Thursday through Sunday again at Tyson Track Center.
“I was disappointed in my performance,” Gunnarsson said. “I don’t have any power over what anybody else did but I have power over what I’m doing and I’m not going to blame it on my foot and that I hadn’t been vaulting for a while. It’s all my fault and I take that with me, and I learn from it. I know that I can jump much higher and I’m going to do that this weekend.”
Gunnarsson, whose event starts at 6:15 Friday night, is one of eight women that will represent LSU in the three-day NCAA meet. She’s the team’s only top-seeded performer where the sixth-ranked Tigers have nine scoring opportunities that also includes their 4×400 relay.
Senior Abby O’Donoghue is second seeded in the high jump (6-2 ¼), while freshman Favour Ofili is fourth in the 200 (22.75), SEC champion Milan Young is sixth in the 60-meter hurdles (8.03 seconds) and Aliyah Whisby is sixth in the long jump (21-8 ¼).
“The indoor season has been a real challenge for us,” LSU track coach Dennis Shaver said. “We’ve had some outstanding performances from people that have really catapulted us. The thing they missed was they needed to compete a little bit better from day one. It took them a while to get going and as a result of that we (the LSU women) were in sixth in the SEC, we’re ranked sixth in the NCAA. We just don’t have as many bullets to fire as we’re used to.”
It was this time a year ago when the NCAA, with teams already in Albuquerque, N.M. for the indoor championships, cancelled the meet and subsequent outdoor season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m more excited this year,” Gunnarsson said. “Obviously, I was excited last year, but we didn’t actually get the meet going. It’s almost like symbolic a bit. It boosts the excitement even more.”
Gunnarsson is a three-time All-American that holds LSU’s school pole vault record indoors (14-10) and is second outdoors (13-7 ¾). At the time of her SEC indoor title (14-7 ½) in 2020, she ranked sixth nationally when the NCAA championship was cancelled along with the spring outdoor season.
This marks just the second opportunity to compete at the NCAA indoor meet. Gunnarsson, who signed with Virginia Tech out of high school, was third as a freshman (14-5 ½) in 2018. She then transferred to LSU as a sophomore, but was sidelined for the NCAA meet with a foot injury.
“It will be interesting to see if she can kind of put it together because quite honestly, she is the best vaulter in the NCAA,” Shaver said. “But she’s going to have to prove it.”
Since the last time she did not win a pole vault competition – Feb. 21, 2020 at LSU’s Twilight Meet where she was second at 13-11 ½ – Gunnarsson captured the SEC indoor meet at 14-7 ½ the following week before the NCAA meet and spring season were cancelled.
She managed to overcome the loss of the outdoor season to recapture her winning form with back-to-back first place finishes this indoor season, first with a NCAA-leading and LSU record 14-10 at the LSU Purple Tiger Invitational and then 14-9 at Woo Pig Classic in Fayetteville.
Because of recurring discomfort in her plant (right) foot, Gunnarsson took a month off from competition leading up to the SEC indoor meet, leading skeptics to believe she wasn’t sharp enough in the event won by Georgia’s Kayla Smith (14-7 ½) won.
“I didn’t want my foot to get worse, I was worried something dangerous may happen,” Gunnarsson said. “In a way it’s a good lesson. In a championship, the placement is what matters. Usually, I think of how well I performed and whatever place I get is just what happens. The most important thing is performing at the best level that I can be.”
Two weeks since the disappointment of her SEC meet, Gunnarsson has been diligent in her approach at practice. She believes she’s more prepared and 100 percent healthy in the pursuit of her first national championship.
Even as the No. 1 seed, it also doesn’t hurt to have a little additional motivation packed away as well.
“What happened at SEC (indoors)?” Gunnarsson said. “I didn’t have any jumps in me and I’ve actually had two more weeks to catch up a bit more. I do feel more ready this time with a bit of revenge. It was a hard loss. I wanted to do much more than that. I wanted to win but you always have those meets. I feel much better and I’m excited. I want to take this chance and not let it slide or go away.”