Against the Odds: Kayla Caldwell

Pole Vaulter

words | Celestial Williams

photography | Katie Finnicum

photography | Katie Finnicum

Kayla Caldwell @kaylacaldwellpv

Growing up in the tiny village of Tuscarawas, Ohio, Kayla Caldwell had big dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete. Through her struggles, she learned how to become a fighter, a believer in heart and the human spirit.

“Sometimes we have to break before we can shine...I’m ready to be a glowstick,” says Kayla. She stands all of 5 feet tall, but her spirit soars.

Kayla remembers a home video when she was just a kid, “There’s a head of lettuce, snack packs, and some bottles in the refrigerator.” Her mother had her when she was just a teenager. She remembers not having a lot, but also remembers never wanting more than they had. Her parents ended up getting a divorce when she was five years old.

When Kayla was nine years old, her dad remarried. Her stepmother Melinda taught her never to settle for anything less than what you want. This was a turning point in Kayla’s life. This was also the time she found gymnastics. Kayla quickly climbed to level 9 gymnastics and wanted to compete at an elite level.

“Standing on top of that podium meant the world to me. For once I felt like I wasn’t worthless or invisible. I felt like I belonged. I found what my soul was searching for....competition." Kayla felt like her trials were more bearable because she had an outlet. She felt unstoppable until she reached the 8th grade.

Kayla did a double back handspring and landed on her neck. Her dreams of going to the Olympics shattered. Hard times for Kayla lay ahead. Her whole life revolved around gymnastics. Her time, her dreams, and even her friends. “This was my worst nightmare,” Kayla shared.

Her big brother was a sprinter on the track team, so she figured trying out for the team would be a way for her to hang out with him more. Little did she know what she would find..

During Kayla’s 8th grade year she ran hard. She was able to break records and found strength in competing again. During the year, there was one thing that kept catching her eye, pole vaulting.

Her freshman year, 14-year-old Kayla was jogging around the track, and Coach Dave Bell encouraged her to try pole vaulting. She fell in love with it from the beginning, and she was good, really good. That season she jumped 11 feet 9 inches at state, receiving second place. Sophomore year she became the first woman to clear 12 feet 9 inches in the state of Ohio and went on to win three state championships.

Kayla continued to climb while she attended Hillsdale College in Michigan. She also had her dream of becoming an Olympian in the back of her mind. She just had to try. After college, she made a call.

That life-changing call was to coach Earl Bell in Jonesboro, Arkansas. She won two international competitions in South Korea and Taiwan, then eventually made it to the Olympic Trials. “Always good, but never the best. The Olympic trials were the closest I ever came to being great. I was in reach of that dream I had held onto, the dream that got me through every bad thing. It was in my reach, and I failed to grab it. I was devastated. But the weeks after the trails, I learned so much about myself that missing that opportunity was one of the best things that could have happened to me.”

Kayla says, “I don’t give up especially when the going gets tough. Statistics say I am too short to be a great pole vaulter and my body structure isn’t quite right. I don’t believe in statistics; I believe in breaking them. I believe in heart and the human spirit, and that we can do anything we set our mind to. I believe that God’s strength is so much bigger than my own and can help me get through anything. I will always believe.”

We believe in Kayla Caldwell. Through her life, her example, her dedication, we can see that heart and strength come from never giving up. She’s taught us that sometimes we have to be broken a little so that we can truly shine. Kayla is just getting started. You can watch for her in the next Olympics!


photography | @mccarthysan

Tips for pole vaulters and life:

  1. Have fun, enjoy the process and the small improvements.
  2. You must have a good sense of humor! There are some crazy wipeouts and funny things that happen while you’re vaulting.
  3. Even though vaulting isn’t a team sport, be a team player. Help other vaulters out, even at competitions.
  4. Don’t try to be the best today. Focus on the little things and the small steps to being great. My coach says, “Just think, if you got one inch higher every time you jump, you could break the world record in no time.”

Kayla’s last thoughts:

“I think the whole meaning of life is to prove how amazing humans are. If none of us pushed past what people thought was possible, we wouldn’t have any of our modern inventions or progress as humans. We would be stuck in the Stone Age! The world needs people to prove the impossible possible, and I’m just crazy enough to try!”