At 5-foot-3, Kenna Stimmel can easily get lost in a crowd of pole vaulters gathered for an official's pre-meet instructions.
However, once misses and makes count and bars move higher, the Margaretta sophomore stands head and shoulders over the field ... and much of the nation. Although restrictions placed on everyday life because of COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 regular season, Stimmel still might have a couple of opportunities this summer to chase high bars, PRs and additional national records.
"I miss pole vaulting a lot right now," Kenna said earlier this month. "That's my favorite thing to do. I would like to get up to 13-6 or 13-7 this year. I was hoping for 14, but 14 would be amazing with this big break from my training."
A vaulting family takes shape
There was no hesitation.
Not a millisecond.
Brian Stimmel was happy for the opportunity to introduce his daughters to an event that had him compete on the state's biggest stage decades ago.
"When (Kassidie) said she wanted to run track but she didn't know what she wanted to do right away, I knew what I was going to have the oldest one do," Brian said of the chance to pass an athletic torch in his family about seven years ago. "I got her into pole vaulting, she was doing pretty good and then I found out about (Altitude Headquarters') Shawn Beamer. I got in touch with him and started taking Kassidie over to him and started learning things from him to help Kassidie and then also to help Kenna.
"And it just took off from there. I tried to coach my girls the same way he was coaching them so that there was no 'Well, Shawn says to do this and you're telling me to do this.' So I picked up his coaching style and I refer back to him all the time when I've got questions."
Kenna's meteoric rise toward the top of the Ohio rankings in 2019 has kept the Stimmel name attached to gold medals in the indoor and outdoor state championships.
"We just encourage each other to vault higher," Kenna said of any rivalry with her older sister, who has earned All-American honors in her two years at Division II track power Grand Valley State. "It's a family and sister competition. We're proud of each other when we PR and vault higher than the other one."
Last June, Kenna's clearance of 13-0.25 was good for a third consecutive Division III state title for the Stimmel family and Ohio and state meet records for Kenna. In addition to her two OHSAA crowns, Kassidie also placed third and fourth in season finales at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium.
Indoors, the Stimmel sisters also have three event golds, with Kassidie winning in 2017 and '18 and Kenna soaring over 13-0.25 in March.
"Yes, I always thought she had the potential to be as good if not better than her sister in high school," Brian Stimmel said of his younger daughter. "When she finally figured a few little things out ... we were using some poles to begin with that (Kenna) was really struggling with.
"We think they were mismarked as far as weight, and they just wouldn't bend for her. We moved to a different style of pole and things just took off as far as heights go. Everything started clicking. She's got the drive and the determination that's hard to find in a lot of high school kids today."
Heading toward the record book
Introduced to basics of the event in elementary school, Kenna sported a PR of 10-6 as an eighth-grader. A year later, she had added almost 3 feet to her lifetime best.
"Going from my 8th grade to freshman year, I really wasn't expecting that much of a PR, just progressing that much," Kenna said. "Just one meet, everything just started to click and I just started PR'ing.
"It was going from like 8-6, 9 (feet) all the way to 13-5 was really just one of the best feelings that I've ever had. It just showed how my hard work has finally paid off."
Along with her success in track and field, Kenna Stimmel has remained a multi-sport athlete for the Polar Bears.
"She does volleyball, diving and track," her father said. "Whatever season is going on for the high school, that's our primary. Everything else comes second to the primary sport of that season."
Working around a diving schedule that included qualifying for the state championships in late February, Kenna only vaulted competitively four times in 2020. Her season in the pool was highlighted by a 14th in the OHSAA Division II final.
"Diving's scarier for me personally because doing a bunch of new skills is a lot more challenging than vaulting," Kenna said. "For vaulting, you start at a lower height and then you work your way up from there. It's just progression slowly, instead of diving, where once you learn a new skill, you perfect it and you move on."
Although practice and meet time was limited with the in-season focus on diving this winter, there was no sophomore slump indoors for Kenna. Her unblemished pole vault record in 2020 included a 13-3 clearance at the UK High School Invite in Lexington.
"Things were going great before everything had to close up," Kenna said of 2020. "Indoor state was a good meet. I just missed 13-6.25. I was so close to that height.
"I would have had one more attempt at it at New Balance Nationals Indoor. I was already in New York ready for the competition when they cancelled it so that was a bummer that I couldn't get that height."
According to her father, Kenna will compete at the rescheduled national outdoor meet and then the Capitol District Street Vault in Omaha in late July, if the events occur as currently planned. A year ago, Ohio vaulters fared very well in the Nebraska city, with Dalton Shepler winning the boys invitational and Riley Hunt third in the girls competition.
Meanwhile, Kenna has been working to stay in shape and just recently returned to vaulting.
"She's been running every day, varying her workouts and doing ab workouts at least once a day if not a lot of days twice," he said last week. "Now that things have relaxed a little bit, a friend of mine has a pit in his barn and we were over doing 5 lefts and about 12 feet with a 12-foot pole the other day."
Speed + free takeoff = high bars
Kenna's father firmly believes that his daughter's ability to utilize a free takeoff has enabled her to be listed among the nation's best with seasons remaining in her high school career. Kenna said the free takeoff gives her "a lot of power and drive for the vault."
"She's fast and that free takeoff really helps her put a load on that pole and be able to get on to stiffer poles than what normally kids her size would use," he said.
After finishing third in the 2019 OATCCC Division II/III meet with a vault of 11-6, Kenna went undefeated in the Buckeye state and soared over 12 feet week in and week out.
"At indoor state her freshman year, we were still doing short runs, 5 lefts," he said of his daughter's approach. "Then for outdoor, we went back to our full run, which is 7 lefts, and once she got on that full run and she started to get into track shape, she started going up in pole weights and her heights really started climbing quickly."
Last June, Stimmel was one of three freshmen in the OHSAA Division III field. Although she was the favorite based on her run of 12-foot-plus meets dating back to early April, Kenna was not the last to enter the competition. According to her father, Kenna's opening height of 10-6 was in line with what helped launch her record-breaking season.
"I have always started my girls sometimes a little bit lower than what people think I should," Brian Stimmel said. "If you're not on as far as your vault goes and you're struggling, it may take you a few jumps to get your steps on and everything working the way it's supposed to. Sometimes you might be at a high number of jumps before you come together as far as your jump goes."
Stimmel said his younger daughter's ability to adapt throughout a competition also has been extremely beneficial.
"She's been really good if we tell her it's time to go to a different pole," Brian Stimmel said. "She doesn't have any problems with it. Last summer, she was on a 13-foot pole when she jumped her 13-5, but she only weighs about 100 pounds even now and she was on poles that were rated for kids that weigh 145 pounds. She's not afraid to move up with poles."
And it was a wide selection of poles that propelled Kenna to her national freshman class record at last summer's Grand Haven Beach Vault on the shores of Lake Michigan. The elevated runways and pits proved to be the perfect backdrop for Kenna's stunning performance.
"The beach vault is one of my favorite summer meets," Kenna said. "There are a lot of people, there is a lot of energy at the meet, they are always playing music. Everyone there is big into pole vault, so it's just high intensity and everyone knows what happening. It's just a fun place to be and vault."
With a fifth-place performance at the 2019 NBNO as the proverbial springboard, Kenna surprised her father with the perfect ending to an almost perfect season.
"I thought she could do at least 13 maybe 13-3, but when she went to 13-5 and cleared that, I was really in shock," Brian Stimmel said. "She brought her 'A' game and she just brought it.
"We kept moving up poles. We probably had 10 or 12 poles with us, just in case. And she ended up going through I think all of them."
The freshman class national record also brought a sense of closure for the 16-year-old vaulter.
"The feeling was amazing," she said of her PR performance. "At the state meet, I tried for that height and I just missed it. Then at the national meet, I just missed it. So I was just really eager to finally hit that height. And when I did, it was probably one of the best feelings that I ever had."