Olympic pole vaulting hopefuls training in Northwest Georgia

Tucked away in Northwest Georgia, you may be surprised to find a collection of some world class, high flying athletes hidden in plain sight.

"I like the grittiness of this place, it's raw," said Katie Nageotte.

Nageotte is part of a group of Olympic-hopeful pole vaulters training at Flicky Stick Pole Vault in Cartersville. The building, which is inconspicuous from the outside and looks like a warehouse, is the training home to a group of athletes with their eyes on the Tokyo games this summer.  

They're here to work with coach Brad Walker, a two-time Olympian and former world champion pole vaulter, now going to school at Life University in Marietta.

"First time I came up here, I pulled up and we were like, 'are sure this is the right place?'" said Carrollton High School pole vaulter Payton Phillips, who is committed to compete starting next year at the University of Georgia.

The group features American and international talent, including American Chloe Cunliffe, Natalie Uy who is vying to represent the Philippines and Robin Bone who hopes to earn a spot on Team Canada.

"It's kind of crazy, because I've always looked up to them since I started training pole vault," said Phillips. "To be with them period is a dream."

Nageotte is one of the United States' top female pole vaulters. She is one of only a handful of women in U.S. history to clear 16 feet in a vault, which she did last August. Nageotte said the Olympics always loom large, maybe even moreso this year after last years games were postponed due to COVID-19.

"I think pushing it back a year definitely adds an element of stress, because there's more anticipation around it now," said Nageotte. "Our entire careers, it's the Olympics. Everything else is great, you work towards World Championships and Diamond League, but the Olympics is the biggest thing. It feels like the only thing at times."

The pandemic is also throwing a very personal wrench in Nageotte's Olympic lead-up. She said she caught coronavirus in early December, and while the physical symptoms weren't that bad, she's still experiencing what some people call "brain fog" months later. That's something many people have reported as a lingering side effect of COVID-19.

"That mental, mind-body connection was very off," said Nageotte. "It's hard to explain. When you're coming down the runway fast, getting your body to respond ... you normally have that connection. It was just off. It's definitely better, it's taken time, but that was the biggest thing. That sharpness, that mind-body telling it what to do, having it react. That's what you need to have happen with what we do."

Nageotte says she's improving as she heads towards the Olympic Trials in June. Having a coach she can count on, and training partners she trusts, certainly helps; even in a place no one might expect to find a group of high flying Olympic hopefuls.