WILLIAMSBURG – At 5-foot-5, Lafayette senior Kathryn Tomczak is about average height for a high school girl. By gymnastics standards, however, she's the equivalent of a basketball power forward.
Tomczak was still winning age-group state titles on the floor and beam as recently as the past couple of years, but nursed a nagging feeling that she was outgrowing the sport. Gymnastics' loss has been track and field's gain.
Since scoring in the AA outdoor state meet as a sophomore for Lafayette in the pole vault, she has fallen in love with the event to the point of obsession. She's become one the best vaulters in the nation, recently committing to a scholarship to compete for the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
On Friday she hopes to leave her mark in state pole vaulting lore by clearing 13 feet at the Virginia Tech Invitational. That would make Tomczak, a two-time state champion at Lafayette, just the second girl in state high school history to reach that height.
"It's my only focus," said Tomczak, who has cleared 12-6 twice this season, a foot-and-a-half better than any other girl in the state. "I have this goal when I wake up in the morning to jump 13 feet.
"Really, it's all I think about right now."
Which makes it surprising to hear her say she almost gave up pole vaulting when she failed to clear a height at the AA indoor state meet as a sophomore. Gymnastics had been her first love since she began back-flipping at the bus stop as a first-grader.
Her mom, Pam, enrolled Tomczak into gymnastics classes so she'd have mats rather than asphalt to land on. Twenty-hour training weeks and piles of ribbons and medals followed.
It wasn't until Tomczak's freshman year of high school, when her brother Jesse, a Virginia Wesleyan College decathlete, brought home his pole vaulting roommate, that track moved onto her radar screen. Jesse's roomy said that gymnasts make good pole vaulters and that she should give it a try.
Lafayette pole vault coach Don Mollenhauer says there's something to that. While at Menchville High he coached the first two Peninsula-area female vaulters to qualify in the pole vault for the Penn Relays, and both were part of the Peninsula District gymnastics dynasty coached by his wife, Skip Mollenhauer.
"Gymnasts know where their body is in space and know how to manipulate it in space," Skip Mollenhauer said. "And they know how to focus.
"All of that translates to pole vaulting."
Don Mollenhauer added, "And they know how to compete. They love to have the stress of competition and Kathryn is very competitive."
Tomczak says the combination of strong legs, abdominal muscles and arms crucial in gymnastics is equally important in pole vaulting. She adds that ability to rotate the body and manipulate the hips on the high bar are similar to pole vaulting.
After some early success at Lafayette, Tomczak began working privately with pole vaulting guru Kyle Bishop, whose many acolytes include Atlee High grad Cameron Overstreet, who, at 13-1 1/2 is the only state female vaulter ever to clear 13 feet indoors. Tomczak says Bishop, who trains vaulters in his Hanover County backyard, thinks of her as his "Little Cammy."
Tomczak says that when she began taking Bishop's coaching to heart, following her breakthrough at the outdoor state meet her sophomore year, she soared. She started using her speed more like a track athlete than a gymnast, getting her knees ever higher, and is learning to transfer more power to the top of the pole, which she says is key in going high.
Her method for coping with the stress at meets and focusing on herself, rather than the competition, is all her own. A life-long Disney aficionado, she occupies her time between vaults coloring Princess coloring books.
Tomczak won the indoor and outdoor 3A state titles a year ago, improving from 11 feet as a sophomore to 12-3 as a junior to 12-6 earlier this season. Clearing 13 feet has become her obsession, one she hopes to conquer at Virginia Tech on Friday.
Until she does, nothing will stand in her way.
"I'm so focused on that I actually broke up with my boyfriend last weekend," Tomczak said. "He's awesome, and it's not that he's that much of a distraction, but I only want to focus on myself right now.
"I really wouldn't have done it if I didn't have this goal."
O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963