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Helena native Chase Smith looking to 'keep it going' at NCAA West prelims

Chase Smith
Posted at 6:10 PM, May 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-26 19:33:24-04

SEATTLE — After four All-American finishes, there isn’t much left for Chase Smith to accomplish in his college track and field career.

Smith, then, has a simple mindset going into this week’s NCAA Division I West preliminary competition, which he enters after winning his first Pac-12 Conference pole vaulting championship earlier this month.

“Historically, I’ve been top 20 in the nation,” he said. “Might as well just keep it going.”

A Helena native now in his sixth year at the University of Washington, Smith has a long list of accomplishments, including two indoor pole vaulting titles at the competitive MPSF (Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) Championships. Most of that indoor success, though, hasn’t translated to the outdoor track and field season — none of it Smith’s fault.

He placed fifth at the Pac-12 Championships as a freshman in 2016, but his sophomore season in 2017 was interrupted by appendicitis. A torn meniscus ended his 2018 season, and the coronavirus pandemic wiped out his 2020 season. He was solid in 2019, setting his outdoor personal-best height at 17 feet, 8.5 inches, placing fourth at the Pac-12 Championships and 15th at the national meet to finish as a second-team All-American.

He isn’t 100% healthy this outdoor season, either, but Smith finally claimed the Pac-12 title that had so cruelly eluded him throughout his college career.

“It was kind of bittersweet (to win the Pac-12 championship). Personally I didn’t jump very well but I guess better than anyone else,” Smith said with a laugh. “Also, in the sense that it’s my last outdoor season, my outdoor career hasn’t been great. I had appendicitis one year, I had a torn meniscus another year, just been kind of up and down. I was supposed to win at least three (outdoor championships), it’s just kind of nice to finally get the win.”

And it’s a reward for an arduous 15 months to get here. Smith was at his athletic peak to close out the 2020 indoor season, which saw him place second at the MPSF Championships and qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships. He never got the chance to compete at the national meet, as the coronavirus pandemic shut down sporting events across the world. With the shutdown, Smith’s entire training regimen went by the wayside.

Athletes weren’t allowed on the Washington campus to use the university facilities, so Smith and his teammates fashioned their own off-campus runways and acquired a “nice piece-of-crap pit,” he said.

“It was just a big rodeo,” Smith continued. “The usual routine to prep your body, get into whatever, we just couldn’t do it. We couldn’t be together, we couldn’t use the facilities that we had. So a lot of it was like free for all, basing a lot of my own training regimens off of what I had previously done. That’s not the same, because you don’t know if your coach is going to tweak something based off something he sees. You just don’t catch everything yourself. We’ve been doing a lot of running on uneven concrete, because that’s just what had, and it beat up our bodies quite a bit.”

To that end, Smith has been battling chronic aches and pains that come with being a Division I athlete. It’s nothing serious enough to require surgery, and Smith would know; he’s graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology, minors in chemistry and human rights, and intends to apply to med school after first working with the Montana Department of Health and Human Services’ vaccine access program.

But the pain has limited Smith’s ability to train. After COVID-19 forced him to take the longest pole vaulting break of his life, his ailments are now preventing him from vaulting on a consistent basis. Smith said he can’t even vault three days a week right now.

“But I know when I step on that runway, when it’s time to compete, I’m not worried about if it’s going to hurt or not,” he said. “You’ve got to do it.”

He’ll be competing against the best competition he’s seen in more than a year. Forty-three of the 48 pole vault entrants in the West prelim have seed heights as high or higher than Smith’s 17-1 mark, including Garrison Hughes, a Sidney native now vaulting at the University of Nebraska. Smith and Hughes are among 34 Montanans who will be competing at this week’s preliminary competitions, which start Wednesday.

The West prelim is in College Station, Texas, and the vaulters are up first, starting the first flight at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

“I’ve been down this road before. It’s just now it’s the end of my career,” Smith said, recognizing the roles his parents, Barbara and Peter Smith, and coaches Pat Licari and Toby Stevenson have played during his career. “I’m going to give it all I’ve got, then I’m going to move on to study medicine.”