pole vaulter on her way to record heights at USU
By Ashley Schiller
May 8, 2008 | BIEGAJ SZYBKO!
That's how you'd say it if you were in Poland. And
that's how Coach Joel Johnson says it when he yells
to Utah State University pole vaulter Sonia Grabowska
as she approaches a horizontal bar delicately balanced
12 feet, 7 inches above the ground.
Grabowska has only been at USU since January, but
she has already recorded the third-best height for a
female pole vaulter in both indoor and outdoor track.
"In the next few years, she'll definitely be the best
jumper we've ever had," Johnson said.
Intensity. The best word to describe her, according
"If she's having a bad day at practice, most
people wouldn't want to be around her," he said.
"But every day she jumps is a good day. She wants
to jump every day no matter what, but you can't do that."
She actually only practices full-approach jumping
one day a week, Johnson said. The other practices focus
on balance, flexibility and strength.
Johnson said Grabowska will get mad at him when he
tells her to stop. "She'll be jumping up and down saying,
‘One more, coach!"' he said.
But that is the kind of athlete Johnson said he likes
to work with - someone who has too much energy is easier
to work with than a "deadbeat," he said.
In her intensity, Grabowska has on several occasions
throw her pole at practice and once at a meet.
"She's got a lot of fire," Johnson said with a smile.
April 19 was a big day for Grabowska. In the only
home meet of the entire season, she competed against
gold-medalist, Stacy Dragila who previously ran for
Idaho State. Dragila finished with a height of 13 feet,
1 1˛2 inches while Grabowska finished closest to Dragila
with 12 feet, 7 1˛2 inches.
On one of her last jumps, Grabowska did a crazy, almost
360 degree twist as she cleared the bar.
"Whoa! Did you see that?" multiple spectators enthusiastically
Grabowska lay on the mat laughing for about 10 seconds
before she got up.
"I have no idea how I did that," she said, "It was
Her coach called it a "holy roly."
After competing, Grabowska asked Dragila to sign her
spikes, which are special shoes for pole vaulters. Dragila
designed the pair. They have a silicone pad protecting
the achilles tendon, which is most commonly injured
Grabowska herself had surgery on her achilles tendon
in January of 2007, but she has completely recovered.
Another comment made by a spectator at the April 19
meet was about Grabowska's hair.
"She has the coolest hair ever. I wish I had her hair,"
a spectator said as Grabowska sat waiting for the pole
to be reach a height where she would begin competing.
She does not usually start jumping until the pole is
at least 12 feet, 4 inches above the ground.
Her boyfriend Lucas Wicha, also Polish and a member
of the track team, is actually the man who scissored
Grabowska's coveted hair. Her sandy bangs fall long
and full just past her eyebrows. The rest of her hair
is cropped short, framing her delicate face without
touching her shoulders. She said she once went to a
salon here for a color and cut, but the stylist "cut
it very strange" and Wicha had to fix it.
Grabowska and Wicha are two of only three international
athletes on the track team. The other is a fellow pole-vaulter
Johnson said athletes from outside the U.S. are always
very good at technical things. Athletes are trained
younger to precisely control body movement, making them
"elastically strong and explosive," he said.
Coming to the United States has been a huge transition
for both Grabowska and Wicha, who sought out scholarships
and came together. The personable coaches are the main
reason they chose USU, she said.
The most difficult physical transition was the altitude
change. It took them over a month to adjust, Grabowska
"We would just jog two laps or something and just
oh-h-h-h-h. The altitude was the worst adjustment,"
And of course the language is a big change. Both spoke
English before, but their abilities have improved, especially
in writing, Grabowska said. She said she doesn't have
to use the dictionary so much anymore.
Because she speaks English "extremely well," language
has not been a damaging barrier, Johnson said. He said
he also uses a lot of mannerisms when speaking, and
often demonstration as another way to communicate.
"She is really funny and has picked up on sarcasm.
She uses it very well, which is hard for a non-native
speaker," he said.
Some of the greatest differences between Poland and
the Utah are social behaviors, Grabowska said.
"Here, it's normal to ask ‘How are you?' everywhere,
even in the supermarket," she said, explaining that
people are not so open in Poland.
And there it is always Mr. or Mrs. Professor, never
the name, she said. She and Wicha laughed as they remembered
how polite they were their first few days in Logan,
speaking with everyone so formally. Another contrast
of cultures is the nature of marriage and dating. "Here
they date for three months and get married," Grabowska
In Poland, most people don't marry in college, she
said. Marriage is more common at age 28 to 30.
"The most important thing is a good job and a good
education, then family," she said.
It is much easier to have a family here because salaries
are bigger, Wicha said. "Any job is a good job here,"
he said, adding that a person can work at a supermarket
and have enough money to pay for rent and a car.
In addition to her family, with whom she speaks almost
daily, Grabowska misses Polish bread. It is expensive
and does not taste the same here, she said. The one
place she has found that she likes is Hazel's in the
Taggart Student Center, where she and Wicha frequently
buy fresh bread.
And if she's craving a European dessert, she goes
to Sweetly Divine, a local bakery owned by a Polish
man. The shop has desserts from all over Europe but
an especially Polish treat is the apple pie, Grabowska
There are about 20-30 Polish living in Cache Valley,
Grabowska said. Some are in the chemistry and math departments
at USU and one is a hockey player, she said.
Another polish athlete will be coming in the fall.
A good friend of Wicha's is coming to long jump for
USU. The three will probably live together, Wicha said.
Grabowska and Wicha said they like living in the U.S.
If they are able to get green cards, they'd like to
stay. But that is a decision that won't come for awhile.
As a freshman, Grabowska has three more years of eligibility
and opportunity to break school records.
Her potential is huge, Johnson said.