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Nicholas Gordon and Natalie Willer are on parallel tracks for the Nebraska men’s and women’s track and field team.
They are both sophomores.
They are both reigning Big 12 indoor champions.
They are both among the nation’s top five ranked performers in their events entering this weekend’s NCAA Indoor Championships in College Station, Texas.
They are both mentally tougher than they are physically gifted.
They are both excellent students.
They are both preparation freaks who study film of the world’s greatest athletes in their events.
They are both dreamers who visualize achieving the “ultimate jump” at an imaginary meet.
And, oh yes, there’s one more interesting little tidbit. They are both carving out their respective athletic reputations in their second favorite sports.
Gordon Loved Soccer. Willer Relished Gymnastics
You heard right.
Nicholas Gordon was a star soccer player in high school in Kingston, Jamaica, before he decided to concentrate on the long jump.
And Natalie Willer was a member of the girls’ national gymnastics team before she decided to punch her college meal ticket in the pole vault.
Talk all you want about the passion required and the need to specialize. In Gordon’s and Willer’s case, you simply cannot always draw a straight line from one to the other.
Natalie Willer (top) and Nicholas Gordon (bottom) accept their Big 12 Championship medals at the 2009 indoor meet.
Photos by Jeremy Foote, Nebraska Media Relations
Even though they’re just beginning to make names nationally in track and field, their favorite sports continue to tug significantly on their hearts.
“Soccer was always my favorite sport growing up,” Gordon said. “In high school, I played it, I loved it, and I dreamed it. I competed in track, too, but it was secondary. Even though I’m better in track than I am in soccer, I still love soccer more, and if I could choose between the two, I’d choose soccer.”
Willer has somewhat similar thoughts. “I wouldn’t trade my gymnastics background for anything, and I still miss it,” she said.
But when injuries threatened her once promising gymnastics career the summer before her junior year in high school, Willer decided vaulting with a pole made more sense than flying off a vaulting apparatus at a lower height in her favorite sport.
“I most likely would have competed as a college gymnast,” Willer said, adding that a strange thing happened when she was having trouble rebounding from a painful back injury. She started growing from a projected height of 5-foot all the way to 5-7.
Something Had to Give, and It Was Gymnastics
That was no reason to cancel her gymnastics career, but academics played prominently into the decision, too. “I knew that with the courses I’d be taking my junior year in high school, it would be pretty impossible to do both gymnastics and track,” she said. “So I made a choice.”
Thankfully, the daughter of a former North Dakota State football player and North Dakota University women’s basketball player went with her head instead of her heart, and it paid instant dividends.
As a freshman at Nebraska, she finished second in the pole vault at both the Big 12 Indoor and Outdoor Championships. Two weeks ago, she won the event in the same Texas A&M facility that will host this weekend’s NCAA Championships. Willer’s 4.27-meter effort (which translates to 14-0) ranks fourth in the nation behind 4.37, 4.35 and 4.28-meter performances by student-athletes from Minnesota, Arkansas and LSU.
Gordon’s 7.96-meter leap in the long jump trails only two student-athletes on the NCAA individual leaders’ board – an 8.21 by a Florida State sophomore and an 8.02 by a Florida freshman.
Both Husker sophomores put just as much emphasis on their performance in the classroom as they do on the field.
A biological science major, Willer experienced the only B in her life in a chemistry lab, but has a 3.97-plus Grade-Point-Average. She wants to be a physician’s assistant.
A political science major, Gordon sees his GPA improving dramatically from the 3.4 that landed him on the Big 12 Commissioners’ Honor Roll every semester since he’s been at Nebraska. He wants to become an attorney.
The Perfect Jump: All in the Mind of the Performer
Optimistic by nature, Gordon admits that periodic leaps of faith keep showing up in his head. “I definitely dream about a great jump,” he said. “In fact, I’ve been dreaming about a great jump over the last three weeks. When I dream, there is a magic number, but I’d like to keep that to myself for now.”
His dream jump is actually a combination of things he’s done before. “I’ve never actually put the best of everything together in one jump before,” he said.
Sometimes, he has had excellent technique, but he didn’t run fast enough. Other times, he ran faster, but his technique suffered.
“I’m looking for a combination of just running my best down the runway, getting a very good approach, getting in a very good position on the board and then getting great flight with a great landing,” he said. “All of these things need to come in line and happen together on the same jump. When that happens in my dream, I go past 8 meters every time.”
Once a teammate with standout Husker freshmen gymnasts Lora Evenstad, Kristin Fyffe and Kassandra Nathe on a national select team, Willer no longer dreams about the perfect bar routine. Now, it’s the perfect pole vault.
“For me, it’s not seeing it – it’s feeling it . . . feeling every step of the vault and knowing what it feels like to do it right,” Willer said. “If you would have asked me a couple of years ago if I could see the perfect vault, I don’t think I could have said yes. Now, I can picture it, and sometimes even dream about it. More importantly, I’ve been able to have parts of dream jumps, so it doesn’t seem so impossible.
“Obviously, I haven’t put everything together yet, or I’d be jumping 16 feet right now,” she said. “But I’ve had jumps where I’ve had a great takeoff and other jumps where I’ve had a great invert (where a vaulter swings upside down). Just knowing those components and being able to see it in my mind, I know what it would feel like to do it all right . . . taking off with good posture, being the right distance from the box, leaning over your foot, driving your right knee, following through, swinging from your shoulders, keeping pressure on the pole, ending upside down and not letting yourself fall off the pole, keep moving up, so your hips are above your head, dropping your shoulders and turning and then flying up over the bar. Do all that, and you have the perfect vault.”
Analyzing the World’s Best to Gain an Extra Edge
Don’t laugh. Willer and Gordon are always striving to go above and beyond their limits.
Willer and her pole vault coach, Kris Grimes, use a new video program to compare, side-by-side, a sophomore’s technique with that of Yelena Isinbaeva, the two-time Russian Olympic champion who has broken the women’s world pole vault record 26 times.
Gordon and his long jump coach, Gary Pepin, analyze video of three-time Olympic long jump champion Carl Lewis and current world record-holder Mike Powell (8.95 meters – 29-4 ½). “We use Lewis to demonstrate the importance of flight and watch Powell to reinforce what makes a good landing,” Gordon said. “And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched Bob Beamon’s record jump (29-2 ½) in Mexico City (in 1968) on YouTube. I never get tired of seeing that one.”
If Willer and Gordon become All-Americans this weekend, you’ll know why.
And maybe, you’ll understand, just like they do, that concentrating on your second favorite sport isn’t as bad of an idea as you might think.