Anicka Newell competing in Mexico City on Feb. 22, 2020 Credit: Courtesy Anicka Newell

There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.

Olympic pole vaulter Anicka Newell has never been to D.C. before. Not for competition. Not for vacation. Not even for a school field trip while growing up in New Mexico. But on Saturday, she will finally get the chance to visit. The 27-year-old Olympian for Team Canada will travel more than 1,500 miles from San Marcos, Texas, where she lives and trains, to the District to compete at the inaugural DMV Pole Vault Championships hosted by DC Vault at the club’s facility at the RFK campus.

Newell headlines an event that will include elementary school students, standout local high schoolers, and collegiate athletes. Robin Bone, a professional pole vaulter for Team Canada, will also compete in the elite division. Newell found out about the competition through the DC Vault Instagram account, and sent Edward Luthy, the club’s president and head coach, a message in late May.

“The pole community is pretty tight,” Newell says. “And so I actually follow the DC Vault club on Instagram, just ’cause I follow a lot of pole vault clubs … I was looking for a competition that weekend, and there’s not a whole lot going on. So I figured I would reach out to him and see if he could have a spot for me.”

He did. Luthy wasn’t going to turn away an Olympian. But because the event wasn’t originally geared toward elite athletes like Newell, DC Vault did not have the proper time to put together an extensive elite division. Instead, the DMV Pole Vault Championships will showcase some of the best high school talent in the area and give spectators a chance to see competitive pole vaulters of all ages compete. The DMV Pole Vault Championships has been in the back of Luthy’s mind for a few years and DC Vault decided to go forward with the planning process for the inaugural event this January.

“It’s basically something I’ve been wanting to get to for a while to provide sort of an opportunity as a regional championship, in particular, really heavily focused for the high schoolers who go through state championships,” Luthy says. “They’re all very integrated as far as how they train in this area. A lot of them cross paths, but don’t have the chance to compete against each other in a more formal setting.”

Luthy, who arrived in D.C. in 2008 and helped launch the year-round DC Vault training club shortly after, believes there is appetite to make the championships an annual event. Local high school pole vaulters get crowned state champions in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, but it’s often broken up into multiple divisions based on school size. DC Vault hopes to give all those athletes a chance to compete against each other.

“I could be wrong, [but] I feel like going forward that the real interest will be coming from those high schoolers wanting to get that DMV title, especially the state champions,” Luthy says.

Christian Di Nicolantonio competing in D.C. last summer Credit: DC Vault

Christian Di Nicolantonio is one of those athletes. The 18-year-old recently graduated from Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria and won the state titles for boys’ pole vault at the VHSL Class 6 State track and field championships for both the indoor and outdoor seasons. Di Nicolantonio starts competing for Catholic University in the fall, and Saturday’s competition will allow him to gauge his level against the area’s best pole vaulters.

“Here in the DMV Championships, you can just come and find all sorts of competition,” he says. “The other school vaulters, we don’t even meet them during [our] whole competition seasons.”

In high school, Di Nicolantonio competed at nearly every event, from the jumps to the hurdles. He even threw discus. “My freshman coach really wanted me to be a decathlete,” he explains. It wasn’t until after sophomore year that he began to focus more on pole vaulting. Di Nicolantonio credits DC Vault for his progression. He’s trained with the club at least three times a week for the past two years. DC Vault athletes practice at the RFK campus facility, its permanent home since 2018, and typically at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda during the winter months. This past winter, due to pandemic-related closures, the team worked out at the Michael & Son Sportsplex at Dulles.

“I think it was essential,” Di Nicolantonio says of training with DC Vault. “My high school coaching wasn’t bad, but I’d say getting that extra private hand on hand coaching in D.C., they had so much more equipment, so much more drills that I could participate in, get just like very technical aspects of the vault down very, very quickly. Whereas if I were to do it at high school, I would have taken a lot more time just to conquer the most foundational aspects of the vault.”

It didn’t take long for Di Nicolantonio to love the sport. He says pole vaulting is “like flying or the closest thing to it in my mind.” It’s the exact same answer that Newell gives when asked what she enjoys about the sport.

“It’s like the closest feeling I can get to flying, which I used to love about gymnastics,” she says. Newell, like Di Nicolantonio, also started pole vaulting in high school, but it took her a little longer to accept it as her event.

“I got thrown into it against my will in high school by the track coach just because I had a gymnast background and he said, ‘We need a girl vaulter,'” Newell recalls. “I didn’t want to do it. I really enjoyed the hurdles and long jump that I was doing. But I ended up being kind of good at it, so just kept excelling and then sort of just found a love for it eventually.”

Newell competed at Texas State University and finished her eligibility in 2016 right before the Rio Olympics. Her personal best at the time was jumping 14 feet and the Olympic A standard that year was 14 feet, 9 inches. “So I trained my ass off that summer and jumped the A standard,” says Newell, whose mother is from Canada. “I think both [my coach and I] were not totally surprised but surprised at the same time, shocked, like, holy shit … I can be an Olympian.”

At the Rio Olympics, Newell finished in 29th place, a result that still motivates her.

“In 2016, I had choked,” Newell says. “I was coming straight out of college. It was the biggest arena I’ve ever seen in my life. I mean, I straight up just choked. So I’m very much ready for some redemption, and much more mature and experienced now and I know my game plan going in and I’m freakin’ ready. I’m coming in with some fire in this Games.”

The Tokyo Olympics being postponed by a year ended up benefitting Newell, who was rehabbing a “pretty serious Achilles injury” last year. In January, she cleared a personal best of 15 feet, 5 inches to earn the Olympic A standard to compete in Tokyo. “This year I am fully confident in my abilities and 100 percent planning on bringing home a medal,” Newell says.

Even though she is not competing in this week’s Canadian track and field trials because of the strict quarantine requirements, Newell says she is “fully planning on being on” Team Canada for the Olympics. She adds that she spoke with the Canadian head coach and that they both agreed that it would not be helpful to miss any training by attending the trials.

So she’ll be in D.C. instead, experimenting with a different series of pole vaulting poles that she plans to use in Tokyo and giving the spectators in D.C. a rare chance to watch an Olympic pole vaulter compete in person.

“I want some big bars for sure,” Newell says. “I want to put on a little bit of a show.”