In a sport whose defining adjectives are “faster,” “higher” and “stronger,” Ashley Bailey is all of the above.
Soaring 18 inches higher than any other Delaware girl ever before pole vaulted, excelling in five other events and leading her team to unprecedented success, the Middletown High senior won the Bill Thomson Award as the state’s outstanding high school track athlete.
Just this past Sunday, Bailey vaulted 13 feet at the Junior Olympic Regionals at Stockton (N.J.) University, in a performance she would have undoubtedly reached during the high school season, but for the other work she had taken on.
Requiring speed, strength and jumping ability, the pole vault attracts the sport’s most versatile athletes. But the compact schedule of a track meet prevents most vaulters from showing their skills in other events. Bailey, though, invariably performed in the maximum four events.
With a powerful upper body honed in gymnastics and tumbling, Bailey began track in ninth grade at the suggestion of her father, Carl Bailey, a black belt in karate with whom she works out. Her mother, Penelope Bailey, encouraged her versatility.
“My mom always wants me to try something new,” Bailey said. “She’s probably put me in every sport in the book. My dad wanted me to try the high jump. He said, ‘Even though short genes run in our family, we tend to be pretty good in sports.'”
Delaware’s only 18-foot long jumper, Bailey ran leadoff for Middletown’s state champion 4×200 relay team and was a 100-meter high hurdles finalist at the Meet of Champions. In previous seasons, she was among the state’s best in the high jump and the 300-meter intermediate hurdles.
“She’s so talented in all those events, we struggled where to put her,” Middletown coach Mary Kay Waltemire said. “When we asked her what do you want to do for the next meet, she would say, ‘Where do you need me?’ She could do anything.”
By the end of her freshman year, she was the second best pole vaulter in state history (11-3), with the first of four consecutive state championships, honing her specialty after hours with specialized coaches.
At the New Castle County meet, she overcame one of track’s hidden hurdles: the prom. Middletown’s was held in Dover on the first night of the two-day New Castle County Championship meet. Waltemire, who has coached at Middletown for a decade, offered her athletes the chance to skip the first day.
Bailey declined the offer.
“She long-jumped, pole-vaulted, ran two rounds of hurdles, went to the prom and was at Baynard Stadium the next morning, before I got there, before the bus got there,” marvels Waltemire. “She said, ‘I want to do all of my events.’ You don’t see that dedication often.”
Bailey won the vault and scored in three other events, leading Middletown to second place, the Cavaliers’ top finish in the county meet since Walter Walls and Marion Davidson led the boys team to the 1942 championship.
A week earlier, Bailey won two events, finished second in another, and led off a winning relay to give Middletown the winning margin for its first Blue Hen Conference title.
“Middletown was the underdog. No one saw it coming. That’s what we liked about it,” said Bailey. “The best thing is, we did it in a non-intimidating way. We weren’t bragging. We were just happy with each other and kept going. It was, ‘Don’t be afraid to try something different and try harder’.”
“The relay team is the best part,” says Bailey about the 4×200 combo that cut its time by 10 seconds to 1:43 to win the state championship. “On the relay, it was never about being the fastest. It was about succeeding together.”
The last event opened to girls, the pole vault has been a state meet event since 1999. Bailey’s performances would have placed in the top three among the boys in most state meets held before then, frequently good for the state championship. Standards for both genders have improved greatly in recent years. Stefano Pineda of Charter and state champion Sam Young of Cape Henlopen both topped 15-6 this year.
Bailey’s standards have likewise elevated as she has grown.
“At first I was always happy about whatever I cleared,” she said. “Every time I made a height, I thought it was fine. When I really got into it, I wanted to be the best one. I trained a lot more. I went to private pole vault lessons every day during the week after my normal practice.”
She and Padua valedictorian and Division I cross country champion Emily Paolucci will join last year’s Thomson Award winner, Tyra Reid, at University of Delaware.
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