Greatest Athlete #13: A two-time NCAA champion, Amy Linnen always seeks adventure

08/05/2011 7:57 AM |

The street signs scream danger.

ROBERT O'ROURK FILE PHOTO | At Mount Sinai Amy Linnen was the top pole vaulter in the state.

ROBERT O'ROURK FILE PHOTO | At Mount Sinai Amy Linnen was the top pole vaulter in the state.

“RIP CURRENTS. You could be swept out and drown,” warns one sign. Directly below it, another sign depicts a wave about to crash over a man whose falling to his back, his left arm held up toward the curling crescendo of water as if it serves as any kind of defense. “WAVES ON LEDGE” it says below, for those somehow unable to interpret the image.

Amy Linnen pays no heed to the warnings as she climbs the rocky cliff of an area called China Walls in the southern tip of O’ahu, Hawaii in late 2007. The picturesque waterfront sits on Maunalua Bay, which flows into the Pacific Ocean, a setting so tranquil it served as the backdrop for several scenes of the ABC show “Lost.”

Atop the cliff, roughly 10 feet above the bay, Linnen stares out at the never-ending expanse of blue water as her friend and training partner Morgan Hoesterey readies the camera equipped with a brand-new “fish-eye” lens. On a rare day off from training for what she hopes will be one last shot at the Olympics, what she is about to do may seem unnecessarily risky.

Wearing a black bikini, and with her blonde hair tied in a pony tail, she steps to the edge and jumps.

She dives into the water and patiently waits for the rolling waves to pass over, allowing her an opening to swim back toward the rock wall. “The first time I never thought I would get back up,” she would say a year later. Reaching for the wall filled with sea urchins ­— which have round, spiny shells — she hoists herself up and climbs back atop the cliff. And then she jumps again, about 30 times in total. Swan dives. Back flips. Anything she can think of as Hoesterey snaps away.

Crazy? Perhaps.

But to think so is to not understand Amy Linnen, a woman who never let fear stand in the way of her dreams. She never faced an obstacle she didn’t believe she could overcome.

Each day for Linnen presents a new challenge, one she approaches with an overwhelmingly positive attitude. Always smiling, she exudes charisma that can’t help but rub off on the people around her, making them too believe they can accomplish the impossible.

Amy Linnen is home now, back at Mount Sinai High School where it all began. She’s a physical education teacher in the middle school and coach for the girls track and field team, the perfect profession for the 29-year-old to share her expertise.

When Linnen began coaching at Mount Sinai during the winter season in 2009, the Mustangs fielded a veteran team. Most of the girls were well aware of Linnen’s accomplishments as a pole-vaulter and were left in awe that she was now working with them. As some of the younger girls come up through the program now, they’re further removed and less cognizant of what Linnen is all about.

They soon learn.

“As they’re going along, they see all these other people coming up to Amy like she’s a star and they’re like ‘Oh, wow!’ ” said Mount Sinai girls track coach Bill Dwyer, who now works alongside his former pupil. “It’s really funny.”

At track meets it’s not uncommon for people to gravitate toward Linnen, and not without reason. As a high school student she set the national indoor record in the pole vault, then went on to win two NCAA titles, one at the University of Arizona and the other at the University of Kansas. Her mark of 14 feet, 10 1/4 inches set March 9, 2002 still stands as an NCAA Division I indoor record.

She competed in the Olympic Trials for the 2000 Sydney Games only a few weeks after graduating high school in a sport she had just started two years earlier.

At 19 she had cleared the greatest height of any woman her age in the world.

“If you’re the best in the world, that’s hard to beat,” said Tom Hays, her former coach at Arizona and Kansas.

Her talent was hardly limited to the pole vault. She was an outstanding gymnast and reached the state championship in the all-around competition in 1998 as a sophomore. In track she still holds school records in the 55-meter hurdles, 100 hurdles and outdoor high jump, in addition to the pole vault.

The first time Hays got to see Linnen in person came at the Olympic Trials.

“Just physically she’s heads above everybody else,” he said. “She’s taller and she’s faster. She looked like she had a little better body awareness.”

For all her physical prowess, it’s her character that sets her apart, Dwyer said.

“Her personality really draws people in,” he said. “People will surround her even before they know what kind of person and athlete she is.”

Before Susan Linnen gave birth to Amy in July 1982, she had a sense her daughter might be a little crazy from the way she bounced around the womb. It would have been hard to imagine Amy growing up to be a star athlete as a baby. She was small and her toes curled toward her shin, which can be common in newborns before usually correcting itself.

MORGAN HOESTEREY PHOTO | When training in Hawaii for the 2008 Olympics, Linnen spent one day off trying her luck at diving.

MORGAN HOESTEREY PHOTO | When training in Hawaii for the 2008 Olympics, Linnen spent one day off trying her luck at diving.

At 6 months, however, Amy was given corrective shoes to help straighten her toes.

“They put these corrective bars and shoes on my feet and one day my mom found me at the top of a flight of stairs in our condo,” she said. “It’s a whole flight of stairs and she said the shoes weighed more than I did. At that point she’s like ‘Oh boy, this kid’s strong and she’s not afraid of anything.’ ”

When the shoes finally came off, Amy skipped the walking stage and went right to running. By 2 years old she was swinging on the bars of her canopy crib, a prelude to her gymnastics career.

At 5 she was already competing and doing back flips, practicing the move over and over until she nailed it. The more she competed in gymnastics, the more every other sport seemed boring. She tried swimming, soccer and baseball, but nothing seemed to compare to gymnastics. “The sport chose me,” she said. “There was no other sensation like flipping and being upside down.” The bars were her favorite event, although she also excelled on the floor exercise and balance beam.

MORGAN HOESTEREY PHOTO

During the summer she turned 11, she noticed one day what appeared to be a huge bug bite on her leg. She went to the emergency room and learned she had a severe staph infection that had been developing undetected for six months. She had previously sprained her ankle, which allowed the infection to reach her bone.

Her immune system fought off the infection until it finally started to grow outward and appeared as a red rash on her leg.
“It basically could have killed me,” she said. “It could have went straight to my heart and stopped it from beating because it was in my blood stream.”

She underwent surgery, which cost her an inch or two of her height. Depending on which leg she stands on now, she said she’s either 5-foot-10 or 5-10 1/2.

As she fought through the ordeal, she always remained upbeat. She was almost too naive to be scared. Her big concern was when she could get back to playing sports. She wondered if she might lose her leg, and if she did, what it would take to walk again — already searching for a positive.

“As a kid I was just tough and strong and positive,” she said. “I always relate back to that. You’ve been through this, you can go through anything else.”

That positive outlook, she said, came from her parents. Her mom, she said, always affects everyone around her in a positive way. Her father, James, was the kind of person who was always figuring out ways to solve a problem.

“Between the two of them they’re just so motivational and inspirational,” she said.

She tries to pass along that attitude to her students and athletes. It can be frustrating for her at times when she sees a student upset and having a bad day over the most incidental matter like losing a pencil.

She hopes to open kids’ eyes to appreciate the things around them and, for many kids, to realize just how lucky they have it.
The frustration is always outweighed by the reward of getting through to a student.

“I try to change the world and I try to affect them all,” she said. “Maybe that’s too big a goal, but at the same time I don’t believe it is. I want to make sure I can keep that attitude and be like, ‘I can help everyone.’”

As quick as Linnen began running as a child, it didn’t continue very long. She never enjoyed running and was never very good at it. She struggled through the mile in gym class, while outclassing the boys in any other fitness test.

KANSAS ATHLETICS PHOTO | In her one season at the University of Kansas, Linnen won the indoor NCAA title.

She never really considered track and field until midway through her high school career. As she continued to grow, gymnastics started to cause more aches and pains. She didn’t have the muscle to support her lanky frame during some of the more difficult skills she was trying to complete in gymnastics.

The sport wasn’t fun anymore.

Bill Dwyer knew of Linnen and could see her potential. But he knew she was a gymnast. And as a student she was the type of kid who needed to work hard to get through some of the more challenging courses. School work didn’t always come as natural as her athletics and she admits now she didn’t try as hard as she should have in school. Without being pushy, Dwyer extended the offer: “If you’re ever interested, by all means …”

Linnen’s boyfriend at the time was a pole vaulter and she noticed how she never saw girls in the event. When she asked why, she was given the litany of excuses: girls aren’t strong enough or they don’t make the right equipment for girls. That didn’t sit well.

With the encouragement of her boyfriend, she joined a track camp. Before she could begin pole vaulting, she started with some more basic events like the hurdles and high jump. She didn’t have to run much, but for the part she did, she needed to learn the technique.

“She spent a lot of time on running mechanics through high school and then in college,” Dwyer said. “A lot of things in gymnastics are very contradictory to what you need for running.”

Competing in the pole vault also presented one major hurdle: the event was not sanctioned for girls by Section XI, the governing body for Suffolk County high school sports.

Again, that didn’t sit well.

One way or another, Linnen was going to compete in the pole vault. At first she nearly got placed on the boys team.
She worked with the coaches and former athletic director Peter Ferenz to petition Section XI to add pole vaulting for girls.

By her junior year in 1998-99, the sport had been officially adopted. To this day she still ranks that as the proudest moment of her career.

She didn’t take long to start dominating. In the spring of ’99 she cleared 12 feet to win the state title. A few days later when the recruiting period could begin for colleges, she received a call from the University of Nebraska. The phone calls didn’t stop.

Up to that point she had never given much thought about college or what her life might be like after high school.

“I don’t know where I would have been if I hadn’t done what I did,” she said.

One meet changed her life.

Her senior year became a tour across America visiting colleges she otherwise never would have dreamed of attending.
Even Harvard expressed interest, although she had no interest in the famed Ivy League school. She didn’t want to go anywhere cold.

After a freshman season at Arizona where Linnen admitted she didn’t know how to run, pole vault, study or anything, she entered her sophomore season acutely focused. She visualized herself on the runway of a national meet, imagined the cameras all aimed at her, tried to feel that moment.

She pictured herself as Thorey Elisdottir, a former Olympian from Iceland, who won the NCAA indoor championship a year earlier when Linnen placed fifth. That’s where she wanted to be.

Amy Linnen

A few weeks before the NCAA indoor championship in her sophomore season, Linnen broke the collegiate record. Suddenly, she was about to enter the championship as the favorite.

“She acted more nervous than usual,” Hays said. “It’s the first time she ever said ‘I’m kind of nervous.’ ”

Linnen knew it was her chance to win a national title. And she seized the moment.

She cleared 14-10 1/4 to break her own record. The closest competitor was nearly a foot off her mark.

“At the end of the meet I went and looked at him and said ‘Coach Hays, guess what? I beat those girls by a foot!’” Linnen said.
“It was fun because she was just a young kid then and everything was so new,” Hays added. “She appreciated everything and she’s always been one of those kids you always want to coach.”

Linnen and Hays developed a close relationship. Being thousands of miles from home, Linnen viewed Hays a father-figure. Whatever she needed, she could always turn to her coach.

A University of Kansas graduate, Hays had previously coached at Nevada and Witchita State before Arizona. In 2003, he decided to return home. He took a job coaching at Johnson County Community College just outside Kansas City.

The news stunned Linnen.

All along she expected to put her four years in at Arizona, graduate and go from there.

“When he was making a decision to move back home to Kansas it was definitely rough,” Linnen said. “It wasn’t an easy year. There was a lot of stress. Injuries developed. Mental frustration.”

After 3 1/2 years at Arizona and on the cusp of finishing out college, Linnen decided to transfer. She originally looked at Arkansas, but with just one year of eligibility left, it didn’t work out.

Shortly after, Hays got an offer to return to the University of Kansas to coach. Once he got there, Linnen was on her way. It wasn’t easy. Transferring meant losing credits and changing major. She had to leave behind her friends and the school she had developed close ties with in order to finish out her career at a place that violated her initial rule in looking for colleges: A region that required a winter coat.

But it was worth it to stay with her coach.

“We had to finish what we started in a sense,” she said. “I couldn’t see it finishing another way. It had to be with coach Hays.”
In March 2005, they got their chance to finish what they started.

It was an opportunity for Linnen to prove herself again as an elite pole vaulter. She had fought through injuries, including a torn triceps, to get back to that point one last time at the indoor NCAA Championship.

“That was impressive just to watch her fight through the adversity and say, ‘OK, I’m still the girl to beat,’ ” Hays said.

She was. She cleared 14-01 1/4, a height also matched by Kate Soma of Washington. But Linnen had cleared on fewer attempts, giving her a second NCAA title.

“Winning that second title, it didn’t matter what uniform I was in or what school’s name was on my chest,” Linnen said. “It was just me and coach Hays.”

In the summer before winning the second title, Linnen made her second trip to the Olympic Trials. She made it to the finals and her top mark of 13-09 1/4 was good enough for 11th place. The top three finishers earned a trip to Athens.

After graduating from Kansas, Linnen took her first extended break from pole vaulting before deciding to make one last run at the 2008 Beijing Games. It wasn’t a pursuit so much of the Olympics as it was a chance for her to fall in love with the sport again. She came up short of reaching a third Olympic Trials, but in a way she achieved her final goal.

As the 2012 London Games approach, it’ll be the first Olympics since 1996 that Amy Linnen isn’t trying to pursue. People often ask her if she’s going to train again. She knows it’s not that easy to make a living as a pole-vaulter.

She enjoys living the “normal life” now and there are still plenty of goals she hopes to accomplish.

She may not be jumping off cliffs in Hawaii now, but her adventures never cease. She’s a lifeguard and competes in competitions, where she particularly excels in the beach flag event.

She started playing tennis, although she hasn’t gotten to the courts much this summer yet. And she also stared doing yoga. She helps kids with swimming lessons. Recently, after 10 lessons, one of her 3-year-old students went underwater for the first time and started to swim.

“That was a really cool accomplishment for both he and I,” she said. “It was tough for him, but he did it.”

She recently received her health certification and a personal training license. She’s also working on finishing her masters and wants to pursue getting a massage therapy license.

An avid surfer — she can do a headstand on a surfboard — she noticed sting rays recently that piqued her interest. She grabbed her underwater camera and began taking pictures.

“I even might do that today,” she said on a recent Monday morning. “Go out and do some snorkeling and underwater photo taking…

It’s a never ending journey.”

joew@northshoresun.com