Northwestern State pole vaulter Reagan Darbonne has been hearing Adam Pennington’s voice since middle school.
Darbonne, a four-time state champion pole vaulter at Hackberry High School south of Lake Charles, received tutoring from Pennington in the summers before her eighth- and ninth-grade seasons.
Now a college sophomore, Darbonne said it was Pennington’s voice that helped her qualify for the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships after clearing 13-8 ¼, a personal best and NSU record, at the NCAA East Preliminary Round two weeks ago.
Darbonne and fellow NSU jumper Jasmyn Steels will compete for individual national championships Thursday at the University of Texas in Austin.
“I thank God because without him I wouldn’t be here, and I also thank (Pennington) because I actually listened to him at Regionals,” said Darbonne with a smile. “We made it.
“(After clearing 13-8 ¼), I was getting ready to do the next bar, and when (Pennington) told me I made (the top 12 to go to nationals), I was ecstatic. I was running around like a little kid — I was so happy.”
Pennington, NSU’s associate head coach who leads the program’s sprints and vaults, said he thought reaching the national stage was possible for Darbonne, but he’d knew it’d take a little extra focus.
“I spoke with (NSU head coach Mike Heimerman) at the beginning of the year, and I said if she listens and does what I think she could do, I thought she could be at nationals,” Pennington said. “She had some ups and downs but continued to break her own school record this season.
“Her best as a freshman was just over 12 feet, and she can possibly go over 14 feet if everything goes right at nationals. This has been a fun journey watching her grow from that middle schooler to a college vaulter that still has plenty ahead of her.”
Pennington admits that he didn’t know if Darbonne would find her form in time for a nationals appearance this season.
Darbonne didn’t have the qualifying mark to compete at the prestigious Texas Relays in March, the same venue (University of Texas) that will host the nationals the next two seasons with construction underway at the usual site (Oregon’s Hayward Field).
But she regularly topped 13 feet in the indoor and outdoor seasons this winter and spring, breaking her own NSU record for two straight weeks, the latter of which was 13-2 ½ at the LSU Alumni Gold meet on April 20.
That was before her relatively astronomical increase to 13-8 ¼ at the NCAA East Preliminary Round.
“My freshman season really wasn’t a good season … but this year, I’m focused more and figured out what I really needed to do,” Darbonne said. “I got on some bigger poles, but I changed everything.
“I lost some weight, and that played a part in it. I started doing more gymnastics stuff in the air,and I got more flexible.”
Darbonne said her goal at the NCAA East Preliminary Round was a personal record, not necessarily with the expectation of reaching nationals.
But when the sophomore grabs the pole and looks down the runway in Austin, loftier dreams might just be dancing in her head.
“My friends have told me it would feel like I was in the Olympics,” Darbonne said. “I’ll probably be nervous, but I think it will feel like I’m in the Olympics.
“But I know what I need to do, and I just need to go out there and do it.”