WINTER HAVEN — Keari Brink has fallen more than once from the height of most basketball rims, bouncing off the asphalt like a brick.
She has winced down many runways, gutting through each stride with various nagging injuries to her legs and feet, and still pole vaults with a broken left foot. After a pair of fifth-place finishes left her one place shy of state berths the past two seasons, some wondered if the Ridgewood senior had hit her ceiling.
Then came last week's Class 3A, Region 2 meet at Denison Stadium in Winter Haven. Brink finally cashed in on four seasons of practice, vaulting 10 feet, 6 inches to claim her first region title and making her an instant favorite to win this week's state meet in Winter Park.
"She's fearless," Ridgewood coach Sue Vien said. "She wants it this year. I know she wants to be a champion."
Vien has witnessed some of Brink's greatest falls, fondly recalling one this year when she slipped off a pole while competing in the rain. She dropped like a stone into the metal launching pan.
"She fell 11 feet straight down on her back, did a back flip, stood up and walked off," Vien said. "She's very resilient; she's like a cat."
When Brink joined Ridgewood as a freshman, pole vaulting seemed to be a natural fit because of her gymnastics background and tiny frame. The first practice involved running back and forth on the football field, rehearsing the proper technique of holding the pole. It didn't take long before she felt comfortable taking shots down the runway and learning how to launch, lift, twist and land.
By her sophomore season she was vaulting 8-6, then 9-6 toward the end of her junior year with a disappointing 9-foot vault at last year's region meet to end her season.
Officially, Brink has vaulted 10-7 this season to set a school record. She has gone undefeated, grabbing conference, district and region titles along the way.
So what are her chances of winning at state? The girls who finished with vaults of 10-6 last season to claim the top four spots have graduated. And three of the four winners from region sites reporting scores had vaults below 10-6.
Brink has cleared 12 feet in practice, and Vien had hoped she would clear 11 feet at regionals to give her confidence. Brink hopes a standout vault might grab the attention of some colleges. She has applied to Saint Leo, which doesn't have a track program, and a few schools in Tennessee where she has family.
"I'm capable of vaulting 12 feet," Brink said. "I just have to get the mental block out of my head."
If Brink wins, she would be the first girls pole vault state champion from the North Suncoast since River Ridge's Abigail Doucette won the Class 5A title with a 10-foot vault in 1996.
"She's had a great season," Vien said. "You've got to give her props."
Izzy Gould can be reached at izzy
firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 580-5315