University of Louisville redshirt senior Gabriela Leon has gone from relatively unknown to national champion.
Five years ago, the Grand Rapids, Michigan native was fresh out of high school and competing in the New Balance championships when the Louisville coaching staff first saw her. Leon had played a lot of football during his youth, but chose to participate in athletics as his secondary schools progressed. Still, it took persuasion from his algebra teacher to get him into the pole vault.
“I was extremely terrified and didn’t want to do this at all,” Leon said. “I told him that I wanted to do high jump, but he told me that I was too small to do it and that I would never be good for it. At the time, I didn’t realize it. I didn’t count and I was stubborn. But one day I finally said yes and showed up for practice and never looked away from it again. I absolutely fell in love the first day I did it. I did and I’m so glad he didn’t give up on me. kept asking me every day. I’m so glad about that.
His high school success sparked college interest and led to that first moment of discovery for Louisville assistant coach Brooke Rasnick at that New Balance event five years ago.
“I didn’t know her until after she graduated from high school,” Rasnick explained. “I saw her running on the track a few times during warm-ups and I didn’t know who she was. And I said to our sprint coach who was sitting next to me, I said, ‘I don’t know who that kid is, but she’s going to kick everybody’s ass in a few years. And that statement turned out to be true… she was at a higher level two years later and five years later she is a national champion.
“What is special about Gabi is not only his athleticism, his dynamism. She didn’t jump well at that meet that I watched her. She finished 14th. But the way she behaved afterwards was impressive. I mean, the emotional maturity she had at that age, and you knew she was invested in it. You knew she cared, but she handled it in such a way that it kind of blew my mind.
The former football prospect and high jump aspirant has emerged as one of the country’s top pole vault performers over the past few years. She has earned multiple All-ACC accolades and received All-American recognition in 2019 and 2020. Now a first-team All-American, Leon is the NCAA champion.
She became the first national women’s outdoor champion in program history with a pole vault height of 4.60m (15-1) on day two of the New York Outdoor Athletics Championships. 2022 NCAA Division I at Oregon’s Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.
“I don’t think it’s quite in yet, but I’ve been extremely happy and blessed for the past few days,” Leon said. “Knowing that I was able to get this accomplishment, not only for my coach here, but also for Louisville, the team and the city. It means so much to me to be able to have this.
She entered the event with the goal of becoming a national champion, but when the time comes, it can be an overwhelming experience.
“I would just say speechless, like pure joy,” Leon said. “I remember when I realized that. I didn’t soak in the moment because I was so determined to reach that next height and get that 4.70 bar that felt like a standard. But it really hit me when I was on the podium looking down on everyone without looking up for the first time. It was just that he was speechless. I was in tears when I was there. It was amazing. Honestly, I’m so happy.
With his national title trophy likely headed to his mother’s house to be placed alongside other accomplishments of her and her siblings, Leon will remain in Louisville to focus on his next goal.
“I’ve managed to (personal best) gain another eight inches this year, and I think there’s still a lot of room in the tank to grow…I hope to qualify for the Olympic team in two years. This will be my next goal. »