Alysha Newman sat in a hospital room in California with her mother and a doctor.
She was looking at pictures of animals, on the verge of tears.
It was October 2021, two months after the 27-year-old pole vaulter failed to land a single jump at the Tokyo Olympics.
She had missed her three attempts to jump by more than 4.25 meters: the height of a bungalow and a half, which she usually crosses as part of her warm-up.
An untrained observer would have guessed that Newman had stage fright on the track at Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium.
But it’s not like Newman, a two-time Olympian, Commonwealth Games champion and nationally acclaimed model with more than 600,000 Instagram followers, gets nervous when he performs.
The problem, she said, was mostly in her head, but it wasn’t just mental.
She was kept four months away from a concussion, suffered by slipping and falling in a hotel room recovery ice tray in April 2021.
Since then, persistent symptoms like headaches, neck pain and depth perception issues have derailed her career: her blunder in Tokyo was the latest in a series of frustrations that led her to seek medical treatment. a concussion specialist in California, who was now asking him to take a simple test to identify a rabbit from a dog.
And she couldn’t do it.
“I just started crying,” she recalled. “It was the worst feeling in the world – I had the animal names on the tip of my tongue, but I just couldn’t get them out.”
The year 2021 was supposed to be when Newman would eclipse her personal best of 4.82m, which already made her the Canadian record holder and the 16th best female jumper in world history.
But the symptoms kept her from jumping like her, and in that doctor’s office she was beginning to accept that she still had a long way to go before she cleared 4.82 meters again.
“My goal was just to show up in Tokyo and hope for a miracle, and then I couldn’t even get off the track,” she said.
“Embarrassing myself at the Olympics was what I needed to really realize something was wrong…I couldn’t concentrate on technique anymore and needed proper help.”
After her consultation with the specialist, the Toronto resident returned from California and began a new training regimen, trading sessions on the track for brain scans, mandatory nap schedules and daily 90-minute stretches in a hyperbaric chamber just to stop the headache.
Temporarily giving up intense training, she said, felt like a withdrawal.
“I’m someone who finds great joy in a tough, sweaty workout,” she said. “Convincing myself that just resting was what I needed was excruciating.”
But as the winter months passed, Newman began to feel better.
Her depth perception was returning, her neck pain was less frequent, and she could easily name her animals.
In the spring, she started to feel like she had to do workouts again, but she wasn’t ready to jump yet.
“For me, the pole vault is the most difficult event, technically, in athletics. I couldn’t get back to it yet,” she said. “I kept thinking: is that post was going to bend to the right, was it going to kill me?”
To get in shape, she started hitting the track at Athletics Canada’s East Hub at York University, and her workouts often overlapped with those of Canadian heptathlete Georgia Ellenwood of Langley.
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Doug Wood, Newman’s pole vault coach since 2014, eventually encouraged Newman to attend Ellenwood’s workouts.
It made sense: the throws helped her build her power, the 800m sessions kept her fit, and the sprint intervals worked on her short speed, which Newman calls her biggest weakness.
“My coach Doug always said I was one of the best technicians in the world, but I was also one of the slowest, so it was an opportunity to use that training to help me on the jump. horse,” Newman said.
As the weeks passed, she came to enjoy the workouts and even caught up with Ellenwood in sprint and obstacle sessions. The heptathlete was impressed by the speed with which her protege took the multis.
“Learning seven events in a short time is a tough job,” Ellenwood said, “but Alysha is resilient and a world-class athlete. I knew that once she practiced every event thoroughly, she could get into his first multi.
Newman began to think the same way.
“I just thought: Georgia is one of the biggest multi-events in Canada, and I’m a step behind her in some practices. And even she thinks I’m good at it… I had to try a heptathlon for real.
So last month, Newman competed in his first outdoor competition since Tokyo: the NACAC Combined Events Championship in Ottawa.
A beginning heptathlete can usually absolve himself of outside expectations and attribute any poor performance to inexperience with the brutality of a seven-event competition.
But when you’re Newman, a mainstay of the athletics scene in Canada, with thousands of people watching it online, the zero wait quickly becomes a myth.
She signed up for the championship in Ottawa much like she did for her first major modeling audition, for Nordstrom in 2019: as a rookie, but with a resume too stellar to ignore. During the audition, she didn’t tell anyone about her Olympic past and her 2018 Commonwealth title, hoping to be valued at face value.
“When I try something new, I want to start from scratch,” Newman said. “Until I perform, only then do I want to be recognized. I don’t want special treatment.
She doesn’t know when the Nordstrom judges found out she was a Commonwealth champion and world-class athlete. Either way, she got the part.
The resulting campaign from that audition, which featured Newman splattered on billboards in Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square, combined with her jumping prowess to make her the biggest name on Ottawa’s starting roster , although she is the only first to compete in multiple events in the nine-athlete field. .
Despite the pressure, Newman delivered.
She finished in fourth place with 5,021 points and mixed feelings: she was disappointed with her performance in the shot put, but said she figured out how to properly compartmentalize her 200m, and ultimately felt like a jumper in height. Even at the end of the last event, the grueling 800m, she was hungry for more and became convinced that better jumps and throws could eventually bring her closer to 6,000 internationally competitive points.
“I could push myself to places where I couldn’t in the pole vault, where you have to be really calm and precise. In the heptathlon, I feel like I can really show my athleticism, it’s this feeling of surpassing myself that I like… you don’t always have that on vault, where it’s much more technical.
Encouraged by a positive result, Newman felt ready to jump again and competed in the Johnny Loaring Classic in Windsor the week after the NACAC championship.
Inside the St. Denis Center in Windsor, the old patterns returned and the Olympian won the competition hands down by jumping 4.61m on her third attempt at the height. During her first jumping competition since Tokyo, she came within nine centimeters of the world standard of 4.70 m.
“It was like riding a bike,” she said. “Being away from pole vaulting for so long makes it easier because I got my mental game aligned, and the rest is muscle memory.”
Just like that, she found herself at a crossroads.
She wondered: was it time to get back into pole vault this summer and have a better chance of winning medals at the World Championships and Commonwealth Games? Or should she continue to explore her potential and her growing love for multiplayer?
For advice, she turned to Wood and thought he might encourage her to give up the heptathlon.
Wood, a former outfielder himself, instead made her stick with the multis a bit longer.
A continued focus on hurdles and jumps, he said, would improve his speed, and a little more distance from the pole vault could continue to help his mental game and overall longer-term performance.
“Also, Alysha is a technician like I’ve never met, and she has enough experience that she doesn’t have to jump seven days a week to resurrect all the good feelings and patterns,” said said Wood. “What happened at Windsor is a great example of that – there’s a lot of value in what she’s doing right now.”
RELATED: Langley prepares for Bell Canadian Track and Field Championships in June
With the Bell Trials (Bell Canadian Track & Field Championships at McLeod Athletic Park in Langley June 22-26) fast approaching, Newman – along with Wood and fellow jump coach Zeke Krykorka, along with his multi-event coaches Vickie Croley – are trying to devise a summer competition plan.
Her dream, she said, would be to score high enough in the heptathlon to qualify for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, but she also feels more drawn to pole vaulting than she has. done for years.
“Part of me is so connected and has to jump that world standard (pole vault) of 4.70m before anything else.”
As she aims to design the perfect competition schedule, Newman doesn’t forget that in her planning she has to account for random events: things like playing a major role in a modeling campaign or slipping into a baccalaureate. ice cream.
On Wednesday, Newman missed five of her six pole vault jumps at La Classique d’athlétisme de Montréal, due to a delay in competition that would have delayed her for her flight back to Toronto.
“You want to plan, but you also have to take into account the things you can’t plan. It’s just a track. That’s life, really,” she shared.
“For now, I’m just planning to go to Langley and give them a show.”
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– Athletics Canada
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