When Leah Pasqualetti was in fifth grade, she was a committed gymnast running in her school’s spring field day for fun.
That day would change her life.
The Orchard Park High School track coach was there, and a big idea struck him:
Pasqualetti certainly had speed, he saw. He knew that as a gymnast, she had great body control.
And those things, he thought, could make her a great pole vaulter.
By seventh grade, she tried it for the first time, and she was competing on the high school varsity team.
“It was exhilarating,” Pasqualetti said. “I remember thinking it felt a lot like gymnastics. It had the same type of speed and air awareness feeling. After the first day, I was hooked.”
Pasqualetti had started on a journey that would make her the top high school pole vaulter in the United States and the best pole vaulter in Kent State history.
When her sophomore year in high school came around, Pasqualetti’s gymnastics career was behind her.
“I realized track is my true love,” Pasqualetti said. “I wanted to spend all my time doing it. It was a lot easier on my joints, was less stressful and had the potential to help me go to college.
“Everywhere I went, I was met with kindness in the track community. It seemed that people are genuinely interested in everyone doing their best, and I loved that about it.”
Her parents said that because she had been into gymnastics since she was in third grade, Pasqualetti’s decision was a little surprising to them. But, they supported her no matter what.
“She’s always been athletic, so it was a natural thing to do,” said her father, Ron.
From there on out, Pasqualetti spent countless hours training.
“She’s always had determination,” said her mother, Karen. “She puts her best effort into everything that she's ever tried with her whole heart.”
Pasqualetti was already clearing eight feet by seventh grade whereas the average clearing height for females in high school is usually nine feet.
The next summer, she started training with Mike Auble at the Warsaw Pole Vault Club. Auble has been a pole vault coach for over 23 years, coaching some of the top vaulters in Western New York.
“[Auble] put a lot of time and effort into helping Leah achieve her goals,” Pasqualetti’s mother said. “There was so much time and sacrifices taken away from his family to help Pasqualetti succeed. We couldn't be more thankful for his dedication.”
Pasqualetti spent 25 hours a week practicing with Auble.
“I had the joy of getting to train more often than usual,” Pasqualetti said. “I looked forward to coming to practice every day.”
Pasqualetti won the New York high school championship as a junior and held the state indoor and outdoor records. Her senior season in high school was wiped out by COVID-19.
So in June, she and her coach headed to the Stars and Stripes Big Red Barn Meet in Menifee, California, where Pasqualetti would compete against the best high school pole vaulters in the country. She and her coach knew that they had to bring their best to the meet.
“We definitely wanted to bring our A+ game because the A game was not going to be good enough,” Pasqualetti said. “We didn’t get to travel for a lot of meets, so this one felt like a special opportunity that I’m grateful we had together.”
Pasqualetti said she had felt a lot of pressure going into the meet.
“I didn't know if we'd ever get to compete again. or if we’d have more opportunities down the road,” Pasqualetti said. “We had been putting in so much work for the whole time since school ended in March, so the stakes were kind of high.”
She won the event with a vault of 14 feet, 8.25 inches, a quarter-inch above the previous record.
“It was very humbling,” Pasqualetti said. “It’s almost kind of unbelievable to think that something like that happened.”
Pasqualetti called Kent State track and field coach Bill Lawson that day to share the news. He had been recruiting her since the summer after her junior year, and she had accepted a scholarship in March.
“Recruiting progressed nicely throughout the year,” Lawson said. “I had good contact with her high school coach. Pasqualetti and I connected from our first couple phone conversations. I just stayed patient, she stayed patient and, at the end of the day, she chose Kent State.
“Pasqualetti was recruited by basically everybody in the country. I just think that we provided an experience here at Kent State that she felt was very welcoming.”
Pasqualetti said Kent State made her feel at home.
“When I met the older girls in particular, I saw the type of people who I wanted to be when I grew up,” Pasqualetti said. “They were so confident, very gracious and very genuine. I knew that they would make the best training partners — they'd be there to lift your spirits and cheer you on the good days and bad days.”
On campus, Lawson and Pasqualetti knew they needed to adjust her technique to go beyond her high school record.
“She came off of an unbelievably great high school season,” Lawson said. “But one of the things that she and I agreed on is that we had to change some things in order to end up jumping higher in the future.”
At Kent State, Lawson and Pasqualetti worked on her approach running towards the crossbar.
“Even though the run seems the most mundane part of the vault, it's actually what is going to make or break your jump,” Pasqualetti said.
Lawson had Pasqualetti starting her take off as far as eleven feet from the crossbar, two feet farther than in high school.
As a college pole vaulter himself, Lawson is invested in finding the best way for Pasqualetti to take off and improve her vault.
“He’s also very knowledgeable on the technique of pole vault, and his technical skills are pretty impressive,” Pasqualetti said.
Lawson and Pasqualetti have spent a lot of time together figuring out what works and does not work for Pasqualetti’s style of vaulting.
“It's not just what Pasqualetti can do for Kent State. Coach Lawson knows Pasqualetti's goals and has shared with her that he'll help her achieve them,” her mother said.
“She has been a champion of just being open minded, trusting the process and willing to have some failures in order to have more success,” Lawson said.
Pasqualetti set the Kent State’s indoor pole vault record at 14'-0.50" in just her third meet and qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships as a contender for the national title in pole vault. She was the first Kent State freshman to qualify for nationals since 2013 but didn’t clear the initial height at the meet.
“It's never how you want your season to end, and it was surreal because it didn't seem like that would be how it would end up,” Pasqualetti said. “There was a lot of introspection coming out. We wanted to really sit down and break it apart. We can only move forward from here.”
Pasqualetti excelled in the classroom as well. Majoring in business management, Pasqualetti said that she enjoyed her classes despite everything being all online. She plans on pursuing a career in financial analytics after college.
“It feels good to see a purpose in what you're doing,” Pasqualetti said. “To know that you're working towards a degree is fun, for sure.”
“She's transitioning very nicely,” Lawson said. “She obviously did a great job in the classroom, and she’s just a fantastic young lady.”
Pasqualetti dreams of qualifying for the Olympics.
“It's definitely on my radar,” Pasqualetti said. “It seems pretty far away, and I know there's a lot of things I need to get better at before then. But it's a goal off in the distance that I'm trying to make a little bit clearer.”
“She and I just have to stay on the course together,” Lawson said. “I know by the end of the year big things are going to happen for her for sure.”
Pilar is a sports reporter. Contact her at email@example.com.