Nina Kennedy, Pole Vaulter – Part 1

Photography by Andrew James Richards & Sean Dalby

Nina Kennedy is positively bursting with personality, all goofy grin and infectious attitude. But it’s the maturity beyond her 20 years that makes Nina an unrelenting athlete who is vaulting her way to international superstardom. At just 17 she claimed the Junior World Record for pole vault and competed in her first ever World Championships… But if you think she’s done, then you’re dead wrong. In Part 1 of her #NewHero profile, Nina tells Sport Story about how a pole vaulter trains, her love of yoga, and how to maintain comp weight with a love for Ben & Jerry’s. 

My coach [pole vault legend] Alex Parnov – I was at an athletics meet once and he scouted all these people. He had to approach Little Athletics and then Little Aths sent out letters [asking permission for contact]. Anyway, apparently the whole process took like six months but he finally got in contact and said, “Come to our trial day.” There were probably 20 kids and they kicked everyone out until there was just three left. I was one of them, I was like “Hell yeah!” [laughs]. And then I just went from there.

You start like how you start anything. You start off a short approach – I started at four steps, but the normal run up for pole vault is 16 to 18 steps – so you start smaller in everything. You just have a small build, small build and then you just…. Go. At this point I was 12. Oh my gosh, I was so little!

When you get the jump perfect, and you’ve cleared the bar – it’s just the best feeling ever. I think when I’m halfway upside down, I can tell [if she is clear].

In-season is actually much more relaxed than the out of season program because you are kind of in a big taper. We still train every day. A week would consist of a vault session, a big weight session, a running session, a yoga [session], and then a competition and a gymnastic [session]. It’s actually quite chilled. Whereas in off-season I’d be doing 10 to 11 sessions a week. And that’s just so, so crazy! I prefer in-season because I’ve done all the work, I get to compete, and I get a rest so it’s win-win.

A vault session is: okay, let’s pole vault today. We jump from two steps, four steps, eight steps, and then we go to our full run up, which for me is 16 but for others is 18 or 20. And it really just depends on what you have to work on, what’s happened in the week before, how you’re feeling, when’s competition… So really it’s subjective to that particular day.

A weight session is just, let’s lift weight! Let’s have some fun! It’s actually probably my favourite session because I can push myself in different ways. Again, in-season it’s very light and fast exercises and reps of three to five. But in off-season it’s reps of eight to 10 and long, long sessions.

I love yoga. It’s so awesome! We do a lot of yin yoga. They always say that you’re going so, so hard that you never get a time to just sit back and relax, listen to your body and notice that, “Yeah, I am sore,” or “I haven’t stopped thinking for a whole week.” Just take your time. I find that if I go into a session just being calm and being relaxed, I kind of just see [everything] from an outside point of view. Then I can see what I have to do. But sometimes you’re just so caught up in your thoughts and what’s going on outside and you get distracted… The quality of the session is so much better when you’re calm. We mix it up; sometimes we do yin, sometimes we do purely stretching. I think yoga is actually really important for me. I’m not sure about everyone else but I love it, it just refreshes my head.

Training in off-season is so fricken hard man! I’m drained, like even just thinking about it [laughs]. But also it’s a challenge, and it just gets you so strong in so many different ways. In off-season we do running and ¬– ok, my pole vault run up is, like, 30m. The furthest we run is 300m, we do reps of 300m, and I die. I’m so bad! I get really nervous but I’m trying to work on that and deal with it. We do three sets [of 300m], which is not a lot – but it is for me.

I love dessert. I have dessert, without a doubt, every single night. I’m not afraid to do that. My go-to is chocolate or ice cream. I also love cookie dough. Ben & Jerry’s is my favourite, I could easily smash a whole tub.

Especially in-season, I actually don’t try to limit myself because your body is going through so much stress – stress of competition – and you’re burning and wasting so much energy that I just try to fuel my body. I don’t try to restrict as much because food is fuel. Just fuel it. But then again, in saying that I wouldn’t completely just… you know, I’m not going to have the biggest breakfast every single morning. I think I’m pretty good with it.

We have a specific comp weight. So tracking your weight, your skin folds, [and] your diet pretty much just follows off that. If your skin folds are up, you just cut down a bit. If you’re skin folds are great, have dessert – treat yourself. Each individual is different, but you’re flinging yourself up in the air so if you’re two kilos heavier and you’re on the same pole the biomechanics of it is going to be different. You should train at what you’re going to compete at.

I’ve maintained from like 59 to 60kg for the past five months now. So just keeping in track and knowing when you’re too heavy or when you’re even too light. When you’re running you kind of feel it, you might feel a bit heavy. I’ve had both – when I’ve been too light I’ve been like, “I can’t bend this pole, I literally cannot bend it!” But then when I’ve been too heavy it’s,  “I can’t get off the ground.” I’m pretty in tune with that because I guess you have to be. Also injuries come if you’re too heavy. I have arthritis in my back. I’ve literally been on medication since I was about 15, so that’s just an ongoing thing. It’s hereditary, my mum has it. It’s pretty under control now. I’ve had some stress fractures and some pulled muscles, but nothing crazy. Touch wood.

I think it comes from your head… I’ve noticed that I’m scared to push myself because I’m scared of failing. But if I just say to myself, “Just do it. Just put the weight up on this rep and see how you go.” And 90% of the time I surprise myself. I think I’m still discovering that. Power of mind is a crazy thing; you can do a lot of things if you just try. Lots of people don’t understand that side [of being an athlete] but I think it’s a part of everyone’s journey that they have to discover themselves. Just tap into it and you’ll keep going, and then you’ll find out what are your limits. It’s really cool.

What motivates me is to better myself every single day. And also to see how far I can get. They are very selfish answers! But honestly that’s what it is.

I look to my mum [for inspiration] quite a bit. She was an Australian rower and I have so much respect for her. And sometimes when I’m going through hard times or feeling like shit or I’m complaining about something, I just remember: mum did all this, she missed out so many times on the Australian teams. So yeah, she’s my inspiration.

I don’t really look to big names for inspo, but I look for the people around me. Like my five closest friends or even my close training partners, they all have something that I absolutely love about them. My best friends, there is something about every one of them that I love and I draw from every day. It’s true though, why would I hang out with someone that I’m not drawn to or inspired by?