The sporting lexicon often employs a misuse of the term “pioneer.”
Pioneers in sports are often considered the first to do something – complete a career goal, receive an award, or simply be in position. In practice, many pioneers emerge well after the initial incident. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are pioneers – so are the other anonymous souls who traversed the Oregon Trail. Some of them even wound up in Yamhill County.
Pioneers, then, are individuals who perform or obtain recognition in the face of conventional wisdom, or even the rule of law. They seek something many find unattainable – and, according to a subset, the unattainable should remain that way.
Today it is difficult to conceive of, but once upon a time, the women’s pole vault in track and field was not a sanctioned event at the state high school and collegiate levels. During the junior year of Karina Elstrom, then a Dayton resident and a 1996 McMinnville High School graduate, that changed.
Elstrom, a 2014 inductee into the McMinnville High School Sports Hall of Fame, was a pioneer, participating in a sport many believed she had no business being in.
“They said it was too dangerous for a girl, that might right arm was bent wrong for vaulting and that vaulting was not good for my ovaries … that it was too dangerous for a woman’s reproductive system,” Elstrom told The Register-Guard in 1998. “I guess we are showing that women are capable of doing things like this.”
Elstrom had always been a capable individual, in the field or on a court. She was a two-year letterman with the Grizzlies’ volleyball team and also played soccer growing up. Her free time was spent partaking in outdoor activities – “Skiing, swimming, running, backpacking, surfing (and) skateboarding,” Elstrom wrote in an email to the News-Register.
“A large part of my youth involved helping my parents on their small farm/vineyard and then working for my dad’s construction company on the (Oregon) coast all summer,” she wrote.
Elstrom’s first introduction to the pole vault came through her experience with the Willamette Striders Track Club. Elstrom attended practice sessions twice a week with the Portland-based club.
“I liked track because I could try out all the events and figure out which ones I liked and which ones I was good at,” Elstrom wrote. “I was first attracted to pole vaulting because it looked like fun and I like trying new things.
“I started out small, progressively worked my way up and found out I was pretty good at it.”
Her hard work paid off quickly for the Grizzlies. Elstrom cleared 10 feet, 8 inches at the 1995 Class 4A State Track and Field Championships for a second-place finish. That mark was well off an 11-foot, 6-inch clearance earlier in the season, which continues to stand as the McMinnville High School record.
In 1996, her senior season, Elstrom and Sprague’s Holly Speight dueled to the finish in the state championship meet; the pole vault took more than four hours to complete, the spectators having long since filed out of Hayward Field in Eugene.
“I try to stay as relaxed as I can,” Elstrom told the News-Register after the state championships. “If I get a little bit nervous, I use that nervousness to make me more powerful instead of letting it break me down. I just love to do this, so I just take it and have fun with it.”
Elstrom and Speight both cleared 11-4 and both missed all three attempts at 11-8, which would have been the Class 4A state meet record. Nevertheless, Elstrom claimed the state title based on fewer misses, and McMinnville won its only women’s track championship in school history.
Hayward Field, Elstrom posited, left enough of an impression on her as a high-schooler that she felt comfortable committing to the Ducks and Oregon women’s coach Tom Heinonen. She did so without a track and field scholarship, entering a climate in which women had not competed in a national championship meet in the pole vault.
“The U of O was the only (college) that recognized they would need to start building that part of their team,” Elstrom wrote.
Elstrom enjoyed a memorable 1997 season, winning gold medals in the North American Pole Vault Championships and the Junior Pan-Am Championships. She also finished second at the Pacific-10 Conference Championships for the Ducks.
Her best season with UO was her redshirt sophomore year in 1999, when she cleared a personal-best 12 feet, 9.5 inches – a school record at the time, now 10th in Oregon history. She attained her highest finish in an NCAA competition, taking fifth place in the 1999 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships.
Today, Elstrom – now Karina Taylor – lives in Eugene with her husband, Cal. She is an committed volunteer for environmental causes and an active outdoorswoman, river rafting and camping as often as she can. She is also pregnant with her first child, who is expected to be born soon after this article goes to press.
Her daughter will have to discover for herself the pioneering spirit of Karina Elstrom.