From Turin to the University of South Dakota, the pole vaulter who dreams of the Olympics from the United States

The relationship with pole vaulting is like a sentimental relationship: it is a wave motion. At the beginning it was love at first sight, then I started to understand all the difficulties and complexities related to this discipline. I went through hard times, mental burnouts, some times I even thought about quitting, but the feeling of flying, of overcoming your limits, is fantastic and has always kept me going.”

The liaison between Helen Falda, pole vaulter born in 1996, and her sport is bilingual. A relationship that began on the Italian tartans and continued well beyond the 4 meters of height in U.S. territory. An incessant wave motion that marked her adolescence and maturation, but also, if not above all, her university and human path.

“It all started with artistic gymnastics, then in middle school I participated in the youth games, doing cross-country running. I liked running, it was also a family tradition, so I joined the athletic club of Turin. There I tried all the disciplines and, after a couple of years, I discovered the pole vault. It was difficult at first, but I enjoyed it. I remember jumping 2.60 in my very first competition, I was just 14 years old. Now my personal best is 4.42.”

Between the 2.60 meters surpassed by the very young Helen and her current personal best, emotions and perfectionism, falls and rises have intertwined. Intangible places of passage in which Helen inserts a pivotal and concrete life choice: the departure from the Old Continent for the collegiate experience in the States.

“During a youth world championship in the USA I was noticed by university coaches, in the previous months I had improved my record by 25 centimeters and for me it was already a sort of miracle to be able to participate in that event. Once back in Italy I started receiving a long series of emails. Those were the early days of athletic ‘migrations’ overseas, it was not yet a natural transition … When I finished high school I took a year off to be close to my family, especially my little brother, and study English, then I decided to leave.”

After a first year in Texas, Helen found her second home in South Dakota, specifically in the athletic temple of the ‘Coyotes’. Nestled in the high plains of the Midwest, Helen honed her education and jumping technique, finding herself selected as an All American for 7 times.

“The sports scholarship gives you tremendous possibilities, it allowed me to earn a degree in Communication Studies and Spanish Language, and a master’s degree in Sport Management. At the same time I was ‘salaried’ as a student-athlete. When I first became an All-American I didn’t really understand what it meant, but then I understood how special that recognition was: it means being part of the best pole vaulters and the best athletes in all of America’s Division I colleges, the best you can aspire to.”

Peaks, but also temporary chasms, as happens in every sentimental relationship. Because Helen’s golden period breaks against a series of apparently insurmountable rocks, chaotic mental wrecks that the pole vaulter from Turin manages to handle only thanks to the help of her coach-mentor Derek Miles, bronze medalist at Beijing 2008.

“During my senior year of college, I didn’t know what to do with my life. I was stressed and anxious, my visa was expiring and my head kept thinking about the future in a toxic way. During that time, I wasn’t getting over 4 meters, I was apathetic. Coach Miles helped me get out of that hole I had dug for myself, he made me understand that you can get stuck in the future too, not only in the past. I had to change my mindset, I had to make a mental switch…. I was sure I loved the States and wanted to keep jumping in South Dakota, so I set out to find a job.”

Thanks to a part-time position in the athletic department, Helen manages to renew her visa with difficulty and to think more serenely about her future. A future that today still sees her practicing as a former student under the guidance of Derek Miles. A future that could lead her in front of the five Parisian Olympic rings and that sees her engaged in a work of connection between young Italian athletes and American colleges.

“Three student-athletes besides myself stopped here after the college cycle. Coach Miles focuses mainly on the students, it’s obvious, but he also devotes a lot of time to us. I want to keep trying until the next Olympics, I want to continue to do this sport with passion, without thinking about size, but focusing on improving: at least until Paris 2024. At the same time I want to help the many young Italians who contact me asking for advice and information about the collegiate experience. The athletic program at the University of South Dakota is cosmopolitan, now there is only one pole vaulter who comes from this state and, for example, there are many Estonians… Getting a full scholarship is not easy. You have to jump excellently and only the best are selected. For me, it was absolutely the most meaningful experience of my life and I hope I can bring it as an example to as many people as possible.”

Helen Falda
IG @helenfalda

Text by Gianmarco Pacione