Alysha Newman sat in a hospital room in California with her mother and a medical doctor.
She looked at animal photos, on the verge of tears.
It was October of 2021, two months after the 27-year-old pole vaulter failed to land a single jump at the Tokyo Olympics.
She had missed all three of her attempts at leaping over 4.25 metres: the height of a bungalow and a half, which she usually clears as part of her warm-up.
An untrained observer would have guessed Newman had the jitters on the runway of Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium.
But it’s not like Newman, a two-time Olympian, Commonwealth Games Champion, and a nationally known model with more than 600,000 Instagram followers, to be nervous when performing.
The issue, she said, was primarily in her head, but it was not merely mental.
She was four months removed from sustaining a concussion, suffered while slipping and falling into a hotel room recovery ice tub in April of 2021.
Since then, lingering symptoms like headaches, neck pains, and depth perception issues were derailing her career: her blunder in Tokyo were the latest of a string of frustrations that brought her to seek attention from a concussion specialist in California, who was now asking her to pass a simple test of identifying 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 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 16th best vaulter in world history.
But the symptoms were preventing her from jumping like herself and, in that doctor’s office, she was beginning to accept that she had a long way to go before clearing 4.82 metres again.
“My goal was just to show up to Tokyo and hope for a miracle, and then I couldn’t even make it down the runway,” she said.
“Embarrassing myself at the Olympics was what I needed to truly realize that something was not OK… I couldn’t get my head wrapped around the technique anymore, and I needed to get proper help.”
After her consultation with the specialist, the Toronto resident flew back home from California and started a new training regime, swapping sessions at the track for brain scans, mandated nap schedules, and daily, 90-minute laydowns in a hyperbaric chamber just to stop the headaches.
Temporarily letting go of intense training, she said, felt like 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 winter months passed, Newman started to feel better.
Her depth perception was coming back, her neck pains were less frequent, and she could name her animals with ease.
By spring, she started craving the feeling of pushing herself through workouts again, but was not yet ready to vault.
“To me, pole vault is the hardest event, technically, in track and field. I couldn’t get back to it just yet,” she said. “I kept thinking: was this pole going to bend right, was it going to kill me?”
To get back into shape, she started going to the track at Athletics Canada’s East Hub, at York University, and her practices 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 join in on Ellenwood’s workouts.
It made sense: the throws helped her develop power, the 800m sessions kept her fit, and the sprint intervals made her work on her short speed, which Newman calls her greatest 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 this was an opportunity to use that training to help me in the vault,” Newman said.
As weeks passed, she came to enjoy the workouts, and even caught up to Ellenwood during some sprint and hurdle sessions. The heptathlete was impressed with how quickly her protege was picking up the multis.
“Learning seven events in a short time span is a tough task,” said Ellenwood, “but Alysha is resilient and a world-class athlete. I knew that once she had rehearsed each event fully that she could enter in her first multi.”
Newman started thinking the same way.
“I just thought: Georgia is one of the greatest multi-eventers in Canada, and I’m a step behind her in some workouts. And even she thinks I’m a natural at this… I had to try a heptathlon for real.”
So last month, Newman entered her first outdoor competition since Tokyo: the NACAC Combined Events Championship in Ottawa.
A first-time heptathlete can usually absolve themselves of external expectations, and chalk up any bad performance to inexperience with the brutality of a seven-event competition.
But when you’re Newman, a mainstay on Canada’s track and field scene, with an online following of thousands who watch her every move, zero expectation soon becomes myth.
She registered for the championship in Ottawa much like she did for her first major modelling audition, for Nordstrom in 2019: as a rookie, but one with a resume too shiny to ignore. At the audition, she told nobody of her Olympic past and 2018 Commonwealth title, hoping to be appraised at face value.
“When I try something new, I want to start from zero,” said Newman. “Until I perform – only then do I want to be recognized. I don’t want any special treatment.”
She isn’t sure when the Nordstrom judges found out she was a Commonwealth Champion and world-class athlete. Either way, she got the part.
That audition’s resulting campaign, which featured Newman splashed on billboards in Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square, combined with her vaulting prowess to make her the biggest name on Ottawa’s start list, despite being the only first-time multi-eventer 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 by her shotput performance, but said she figured out how to properly compartmentalize her 200m, and finally felt like a high jumper. Even at the end of the last event, the gruelling 800m, she was hungry for more, and became convinced that better jumps and throws could eventually get her closer to an internationally-competitive 6,000 points.
“I could push myself to places 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 that feeling of really pushing yourself that I love… you don’t always get that in the vault, where things are way more technical.”
Encouraged by a positive result, Newman felt ready to vault again, and entered the Johnny Loaring Classic in Windsor, the week after the NACAC championship.
Inside Windsor’s St. Denis Centre, old patterns returned, and the Olympian handily won the competition by leaping to 4.61m in her third attempt at the height. In her first vault competition since Tokyo, she had come within nine centimetres shy of world standard of 4.70m.
“It was like riding a bike,” she said. “Being away from the pole vault for so long makes it easier because I got my mental game lined up, and the rest is muscle memory.”
Just like that, she found herself at crossed roads.
She wondered: was it time to pivot back to the pole vault for the summer and have a better shot at contending for medals at the World Championships and Commonwealth Games? Or should she continue to explore her potential and growing love for the multis?
For guidance, she turned to Wood, and thought he might encourage her to give up the heptathlon.
Wood, a former vaulter himself, instead compelled her to stick with the multis for a bit longer.
A continued focus on hurdles and jumping, he said, would improve her speed, and a bit more distance from the pole vault could continue to help her mental game and overall performance in the longer term.
“Besides, Alysha is a technician like I’ve never met, and she has enough experience that she doesn’t need to be vaulting seven days a week to resurrect all the right feelings and patterns,” said Wood. “What happened in Windsor was a great example of that – there is a lot of value in what she is doing right now.”
RELATED: Langley prepares for Bell Canadian Track and Field Championships in June
With The Bell Trials (Bell Canadian Track and Field Championships at Langley’s McLeod Athletic Park on June 22 through 26) fast approaching, Newman – along with Wood and her other vaulting coach Zeke Krykorka, as well as her 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 also feels more pull towards the pole vault than she has in years.
“A part of me is just so dialled in, and needs to jump that world (pole vault) standard of 4.70m before anything else.”
As she aims to design the perfect competition schedule, it is not lost on Newman that, in her planning, she must account for random events: things like getting a major part in a modelling campaign, or slipping in an ice tub.
On Wednesday, Newman missed five of her six jumps in the pole vault at La Classique d’Athlétisme de Montreal, because of a competition delay that would have made her late for her flight back to Toronto.
“You want to plan, but also you have to factor in the things you can’t predict. That’s just track. It’s life, really,” she shared.
“For now, I’m just planning to go to Langley and to give them a show.”
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– Athletics Canada
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