Johnson’s second consecutive state pole vault championship highlights State track meet for Vaqueros

Fernley’s Kiriann Johnson clears her vault at 10 feet to clinch her second consecutive 3A state championship. (Robert Perea, The Fernley Reporter)

Robert Perea, The Fernley Reporter

It takes a special kind of personality to excel in the pole vault.

Like every other event in track and field, or any other sport, for that matter, it requires speed, strength and technique

But those are just bare minimum requirements in an event where a misstep can mean the equivalent of falling out of a second story window.


“Yeah, you definitely can’t have a fear of heights or fear of jumping,” said Fernley’s Kiriann Johnson. “There’s a lot of trust in it. I mean, once you’re off the ground, it’s just your pole and yourself, and it’s really mental too.”

Johnson won her second consecutive 3A state championship in the pole vault at the State Track and Field Championships last Saturday at Carson High School. Although she came up short on an effort to match or exceed her personal record, her disappointment was short-lived as she considered all of the success she’s had in the past three years, including three straight regional championships to go with those two state titles and a handful of school records.

“I feel good about it,” she said. “It’s definitely been a good high school career.”

Johnson also took fourth place in the triple jump with a leap of 32 feet, 6.5 inches. Her first and fourth place finished accounted for 15 of the 35 team points the Fernley girls team accumulated in last weekend’s state meeting, placing eighth as a team.

Johnson was joined as a state champion by Kendall Arnaud, who won the girls high jump with a leap of 5-3. Arnaud had tied for first place at the regional meet with a leap of 5 feet, but wound up with the silver medal because of a tiebreaker.

“A lot of times at state things that happen, people do things that are amazing, that knock your socks off, like Kendall Arnaud winning the high jump at 5-3,” Fernley coach Todd Wright said. “That was not a surprise necessarily, but just like, wow.”

Fernley’s Kendall Arnaud clears the bar on her winning leap of 5-3 in the high jump. (Photo courtesy of Thomas Ranson)

Along with Johnson, Justice Martell-Artiaga had also qualified for state in two events, and she earned fifth place in the girls 100-meter hurdles with a time of 17.19 and sixth place in the discus with a throw of 90-1.

Gabrielle Blunier was Fernley’s other state qualifier, and she took sixth place in the shot put with a throw of 31-8.

For the boys team, the top finishes were a pair of second place showings. Keeshawn Love took second in the boys 110-meter hurdles with a time of 15.11, and Bryce Dunagan-Stephens took second in the boys long jump with a leap of 20-8.75.

“Bryce Dunagan-Stephens in the long jump was pretty amazing too, because he had a sore quad and they only had him take three of the six jumps and that ended up working out,” Wright said. “That’s quite a performance.”

Kael Paz had a fourth place finish in the in boys 3200-meter run with a personal record time of 10:05.26, the 4×200 meter relay team placed sixth in 1:33.61 and the 4×100 meter relay team placed seventh with a time of 44.79.

The girls team placed sixth in team scoring with 35 team. Truckee was the state champions with 84. The boys finished 10th with 26 points. Moapa Valley came in first with 100.

But it was Johnson and her pole vault that soared the highest, literally, for the Vaqueros.

The pole vault and triple jump were being held at the same time, so rather than try to go back and forth between the two events, Johnson finished the triple jump before joining the pole vault competition, coming in once the competition reached 10 feet. By then, the only competitor remaining was Truckee’s Paige Willcox, who had cleared 9-6.

But Willcox was unable to clear 10 feet, so when Johnson cleared 10 feet on her first vault, she was already the champion. The only thing left was to see if she could match or exceed her own personal record of 11-3. It took her a couple of tries to clear 10-6, but she missed on all three attempts at 11 feet. On her second try at 11 feet, Johnson easily cleared the bar, but didn’t get a clean discard and the pole hit the bar and knocked it off.

Johnson, who has signed to compete in track and field at the College of Idaho, got interested in the pole vault when her sister, Evven, did it as a freshman in 2020. She started with a four-week introductory course at the Raise the Bar Pole Vault Club in Reno with coach Randy Bryant. The Covid pandemic and a flood that washed out Fernley’s track facility kept Johnson from being able to compete in her freshman year, but she’s racked up records and championships ever since.

She set her personal and school record at 11 feet in last year’s state meet, then broke that record twice this season, with an 11-1 at Fernley’s home meet and 11-3 at the Carson Invitational.

“Our pole vault record, before she came around, and her sister, was 8-6,” said Wright. “She’s 11-3 now and her sister would be second on the list from last year. Just amazing how much she’s raised the quality of our pole vaulting.”

Saturday, as Johnson prepared for her last try at 11 feet, Bryant told her to envision herself going through a hula hoop at the top of the vault. She mimed the vaulting and the discard motions, trying to get the technique just right, repeating the things she’s learned working with Bryant four times a week.

“We vault two times a week and then the other two days is all plyometrics, core, we’re up on the trapeze, basically in gymnastics,” Johnson said.

Combine all that with the required mindset, and you have a pole vaulter.

“It’s also mentally just a different animal, too,” Wright said. “There’s an element of danger and there’s an element of just body awareness. Having a sense of your body and what it’s doing in space and doing it when you’re upside down and doing so many things at one time, there’s so many aspects to it.”

Pole vaulters are often called thrill seekers, or even adrenaline junkies. So, when it all comes down to it, what made Johnson want to throw herself 12 feet in the air on a stick?

“Just seeing other people do it, this looks fun,” she said.

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