AGONA Spotlight: Katerina Stefanidi, Her Journey to Stardom

AGONA Spotlight: Katerina Stefanidi, Her Journey to Stardom

As the Track & Field European championships are set to begin in Berlin, AGONAsport takes a look back at the obstacles that Ekaterini “Katerina” Stefanidi had to overcome before becoming one of the greatest pole vaulters ever.

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Katerina Stefanidi seems to have it all. The 28-year-old Greek has won gold medals in the Olympics, World Championships, and European Championships. She has won the IAAF Diamond League twice, and has been named European Athlete of the Year. Her Greek national record of 4.91 meters makes her the fourth-best female pole vaulter of all-time. Outside of the track, she also seems to have a perfect life. She is happily married to her coach, Mitch Krier. She holds a bachelor’s degree from one of the best universities in the world, Stanford. She also holds a master’s degree in cognitive psychology from Arizona State University. While things may seem great for Stefanidi now, that was not always the case, as she faced many challenges and difficulties throughout the early years of her athletic career.

Stefanidi was destined to compete in sports from birth, as both of her parents were athletes. Her father, Georgios, competed in the triple jump and also played professional basketball in Greece’s top-flight. Her mother, Zoi, was a sprinter who competed mainly in the 400 meter dash. Stefanidi participated in many sports growing up, such as table tennis, gymnastics, ballet, basketball, and volleyball. Eventually, she started competing in track and field events. She had instantly become very successful, despite having no formal training. After a while, she began formally training for sprint events at age 9 in order to keep up with her competitors.

After watching the 2000 Olympics on television, her father took an interest in the pole vault and encouraged his daughter to take it up. Stefanidi now admits that she didn’t love pole vaulting at first, and that she felt pressured by her father. However, she also confesses that she liked it a lot more than sprinting events.

The following summer, 11-year-old Katerina participated in her first competition. Despite not being strong enough to bend the pole, she set a world age-group record of 2.30 meters. The following year, she jumped 3.40 meters to set a new age-group world record for 12-year-olds. The next summer (2003), she improved her personal record to 3.90 meters, a world record for 13-year-olds. In 2014, she jumped 4.14 meters to set a new world record for 14-year-olds. At this point, it was clear that she was a pole vaulting legend in the making, and it looked like nothing could stop her.

This early success would continue, as in February 2005, she jumped 4.37 meters indoors in Athens to set a world youth record. That summer, she would win gold at the World Youth Championships in Morocco with a jump of 4.30 meters. Despite these great achievements, coach Panagiotis Simeonidis was dissatisfied with Stefanidi. He would verbally abuse Stefanidi on a regular basis. Though he may have felt that he was motivating Stefanidi to do better, this abusive style of coaching ultimately had a negative effect on Katerina.


Stefanidi in 2005

Simeonidis’ verbal abuse went as far as telling Stefanidi to “lose weight to jump better and become pretty.” Stefanidi recalls this particular instance, as she talked back to Simeonidis. She said “I don’t care to lose weight to be pretty.” Simeonidis’ response was harsh, as Stefanidi recalls “I couldn’t even tell you what he responded with but he screamed so loud that the whole stadium turned and looked at us.”

As a 16-year-old in 2006, Stefanidi gained four pounds. While her weight went up, her performances went downhill, as her best jump for the 2006 season was only 4.10 meters. Both Simeonidis and Katerina’s father insisted that her weight gain was to blame, and Stefanidi had nowhere to hide. At home, her father would complain about her eating habits. At school, she would be spied on by a teacher who was having an affair with Simeonidis, who would later report to him what Katerina was eating in school. Stefanidi admits that this caused her to become borderline bulimic. She knew that her parents would be hiding food from her, and if she was ever left alone, she would raid the kitchen. 

Stefanidi skipped the 2006 World Junior Championships in Beijing, and decided to quit pole vaulting. Several months later, Stefanidi made the decision to return to the sport. Recently retired pole vaulter Georgia Tsiligri would be her new coach, instead of Simeonidis. In 2007, she won a silver medal at the World Youth Championships in the Czech Republic and her season-best jump was 4.25 meters. During this time, however, Stefanidi was not on speaking terms with her father. They had gone nearly two years without speaking. She had soon begun looking at American universities to get a fresh start and begin the next chapter of her life, as far away from her father as possible. 

Stefanidi at the 2007 World Youth Championships

Stefanidi took her SATs, got her application materials ready, and despite not knowing what Stanford was at the time, she had been advised to apply there and subsequently did so. Since they never recruited her, she contacted them, and asked if they could offer her a full scholarship. The track and field coaches told her they would give her a full scholarship if she could get in to their school. Stefanidi was accepted and received a full scholarship, and her parents took a trip to the United States that summer. Eventually, she joined her parents. As they picked her up from the airport in San Francisco, Stefanidi started crying and said that she wanted to go back to Greece. Once she arrived on campus though, she liked it and immediately changed her mind about leaving.

Classes soon began and Stefanidi was in for a rude awakening. She often struggled to understand professors during lectures. She struggled to take notes in English. Her conversational English was still far from perfect, and she also had to learn American English as she had previously been taught British English. To make things worse, she once again started struggling with her weight. She was only able to jump 4.13 meters that year, and went back to Greece in the summer 20 pounds heavier, much to the disgust of her father. This weight gain also caused knee pain, which resulted in Stefanidi’s withdrawal from the European U20 Championships.


Katerina at Stanford

A coaching change at Stanford saw 2004 Olympic silver medalist Toby Stevenson take over, who Stefanidi admired when she was younger. This change motivated Stefanidi to train harder and eat better to lose weight. Despite that, she continued to struggle and was pulled aside by Stevenson, who asked her if she really wanted to be a pole vaulter. She broke down crying and once again contemplated leaving the sport. For Stefanidi, this would mean losing her scholarship and leaving Stanford to go back to Greece without a degree. 

After some thought, Stefanidi decided to continue pole vaulting and to stay at Stanford. Her pole vault results soon started to improve again. The excitement from her coaches and teammates improved gave her the physical and mental boosts that she needed, and she stopped binge-eating. In 2011, Stefanidi set a new personal record for the first time in six years, as she jumped 4.45 meters. She won the conference championship, and also won medals at the NCAA Indoor Championships, NCAA Outdoor Championships, European U23 Championships, and at the World University Games. In her final year at Stanford, she repeated as conference champion and became NCAA champion with a jump of 4.48 meters, a Stanford record. Later that season, she would set a personal best at 4.51 meters and compete in the London Olympics.


2012 NCAA Championships

Wanting to remain in the United States, Stefanidi was able to do so by becoming a teaching assistant at Stanford. In 2013, she started to apply to PhD programs, as she needed to maintain her student visa in order to legally stay in the U.S. She packed her bags for Phoenix, where she would attend the Arizona State University and be coached by 2000 Olympic gold medalist Nick Hysong. Despite having an injury-plagued 2013 season, Stefanidi came back with a bang in 2014. She set a new personal-best with a jump of 4.71 meters, and won a silver medal at the European Championships in Switzerland, her first-ever medal at the senior level. In 2015, her success continued, as she jumped 4.77 meters indoors and won a silver at the European Indoor Championships in Prague. In May of that year, Stefanidi married Mitch Krier, who quit his jobs as a personal trainer and contractor to coach her full-time.


2014 European Championships

Although Hysong was much more positive than Simeonidis, he was still perhaps not the ideal coach for Stefanidi. Krier saw this, and was able to find the best ways to motivate his wife. In March of 2016, Katerina won a bronze at the World Indoor Championships in Oregon. Later that year, she set a new Greek national record with a jump of 4.86 meters, and won gold at the European Championships in Amsterdam. After that, she struggled with a hip injury, and could not train for two weeks. It wasn’t until three days before the Olympics that she was able to jump again. Nevertheless, Stefanidi was able to bring home the gold for Greece with a jump of 4.85 meters, becoming just the seventh Greek woman to win an Olympic gold medal in any sport. This night would change her life forever, as she became an overnight superstar in Greece. 

Celebrating gold with Usain Bolt at the 2016 Olympics

After being Greece’s flag bearer in the closing ceremony of the 2016 Olympics, Stefanidi returned to Greece. She was then greeted by countless fans, photographers, and journalists upon arrival at the airport in Athens. After the celebrations and media frenzy came to an end, Stefanidi and Krier went back to their home in Ohio to begin preparing for the 2017 season. 2017 would prove to be another great year for Stefanidi, as she began by winning gold at the European Indoor Championships in Belgrade and never looked back. She then went on to win gold at the World Championships in London, with a new Greek national record of 4.91 meters. She would also win the IAAF Diamond League for the second year in a row, and be voted European Athlete of the Year. In 2018, she won a bronze medal at the World Indoor Championships in the United Kingdom. She is set to compete at the European Championships in Berlin this August, where she will aim to defend her title from two years ago.


2017 World Championships in London

What will happen in the future remains to be seen, but Greek sports fans should be proud of Stefanidi and her accomplishments. No one knows what would have happened or what she could have achieved in the past, had she not gone down such a bumpy road. One thing is certain though, the fact that she is definitely making up for it now. Once a typical girl from the suburbs of Athens and now an international star, Stefanidi has the world at her feet. With the 2020 Olympics just two years away, Stefanidi has a chance to become the first Greek woman two win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the same event.

by Andrew Stamas
Image Source: .gr
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