Sandi Morris

Sandi Morris
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Without meets, Sandi Morris got creative with virtual garage sale

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By Caroline Kurdej
Special to NBCSports.com

Hammers. High dips and high bars. A handmade pole vault pit — and long jump runway extension. Virtual garage sales. Fauxlympics.

Together, they represent challenges and solutions for Olympic hopefuls dealing with the first postponed Games in modern history. Athletes have grown increasingly creative amid the restlessness of the pandemic in striving to qualify for Tokyo.

Take Sandi Morris, Olympic pole vault silver medalist and American indoor record holder. The last virtual garage sale she hosted was in 2016, to help raise money for her sister’s flight to Rio.

This time, she sold gear that she no longer uses to earn extra income.

It’s rewarding for Morris to send items to fans and make an extra bit of cash. Especially when many Olympic athletes aren’t able to compete and earn prize or appearance money. COVID-19 has impacted everyone.

Morris shared she’s making about one-third of what she normally would, “which is enough to get by.”

Her sale a few weeks ago was inspired by Olympic long jump champion Tianna Bartoletta, who went as far as parting with a Diamond League trophy.

“It was good for the soul to clean out all of my stuff and know people who are actually going to use it now have it,” Morris said with a laugh.

The toughest part was pricing the worn apparel – a fine balance between looking at it as memorabilia and repurposing athletic clothes for the next Sandi Morris.

She shipped 66 items ranging from running shoes, used spikes, bib numbers, Team USA gear and uniforms, “tons of stuff I’ll probably never wear again,” for a total of $5,500, spending about $500 on shipping. She packed them all up by hand.

There also came an unusual request for a signed pole (competition poles are taller than 10 feet). “I’m currently working that one out and plan to do it,” Morris recently texted with a laughing face emoji.

The Olympic gear was the most difficult for Morris to part with, namely since Rio has, so far, been her only Olympics. If she does qualify for Tokyo, she hopes to sell more gear to fellow athletes.

In an Instagram video, Morris’ golden blonde hair bounces back and forth, glimmering in the summer’s pounding sun. She stops to catch her breath as sweat droplets drip down her face. “If you build it, they will come,” a constant narrator whispers.

She bounds through the hillsides of Des Moines, Iowa. The backdrop contrasts her former Arkansas and current Greenville, South Carolina, training sites.

Little did she know a video shoot with World’s Greatest Team, a media startup, during her time as a University of Arkansas athlete would be used years down the line in preparation for the postponed Tokyo Games.

Morris, after winning a penny-blown-by-straw race in the Holderness family’s Fauxlympics, returned to sanctioned pole vault competition in July.

The Acadia Invitational was held in Greenville at the facility that Morris and her father, Harry, helped build in April as a training site during the pandemic.

“My poor dad worked so hard,” said Morris, who won with a clearance of 4.81 meters, a medal height at the Rio Olympics. “He hand spray-painted these big, 12-foot squares on an entire field so people could social distance.”

Masks were required for the duration of the event in 92-degree heat. Zenni Optical sponsored, making it possible for the top three to get paid. Morris looks ahead to a return to some level of normal.

“We can’t just take a year off and expect to be competitive,” she said.

She hasn’t had access to a hard track for sprint workouts. Typically, Morris sprints daily.

“It’s totally different training on a soccer field,” she said. “Which is still more than so many other athletes have at their disposal.”

Back in March, Morris’ facilities in Arkansas closed, and she moved back to her parents’ house in Greenville.

She made the road trip with one of her three snakes, Fang (a ball python named after Hagrid‘s dog in Harry Potter). Her Italian greyhounds, Rango and Nim, and birds, Indi and Juniper, joined for the pandemic adventure as well. “It’s a zoo in this house,” Morris said.

She still needed a place to jump.

For three weeks, Morris plied on her hands and knees, pounding 15 eight-foot-long wooden frames into an angled grass field to create an outdoor pole vault runway. Her team included her father, a few hometown hero volunteers and others from Greenville cheering them on. One day, a hammer flew haphazardly, nearly taking her out.

Morris received a donated pit from a sponsor. She spent $4,000 toward the wood, rubber runway and hardware to make her father’s long-existing dream into a reality.

The pit’s life will extend well beyond the extenuating circumstances of the pandemic. Morris plans to return for training camps and host summer camps and clinics for high school and college athletes in the future.

It will also serve as a unique opportunity to invite other elites to join her for training sessions. That could include pole vaulters from Clemson, where Morris’ 59-year-old dad is a volunteer pole vault coach.

The Olympic postponement also impacted Morris’ husband. Tyrone Smith, 36, is a three-time Olympic long jumper for Bermuda and an MBA student at the University of Texas. Smith planned to end his Olympic career in Tokyo this summer.

When the Olympic postponement was announced, Smith took a week or two to weigh whether to tack on another year.

“Ultimately, the decision was that I was always going to try to make it,” said Smith, who wed Morris last October. “It was just figuring out logistically how I was going to make that happen.

“I had motivation from being with Sandi and having the chance to do something special together. We didn’t really get to experience it [the Games] together as a couple. Having the opportunity to have those moments together, that we can share with our family, and if we have kids one day, to share those with our kids. It’s incredibly rare to do that.”

Smith recently began an internship as a brand marketer with Sony PlayStation to launch the PS5. He had a teaching position lined up, too. But after hearing about the postponed Olympics, he adapted.

Like his wife, Smith had to build his own training setup.

He bought a shovel and garden rake from Home Depot. Over a few weekends, for about three hours at a time, he excavated an entire sand pit in Austin.

It wasn’t the first time Smith felt the need to show what he could do.

“I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder trying to prove to myself that I belong at this level,” he said.

Two decades ago, Smith walked through the gym of North Chicago Community High School while coach Trent Robinson taught girls how to triple jump.

“Can I learn?” Smith asked.

Robinson obliged. No one on the boys’ team knew how to triple jump, or was particularly eager to learn. Smith made all-county and all-conference after training for two months.

He walked on at the University of Missouri-Rolla (UMR), now the Missouri University of Science and Technology, a Division II track team, as a triple jumper.

It wasn’t until Smith’s sophomore year that he found a coach, Bryan Schiding, who encouraged him to consistently long jump. Years later, Schiding stood as a groomsman in Smith and Morris’ wedding.

Smith and Morris have yet to live in the same city in their four-year relationship.

“We’ve been scheming, and planning,” Morris said. “It hasn’t quite lined up yet.”

Whether Smith is pursuing an MBA, or pushing his limits to qualify for a postponed Olympic Games, one thing is certain.

“I will stand by whatever he decides to do,” she said.

MORE: Project Runway: Morris builds own pole vault setup

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Noah Lyles set to drop new album “A Human’s Journey” on Saturday

Noah Lyles
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World 200m track and field champion Noah Lyles has taken advantage of his down time to finish up his latest musical work.

Lyles isn’t new to music. He and pole vaulter Sandi Morris teamed up with Swiss band Baba Shrimps to record a song called “Souvenir” last year. The video is full of highlights of both athletes. He has also released several songs on Spotify and YouTube under the name Nojo18.

The 22-year-old sprinter is known for his diverse interests. He posts his art and fashion ideas on Instagram, where he identifies himself as an artist and rapper in addition to his track and field accomplishments. World Athletics also asked Lyles to share his pre-race playlist, which includes a couple of songs by Kanye West along with tracks from Eminem and Travis Scott.

With the Olympics postponed and social distancing imposed, Lyles’ year has been unusual. He’s taking part in a USADA program in which athletes do their own drug tests at home, and like a lot of athletes, he’s training wherever he can.

READ: Lyles trains near woods and dog walkers

His musical partner Morris can empathize, having built her own pole vault runway.

The Olympic postponement is interrupting Lyles’ ascent to all-time greatness. In 2019, he lost his first 200m race of the season to Michael Norman by 0.02 seconds, then dominated the rest of the season, winning in Lausanne, Paris and Brussels in addition to the U.S. and world championships. He also won a pair of 100m races in Diamond League meets.

Lyles’ best time, 19.50 in Lausanne, was the fastest since Usain Bolt (19.32) edged Yohan Blake (19.44) in the 2012 Olympic final.

 

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A Humans Journey 4 Days

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Project runway: Sandi Morris, Olympic medalist, builds own pole vault setup

Sandi Morris
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Sandi Morris set the bar high with her latest do-it-yourself project.

Soon, she will be clearing it, too.

The Olympic pole vault silver medalist didn’t have a place to practice and plenty of down time due to the coronavirus pandemic. So she and her father constructed their own pole-vault setup near Greenville, South Carolina.

Built out of plywood, the 120-foot runway is situated between a soccer field and a tennis court on neighborhood land two blocks from her parents’ place. Their pole vault project could be operational as soon as this weekend (they just need the landing mat to arrive).

Viewing is definitely encouraged — from windows for now (social distancing and all).

“There are tons of houses that can see the field from their windows,” said the 27-year-old Morris, who usually trains in Fayetteville, Arkansas, but traveled home to start the project with the Tokyo Games postponed to next summer and no foreseeable competitions. “So I’m being literal when I say they’re going to watch me from their windows. It will be fun.”

This project has been in the back of their mind for ages. Morris would always venture home and wouldn’t be able to stay long because she had to return to practice.

Now, her coach can simply send along a workout.

“This virus kind of pushed us to do something that we’ve always wanted to do,” said Morris, who finished second to Katerina Stefanidi of Greece at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The entire endeavor took about three weeks and cost around $4,000 (not counting the landing mat, which usually runs around $30,000 but was loaned to her). There’s a rubber surface covering the runway for better traction, too. No concrete was used so it can be moved (although, not easily).

Each day, the routine went something like this: Sandi would train in the morning while her father, Harry, worked from home as a geologist. When their day jobs were complete, they headed to the field — about two blocks out their front door — to finish the pole-vault project (friends volunteered their time, too, on property the owner gave a green light to use). The father and daughter would be down there until nearly dark. Most times, she would head home first with her dad saying he would be along shortly.

“An hour later, he then comes home. My mom’s like, ‘Where were you?’ And he’s like, and this is always the answer, ‘Oh, I was just tinkering,’” explained Morris, who’s earned the silver medal at the last two world outdoor championships. “This project brings him a lot of joy — and that brings me a lot of joy.”

The blueprint was provided by Scott Kendricks, the father of two-time world pole vaulting champion Sam Kendricks. The Kendricks family built a similar setup years ago in Mississippi (they’ve since switched to a fabricated runway).

It’s no easy task.

“Almost like building a skate-park — you can really mess it up if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Sam Kendricks said. “But I saw her running on it and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a fine runway you guys have built.’”

He’s eager to try it out — once shelter-at-home restrictions are eased and it’s safer to travel again, of course.

“Heck yeah. I’d definitely drive through Atlanta to visit Sandi and try that,” Kendricks said.

Maybe even a competition on it one day? The runway is mobile enough and could be moved to, say, the streets of downtown Greenville for an event.

“If you build it, they will come,” Kendricks joked. “Or they’ll ask to.”

To stay sharp, Morris is working out with recently purchased weight room equipment. She’s also enjoying some down time at home. She recently purchased a bunny for her niece (“scored some cool points,” she laughed).

It was one highlight after another last fall for Morris, who took silver at the world championships. Soon after, she married Bermuda long jumper Tyrone Smith. They’re currently in different locations, though, as he balances training for the Olympics with business school at the University of Texas.

Maybe down the road, a long-jump project.

“There’s not really a great place for him to jump here,” she explained. “There are high school tracks that have long-jump pits, but most of them don’t have a long enough runway.”

As for the Olympics being pushed back until next summer, she’s trying to look at the positive — no matter how hard it may be. Diamond League meets are postponed until at least June.

“Building this has been such an incredible distraction,” Morris said. “The pole vaulting here will allow me to just go out and have fun.”

MORE: NBCSN Olympic Games Week TV, live stream schedule

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