ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Pole vaulter Kaitlyn Merritt sets national sophomore and meet records

The 16-year-old from Santa Margarita clears 13 feet 8 inches Saturday in the Arcadia Invitational.

Anyone who meets 16-year-old pole vaulter Kaitlyn Merritt of Santa Margarita can easily envision her one day becoming an astronaut, mountain climber or F-15 fighter pilot.

It's in her DNA to never stay on the ground for too long.

"When I was little, my parents said I used to climb everything," Merritt said. "I climbed the cabinet. I climbed the couch."

So it's only natural that Merritt has become the best female pole vaulter in the nation for her age group. She set a national sophomore record and a meet record on Saturday in the Arcadia Invitational when she cleared 13 feet 8 inches.

"She's very amazing," said her pole vault coach at Santa Margarita, Mandie Rowell. "She's fast, she's strong, she's very coachable."

She's a daredevil who loves soaring through the air, which makes her the perfect pole vaulter.

She was a gymnast until seventh grade.

"I loved the sport, but it got to be a lot of hours, and I just got burned out on it," she said. "There was so much other stuff I couldn't experience with gymnastics because I was in the gym so many days a week, so many hours."

When a patient of her father, who's a doctor, suggested pole vaulting, Merritt found something that made her feel as if she were riding a roller coaster every day.

"I just loved it from the first day," she said.

Her coaches from club to Santa Margarita have done a commendable job teaching and ingraining in her the importance of technique.

Hal Harkness, a former City Section commissioner and longtime track official, watched Merritt soar Saturday and commented, "She's a woman among girls, technique-wise."

And he's right. Whether it's sprinting down the runway, planting her pole or rotating her body, Merritt understands the intricacies of the event.

"There's tons of problems with my jump still," she said. "I have lots of work to do, and it's nice knowing there's always improvement."

She can keep going higher and higher as long as there's a pole long enough to propel her.

She still remembers reaching 10 feet as a seventh-grader.

"That was my big hurdle," she said. "Ever since, I've been going up gradually."

Her goal is 14 feet this year. She finished second at the state meet last season as a freshman.

Every time she jumps, she looks as though she's having so much fun. And she is.

"I owe so much to my coaches," she said.

The bleachers at Arcadia High were packed with 7,500 people watching the premier track-and-field meet of the season.

Besides Merritt, freshman Courtney Corrin of Studio City Harvard-Westlake soared to a nation-leading mark of 20-2 1/4 in the girls' long jump.

In the boys' high jump, 6-foot-6 junior Randall Cunningham of Las Vegas Bishop Gorman, the son of the former NFL quarterback, cleared 7-1. His sister, Vashti, a freshman, finished second in the girls' high jump at 5-10.

There's something going on with top young athletes wanting to defy gravity.

And the leader of the pack is Merritt, who's going to be reaching for the sky for years to come.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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