Life in Harvard University: Savannah Wieser Pole Vaults East from Dublin High School
DUBLIN, CA–Our next Life in College Series profile pulls together multiple themes related to the stress faced by today’s students, and what it takes to pursue athletics at the college level. Today we feature Dublin High School Class of 2015 alum Savannah Wieser, who just completed her first year at Harvard University where she was awarded an athletic scholarship as a member of the Harvard Crimson Track & Field Pole Vault team.
OneDublin.org: To the observer pole vaulting looks, well, crazy! How did you get introduced to the sport?
Savannah Wieser: “I started in track as a 400m and 800m runner in Dublin High School and to be competitive in those events takes a certain amount of training and my body couldn’t take it. I kept getting stress fractures and strains so Dublin High Coach Chris Williams suggested I try pole vaulting. I wasn’t happy to stop running so it was a struggle for the first few months but I was lucky enough to have the sport click. I trained super hard over the summer between my junior and senior year and from there caught the attention of several schools.”
OneDublin.org: When vaulting are you able to enjoy the thrill of the sport, or are you so focused on technique that you aren’t able to enjoy the moment?
Wieser: “I’ve participated in a lot of different sports and pole vaulting is the most technical and by far the most fun. I view vaulting as an equation you can break down: the faster you run, the taller you are, the bigger the pole, the higher you’re going to fly. During a vault I’m very focused on technique and being strong up until clearing the bar, but when I let go of the top of the pole and am falling I can enjoy the jump, and see how high I’ve jumped. The moment your fingertips leave the pole you enjoy the ride down.”
OneDublin.org: Describe the training regimen for vaulters.
Wieser: “I started training halfway through my junior year and learned the basics. My Dublin High School vault coach recommended I do a camp with Stacy Dragila up in Sacramento over the summer. I never imagined how hard I’d be training, it was just a weeklong camp. That’s where I met Coach Steve Thomas who offered to train me for free over the summer. We were out on the track for 5-6 hours every day: weight training, speed training, jumping, and gymnastics. We didn’t jump more than three days per week, to reduce impact on the body.
“While at Dublin High School I PR’ed at 12 feet and shortly after tore my shoulder for the first time and instead of going to NCS I elected to get surgery for the injury and focus on being healthy for my first collegiate season. That initial tear healed really well and I made it through physical therapy quickly. I came back to vaulting and was on big poles really soon, to compete at the collegiate level, and had some bad luck – re-tearing the same tendon in a different spot. I was able to jump for about a month and now will be rehabbing through my sophomore year so I can return to competing when I’m a junior.”
OneDublin.org: What advice do you have for serious student athletes to minimize the risk of injury?
Wieser: “There are two main things student athletes need to be on top of. The first, which is hard for me to this day, is making sleep a top priority. I understand that 8-9 hours is recommended and is really hard with all the work students have today, but you should get at least 7 hours of sleep. I noticed when I was getting much less than that my athletic performance dropped dramatically. When I was only getting 3-4 hours of sleep I was not performing. I needed to make sleep a priority which meant instead of coming home and goofing off for an hour before starting homework I had to get started right away. It’s also amazing how much easier and faster it is to get work done when you’ve had enough sleep.
“The second thing is to get a blood test to see if you are deficient in anything. I was iron deficient and only found out at the end of my senior season. I always liked to distance run but could never make it very far and thought it was because of my asthma. After about three months of taking iron supplements I was settled into school in Boston and decided to go out for a run along the Charles River. Now I can run 10 miles easily just because of addressing the iron deficiency. Make sure you know your body and what you need.
“But most importantly everybody needs sleep, no matter how bad-ass you are you need sleep!”
OneDublin.org: During your time at Dublin High School how did you manage the stress of marrying academics and athletics? Or was it a struggle maintaining balance?
Wieser: “I struggled with stress. I was constantly stressed, I was constantly sleep-deprived; I was stressed about the sacrifices I was making – the pressure from friends to hangout. By the end of my senior year I had a small group of friends and there was a reason for that. I sacrificed my social life for other things. Everything in my mind was how I could add to my application: what am I going to do this week, this summer, to add to my application? To-date that was the most stressful time of my life and now that I’m in Harvard I’m a lot less stressed and am enjoying college life. You’d think it would be the opposite but I’m enjoying much more of what I’m learning now that I’m in college. In high school I was focused on getting the grade rather than what I was learning; it was about getting that ‘A’ and having a high GPA.”
OneDublin.org: What advice do you have for parents of students like yourself who are so self-motivated?
Wieser: “My parents did an impeccable job of not adding to the stress I had already imposed on myself. They acted as my best friends especillay during my junior and senior years. When I came home after school we’d talk about things other than what I was focused on. Other times they’d be a sounding board for what I was worried about so I didn’t have to keep things bottled up. My parents acted like the two best friends that I otherwise wouldn’t have had because of how focused I was on training and studies. My parents created a positive environment that uplifted me.”
OneDublin.org: Walk me through the process of being accepted into Harvard.
Wieser: “I never thought Harvard was an option – it wasn’t even on my radar. The coach I was working with, who I am in debt to for the rest of my life, had video and stats from every jump, every competition, how I was improving over time and sent that data to the Harvard coach (Brenner Abbot). Steve built up my case to the point where Coach Brenner couldn’t say no. Coach Brenner saw a lot of potential to improve my aerial technique.
“The academic portion of the Harvard application is separate from the athletic interest. The athletic department is able to choose a set of applicants that they will support, but every athletic application still goes through the regular academic admissions process. When I visited the campus I had an in-person interview with an admissions advisor, which not all students get so that was an advantage, but other than that it’s about your SAT / ACT scores, your GPA and demonstration that you are a well-rounded student.
“Harvard does like that you are a committed athlete and that you can handle both academics and athletics, but they want to see something special. During my interview I was asked a lot about the car I built with my dad, because that’s what I wrote about in my college essay. I was also asked about life in general, what I liked about the campus and why I could see myself at Harvard. The academics admissions element was more separate than any other college I visited during the recruiting process.
“I’d like to recognize Dublin High School teacher Katina Lewis, who was my senior year physics teacher and really prepared me for college. She made us prepare and maintain a binder for her class – all lecture notes, slides, packets, old tests, homework – so that when we reached the end of the year final we’d have everything we need. That approach helped me succeed on the final and this year at Harvard I did the exact same thing – I saved all my notes, all my tests and put them in a folder. When you start studying for your finals all those materials you’ve saved are invaluable.”
OneDublin.org: How did you get interested in building a car and what does that entail?
Wieser: “My dad has always had a muscle car in the garage that he’s working on. When I was younger he’d spend long nights out in the garage working on a car and I’d go out and dabble, and along the way he taught me how to weld. When I was 15 I told him that I wanted to build a car, and I wanted to do this myself. He told me he’d match whatever money I saved and when I had enough I could build a car. It took about two years to go through the process – swapping the engine, bodywork, painting – everything was custom.
“My dad taught me that the key was finding a car with a solid body, the least amount of rust possible. And since I planned to customize the car I also didn’t want to spend a lot of money. He found a ’66 Mustang coupe in L.A., picked it up for me and drove it back.”
OneDublin.org: What is it like to be a student on the Harvard campus?
Wieser: “It’s absolutely amazing! It’s by far been the best year of my life and I can’t believe I have three years left. The campus has been the perfect fit for me, but I don’t know if it’s the perfect fit for everyone. As different as everyone is at Harvard, there are a lot of ‘type A’ personalities, everyone is very focused: work before play.
“The professors are awesome and take time with every student, making sure there is a connection with every kid. For example, in my expository writing class the course is structured to help you succeed: there are pre-draft conferences with the English professor where you get 1:1 feedback on your paper. Writing a 15-page research paper was new to most of the students so there were workshops over multiple weeks on how to write a paper. Harvard gives you every tool possible to be successful, and no matter how smart they are students take advantage of those tools.”
OneDublin.org: Have you selected a major?
Wieser: “I need to select a concentration after the first semester of my sophomore year and will very likely select a concentration in Government. I’m currently interested in pursuing a degree in law after college. I have always wanted to be a lawyer, it’s the only thing I can see myself doing for the rest of my life. I love the idea of being able to argue for someone, and do everything in my power to be right for my client and advocate for them. I believe I would enjoy that process – whether it is litigation or corporate law. Law is something where I can do the work and get results, like vaulting.”
OneDublin.org: How has the transition been like living three timezones and a coast-to-coast airplane ride away from your family?
Wieser: “It was easy, I was ready to move away from home. I did have an athletic team to fall back on which was great, and my roommate is my best friend and I’ll be living with her next year. I met so many people through freshman week. And while the timezone is a factor because California is behind it meant that when I was going to bed it was the perfect time for my mom to call me.”
OneDublin.org: What advice do you have for other students who want to pursue athletics into college?
Wieser: “The best advice I can give is a piece of advice I received from Dublin High School Track Coach Chris Williams. He observed that the only way you can be successful at something, whether it is academics, athletics or some other passion, is to marry that activity. You have to make that activity your life. I missed out on a lot during my last two years of high school. It’s worth it looking back because I’m happy and I’m where I want to be, but I really did marry athletics and academics over everything else. If you want to be successful it’s what you have to do because it is so competitive these days.”
Here is Savannah’s 12 foot vault:
At the Dublin High School 2015 Senior Awards Night Savannah Wieser was awarded the Brian Beasley Athletic Scholarship Award, a Harvard University athletic scholarship, was named a California Scholarship Federation Life Member, earned a Gael Scholar and President’s Gold Award for Education Excellence and earned Dublin High School’s Advanced Scholar Diploma. Savannah was also the student representative on the Dublin Unified School District Board of Trustees.