Flying high, helping others
Olivia McDaniel is a two-time Northwest Conference champion pole vaulter for Linfield College.
Her personal best of 12 feet, 6 inches is third-best in program history, and the senior-to-be has competed twice in the NCAA Division III outdoor championships.
A Scappoose native, McDaniel is on track to graduate one semester early from nursing school.
And in January, during the indoor track and field season, she studied abroad in Kenya, running a free health care clinic and Open Arms Village with other nursing students.
But those facts are only part of her story.
An undiagnosed ailment
At age 15, McDaniel was diagnosed with a severe and still undetermined heart condition.
She spent 56 days in the hospital receiving treatment.
"I was in and out for several months," she said.
She was sent to various hospitals, including one in Boston, as a case study.
A cardiologist told McDaniel, then a Scappoose High sophomore, that she could no longer do gymnastics after nearly 12 years in the sport.
The heart condition still flares up several times a year, but McDaniel is cleared for track and field.
This year, however, her road to a second conference title was marred by self-doubt, a quad injury and a trip to the emergency room.
McDaniel nearly quit the team before the outdoor season began in March. On the flight to the NCAA championships in Wisconsin in late May, she told Wildcats head coach Travis Olson "I had made up my mind I was not going to compete when I was on my way to Africa."
Her decision came largely because her major was requiring her to work 13-hour hospital shifts in Portland between occasional track practices in McMinnville. The trip to Kenya appeared to be the breaking point.
As it turned out, going to Kenya made McDaniel reconsider.
"When you see all those kids who don't have the opportunities to go to school or play sports, I couldn't imagine not doing track and field anymore," she said.
A new sport
Gymnastics had been McDaniel's sole athletic pursuit until the cardiologist told her that her heart wasn't strong enough to handle the stress.
Later, when she was cleared for athletics again, "I had been away from gymnastics too long to get back into it."
Her high school counselor, who also was the Scappoose Indians' pole vault coach, told her that gymnasts often make good pole vaulters because they have spatial awareness and aren't afraid to flip upside down high off the ground.
McDaniel decided to try the event.
"I did not take it seriously at all," she said. "I made it to the (Class 4A state) meet my senior year and ended up finishing eighth, but I really wasn't very good."
The highest she got was 9-6 and she was not heavily recruited by college coaches.
Linfield assistant coach Dayson Tiogangco had picked up on her athletic ability, though.
"We would go to the state meet to watch potential incoming students," he said. "I watched her vault and thought she looked very similar to another recruit we had. Technically, there were things she needed to work on, but I also knew she didn't have lots of experience."
Tiogangco was aware of her gymnastics background and McDaniel's inexperience meant she had not acquired bad habits.
He and McDaniel already had met because Tiogangco was an admissions counselor and McDaniel was enrolling at Linfield. In an email, he invited her to give the pole vault a shot with the Wildcats. She took him up on the offer.
Expanding her goals
McDaniel learned the ins and outs of pole vaulting quickly as a Linfield freshman, eventually placing sixth in the NWC championships at 11-2.
"She took it and ran with it," Olson said. "She worked to learn as much as she could about the pole vault. It's a testament to Olivia's work ethic."
McDaniel said her dad played a role as well.
"He had never heard of pole vault, but he read all the books and probably knows more than I do," she said.
After that first year with Linfield, she became more excited about the event. She completely changed her training routine and diet. McDaniel, who didn't previously lift weights, began incorporating Olympic-style lifting and more running to make her body more lean. She also became a vegetarian (she now operates on a no-red meat basis).
Tiogangco told her: "You have what it takes to go to nationals. You need to start looking at yourself as a national athlete."
McDaniel said "That's when I looked at myself as a 13-foot vaulter and not a 9-foot vaulter."
Going into the 2017 NCAA DIII outdoor championships at Waverly, Iowa, McDaniel was seeded 21st out of 22 vaulters. She eventually finished 10th with a PR 12-5 1/2 clearance.
McDaniel then set her sights on both qualifying for the 2018 indoor championships in Boston and placing in the top eight at the DIII outdoor meet, which would earn her All-American status.
But first came the work in Kenya, where McDaniel provided testing for HIV/AIDS and treatments for malaria, and learned how to utilize limited resources.
She returned to Linfield in the middle of the indoor season behind schedule and out of shape.
And then, after taking on too much too quickly, she hurt her quadriceps. She missed the end of the 2018 indoor season, plus four outdoor meets.
A continuing concern
McDonald gets an MRI and stress test done once a year, and undergoes other tests (echocardiogram, EKG, blood work) twice a year to check her heart function.
"I used to be on so many medications," she said, "and they affected my daily life, without known benefits. So I worked with my cardiologist to get me off of all my medications until he could tell me 100 percent that they were benefiting me."
There are times when her condition is an issue.
"I will get chest pain, and my arms can even go numb," she said. "It usually requires that I get a lot of invasive tests done to make sure my heart is still working properly."
The week of the 2018 Northwest Conference outdoor championships, she was in an emergency room.
"Luckily, it was a minor episode, and I was able to recover in time to compete and win," she said. "Otherwise, when I'm not having an episode, I live a normal life, without complications."
Determined to help
McDaniel's heart condition helped inspired her to become a nurse.
Her mother and grandmother are registered nurses, and McDaniel's time in the hospital exposed her to what nurses do on a daily basis. She ultimately chose Linfield-Good Samaritan School of Nursing over the University of Washington and University of Portland.
McDaniel finished her prerequisite courses in two years at Linfield's main campus. As her junior year rolled around, she moved to the nursing school in Portland. Her courses ramped up as lectures became integrated with hospital clinical work, and McDaniel also knew she was going to study abroad in January 2018.
"I really struggled with the idea of going back (to the track team)," she said. "I wasn't sure I was going to be able to put in the time and the energy to have as good as a season as I did (in 2017). I didn't want to have a half-ass season. I wanted it to be better than the year before."
McDaniel's routine consists of 13-hour hospital shifts on non-practice days. She wakes up at 5 a.m., heads to the hospital, then studies as soon as her shift ends.
On practice days, she starts with six hours of lecture, drives an hour south to McMinnville for practice and then heads back to Portland for more studying.
"We've had other nursing campus athletes who have decided not to continue," Olson said. "That's unreal how hard it is to balance both. With her, I always said 'Hey, we'd love to have you, but it's your life.'"
A busy life
Tiogangco, who communicates with McDaniel regularly, helped her put things in perspective before she left for Africa in Janary. He sent her this text message after she expressed doubts about returning for the 2018 outdoor spring season:
"Maybe you should focus on school the rest of this term and enjoy your study abroad trip and then decide if you want to do outdoor?
"Let me know if there's anything that I can do to help to make it easier for you to continue pole vaulting. Whether it's practicing on different days of the week, or different times, I'll make it happen.
"You're one of the most talented, hardworking athletes I've ever coached, and definitely the most accomplished. Just keep me in the loop, but know that I support your decision whatever that may be."
She said she owes a lot of her decision to return to Tiogangco.
McDaniel was able to practice with the team only twice a week, but Tiogangco, who has a day job, a wife and young child, commuted to Portland for workouts with her.
Continuing to improve
Tiogangco told McDaniel to take it slow preparing for the 2018 NWC outdoor championships at Linfield.
"The skills will come back," he told her.
She would know when she was ready to compete again, he reasoned.
"We just had to trust her on that."
In the April 21 conference meet at Linfield, she got over the bar at 12-2 1/2 to claim her second title.
She then cleared a PR of 12-6 at the Linfield Open on May 5.
She carried the eighth-best mark into the NCAA DIII championships, May 23-25 at La Crosse, Wisconsin, and the Wildcats had hopes for a top-eight, All-American finish.
"She really responds well when the pressure's on," Olson said. "She's able to channel that nervousness into going into the competition and worrying about clearing that bar. That's the making of a champion — how someone can handle adverse conditions or stress when it counts."
But at the DIII meet, the combination of too much adrenaline, blustery weather and the absence of a pole long enough to suit McDaniel hindered her performance. She finished 14th at 11-5 3/4.
"She's such a consistent pole vaulter, having this one meet that didn't go her way is not normal to us," Tiogangco said. "The good thing is, it fired her up for next season."
Another big opportunity
McDaniel's senior campaign may have a smoother path. She is competing in meets at the University of Oregon and elsewhere this summer and will continue tweaking her technique. She is on track to graduate in December, and if she does, she could practice with the team full-time once indoor meets start in January 2019.
This time, McDaniel doesn't have any doubts about competing again.
"Having my goals of indoor nationals and being an All-American keep me going," she said, "and I'm very hard on myself in school."
McDaniel maintains a GPA of above 3.8. Olson said her lead-by-example attitude has made her a leader on the team.
Olson also said that even though McDaniel has improved by more than three feet since high school, she still has potential for more.
"I think she's ready to go 13-6 next year, which could win the whole thing," he said. "I think she's ready to be a top-three competitor at nationals."
The school record is 13-9 3/4, set in 2012 by Catherine Street of Wilsonville, who won NCAA DIII titles both indoor and outdoor that year. The No. 2 all-time best for Linfield is 12-6 3/4, only 3/4 of an inch higher than McDaniel's PR; it was set in 2012 by Misty Corwin of Waldport.
A great example
Aside from adding to her pole-vaulting success, McDaniel's other goal is to show fellow nursing students or athletes with demanding majors they can do well in both.
"It's kind of been a mindset that if you're a nursing student, you can't continue at Linfield track and field once you go to the Portland campus," she said. "I wanted to change that. Now there's three students at the Portland campus doing track and field. I hope that continues."
Dana Brooks is one of those who might do both for Linfield. As a sophomore this year, the former Pleasant Hill athlete qualified for the NCAA championships in the javelin. She is now facing the same decision McDaniel had to make in 2017 — keep competing in track and field or hang it up?
McDaniel has talked Brooks through how she can manage both commitments. McDaniel has let her know it's not worth giving up on track and field.
Tiogangco, meanwhile, has begun using McDaniel's setbacks-to-success story in meetings with recruits.
"It gives other athletes in general the idea that you don't have to be the best high school athlete to be a successful college athlete," he said. "We always use Olivia as the example. If you work hard, big things will come."