Emily Presley and her third-ranked Missouri Southern women’s track and field team were already in Birmingham, Alabama, for the NCAA Division II National Indoor Championships when the news broke.
“We had already practiced with the people we were going to compete with,” Presley said. “We had already used the same chalk bucket, already used the same implements. To me, I wondered, 'What was one more day?' I knew that I might not get that season back since we had already gone through the entire season.”
But one day prior to the scheduled start of the season’s premier event, the NCAA announced its decision on March 12 to cancel all winter championships for all three divisions due to the growing spread of COVID-19. All teams on the road were ordered to make their return trips home without having participated in a single event at the national meet.
For Presley — a three-time pole vault national champion competing in her final season of college eligibility — it marked an abrupt and heartbreaking end to an historic MSSU career. Heading into the national meet, she was ranked No. 1 in the women’s pole vault with a season-best qualifying mark of 4.3 meters.
“I was simply devastated,” she said. “I got stripped of a chance at a national championship, a chance to hug my coach one more time on the podium, a chance to (set a personal record), a chance to break the national record, a chance to hit a qualifying mark. All of those opportunities were taken away in that one meet, and the hardest part was there was nobody to blame.”
The confusion and uncertainty only escalated from there. As the rest of the sports world continued to get shut down across the nation in the days that followed, Presley sought every avenue she could to continue her training.
Although her college career has come to a close, Presley maintains an aspiration to qualify for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. The immediate goal she has in mind is to meet the women’s automatic qualifying standard of 4.6 meters — approximately 0.17 meters better than her outdoor PR she set in 2017.
But the closures of countless pole-vault training facilities across the state have put quite the wrinkle in Presley’s training regimen. In the past week and a half, she’s trekked hundreds of miles to train at multiple venues located in the St. Louis area and Rolla, all while maintaining a part-time job at Attending Angels as an in-home health care provider in her hometown of St. Clair. And by NCAA mandate, she’s unable to be accompanied by any MSSU coaches during her practice sessions.
“You’re kind of just scrounging and just searching for places to stay, places to train, and trying to stay afloat because you want to keep all of the progress you’ve made,” Presley said.
“After they canceled the NCAA Championships, the Olympics were not postponed at the time. … I wanted to continue my training. At first, I didn’t hear what the word was and nobody knew what was going to happen. But I pretty much packed up the poles and relocated up in St. Louis. I got a job up there and I’ve been kind of training at whatever facility has been open ever since.”
As of Wednesday, Presley was down to her final training venue that had yet to close.
“All of the facilities are pretty much closed now, so now I’m using my old high school track since it’s a public track,” Presley said. “I’m currently just scrambling for training, doing in-home workouts and not really knowing where to go with all of this. I’m just trying to stay active because I want to be ready for my next opportunity.”
But with the postponement of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, as well as the postponement of all USATF-sanctioned meets needed to record qualifying marks, it’s uncertain what that next opportunity will come for Presley and all other Olympic hopefuls.
“We don’t really have a direction or know how long this will last,” Presley said. “Nobody knows how our training is going to be set up in the next couple of months because we don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s disappointing, but I know that athletes everywhere are going through similar struggles. I just have to make the best of my situation, stay focused and keep preparing for when my time comes.”