Making a king-sized leap
Karley King views pole vaulting as a world of opposites. Whereas some athletes need loud music to get amped up before collegiate competition, King remains relaxed, focused and sharp.
The field roars around her, but in her mind is only silence. She smells fresh chalk on the hands of shot putters nearby and feels the carbon-fiber pole in her hands, but focuses only on the ground below her feet. She counts her steps — 16 in all with eight lefts — to the box, looking down in order to avoid over-analyzing the height of her attempt.
Many female pole-vaulters in the sport are bigger, but King’s accomplishments stand head-and-shoulders above her diminutive stature. With UH’s rich sports history that boasts such notables as gold-medal-winning Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis, hall of fame coach Tom Landry and record-setting quarterback Case Keenum, it can be difficult to stand out. However, that is exactly what the 5-foot-6, three-year captain and redshirt senior has done.
King ranked No. 24 in the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association’s week one rankings on Tuesday, but she has a history of success in pole vaulting.
A perfect match
King, who captured the Louisiana pole vaulting record while at Vermilion Catholic High School, received her third American Athletic Conference Female Field Athlete of the Week honor on Jan. 21, breaking her own personal record with a vault just over 13 feet. While originally a gymnast, King feels that she is drawn to the sport, and was drawn to UH as much as UH was drawn to her.
“The history here is one of the major factors that made me come to UH,” King said. “The history and Coach (Kyle) Tellez, that is. He is an amazing coach.”
Tellez — who coaches UH athletes in the high jumps, pole vault and multi events — has been King’s mentor for her entire collegiate career. While King was still in high school, he sought her out for recruitment after recommendations from personal friends Greg Duplantis and Doug Fraley, both from Louisiana and both Olympic pole-vaulters.
“From the time she was a freshman, she had natural leadership ability,” Tellez said. “It was only a matter of maturing, growing in confidence and proving herself to her teammates. She’s done that. Now, her teammates know that in crunch time they can count on Karley.”
According to Tellez, King’s motivation for excellence comes from humility and a deep-seated desire to do her best. King’s game is less flash and more blue-chip effort, and she’s never forgotten the discipline she developed as a gymnast or the lessons she learned growing up in Louisiana.
“From day one, she was a conference-level competitor,” Tellez said. “She never came in with unrealistic goals. I like kids like her, ones that are realistic. She came in wanting to improve and get as far as she can, always remaining grateful for the opportunity she was given.”
Competing in the classroom
King’s excellence does not solely lie in athletics; she has also succeeded academically. She consistently logs long hours, training about 20 hours a week and balancing a full school schedule.
While an athlete at UH, she has held a cumulative 3.5 GPA and earned the Conference USA Commissioners Honor Roll award for a consecutive four years. The award is given to student athletes who maintain at least a 3.0 GPA throughout the year.
She is also a former president of the Student Athlete Advisory Council, a group that works as a liaison between student athletes and University administration. Although she has no interest in competing in the Olympics or coaching in the future, she does dream of becoming a physical therapist and dedicating her life to helping others.
Despite an accomplished athletic and academic career at UH, she has flown under the radar. Many athletes come and go at the University, many of them finishing their careers as national champions. Although she may reach national champion status, her idea of how she wants to be remembered remains humble.
“I would love for people to know that I’m a good athlete, but I would rather be known for my character and what I contributed to our team than my accomplishments,” King said. “I want people to see me as a hard worker, someone who wasn’t given anything and who put it all out there for Houston.”