The pain that is centered in Sarah Korn’s back spreads quickly — a sharp, shooting sensation that can make it difficult for the newly minted North Texas graduate to run.
Suffering from a herniated disc and two bulging discs is quite the dilemma for the longtime member of the Mean Green track and field team.
The senior pole vaulter barrels down a short runway before jerking herself into the air and over a bar typically raised well above the height of a basketball rim before crashing into a foam pit — a process that for her is often painful from start to finish.
The sport has become a passion for Korn, who fought through her injury issues to return for one final year of competition that culminates this week at the Conference USA meet at Holloway Field & Ley Track on the Rice campus in Houston.
“I love pole vaulting, this team and [UNT jumps coach Derek] Mackel,” Korn said. “This feels like my family. I didn’t want to give that up. Ten years from now, I didn’t want to regret not giving 100 percent effort the whole time I was here.”
That determination is what led Korn to Fouts Field this week for one or two last sprints down the runway to the pit, where she has spent so much time over the years.
Korn, a short and powerfully built blonde, joked with her teammates and took a few turns perfecting the approach she has refined over the years at UNT, often while suffering in silence.
“She has been really tough,” Mackel said. “It’s an injury that she has been working through for a long time. There are times when she has no problems and other times when you can tell that her back is hurting. She seems to manage the pain pretty well.”
Korn has suffered from plenty of pain over the years. She has undergone about half a dozen injection procedures on her back, including platelet-rich plasma treatments that entail having platelets removed from a blood sample and injected into her back.
Then there are the three knee surgeries she has undergone, the last of which she had last summer.
UNT head coach Carl Sheffield was so concerned about Korn’s health that he tried to make her quit last year and eventually had a contract drawn up that would prevent the school from being held liable for any long-term health problems Korn might encounter.
“It was that serious,” Sheffield said. “We told her we didn’t know what the long-term effects would be and met with our athletic director. Her parents didn’t want to take away the opportunity to compete one last year.”
In the end, neither did Sheffield after he saw Korn dedicate herself to doing whatever it took to compete, despite the pain and the odds. Korn spent extra time in the gym and with UNT’s trainers and sees a pain management doctor regularly.
The payoff is the chance to compete in a season when Korn faces long odds of even placing at the conference meet. UNT moved from the Sun Belt — where Korn finished third at the outdoor championships as a sophomore — to Conference USA this season.
UNT’s new league is considered a step up in the world of track and field. Factor in the impact of Korn’s injury issues, and she enters this week’s meet ranked 13th in the field with a season-best mark of 11 feet, 6 1/4 inches.
“This will give her a chance to finish what she started,” said Gary Korn, Sarah’s father. “Pound for pound, she’s as tough as anyone playing football.
“She won’t be coming in first place at the conference meet, but she will be going out on her terms.”
A daredevil at heart
Competing as a pole vaulter takes more than just agility and strength. Sheffield and Mackel say it requires athletes who are daredevils and have something of a disregard for their own safety.
When Susan Korn looks back on her daughter’s childhood, she can see why Sarah is a perfect fit.
“When she was 3, she was flipping off the couch,” Susan Korn said. “I figured we needed to put her into something where they could teach her to do it correctly.”
That avenue turned out to be gymnastics.
Korn started out at a local gymnastics center, where she worked out once a week. Before long, Korn was on her way to being a high-level competitor.
Korn was rated as a level 9 to level 10 gymnast by the time she was in high school at Geronimo Navarro and had a chance at earning a scholarship, despite the dwindling number of colleges that sponsor the sport.
An injury that led to one of Korn’s knee surgeries changed the course of her career. Korn was on crutches for two months and never really recovered to the point that she could compete again.
She also grew two inches while hobbling around on crutches and not taking the constant bounding that gymnastics requires.
A new avenue opened up around that time.
“There was this track coach at school who was all over my case, saying, ‘Oh, you should try pole vaulting. Gymnasts are so good,’” she said. “I thought I was going to compete in college gymnastics and told him to back off, but then once I had that second knee surgery in high school I couldn’t come back. It all fell into place. I fell in love with it.”
Korn went on to finish second in the 2009 and 2010 Class 2A state meets in the pole vault, a performance that helped land Korn a scholarship at UNT.
A tough college career
Competing in college, especially in track and field, can be a tough road.
There is an indoor season in addition to the traditional outdoor season, not to mention classroom obligations.
UNT has only four seniors on its roster of 57 who are in their fourth season with the Mean Green. Korn being one of them is a surprise to Sheffield because of her injury history and the way she was at times distracted by other elements of college life, including going out with friends.
“Sarah’s a great girl but was living the college life instead of doing what it takes to be a college track athlete,” Sheffield said. “She didn’t have the right lifestyle to be a dedicated athlete.”
By the time she finished her junior season, Korn had reached a crossroads.
She had undergone so much, including a knee surgery to remove two floating pieces of cartilage in her knee the size of a fingernail, not to mention all the back procedures.
Korn had worked hard enough to overcome it all but hadn’t reached her goal of clearing 12 feet and finished 10th at the Sun Belt meet with a mark of 11-4.
Korn called her father as she walked out of Ansin Sports Complex in Miami last spring.
“I told him I would be back next year,” she said.
Korn has been on the comeback trail ever since and took first in the pole vault at the North Texas Classic last month. She has posted a season-high mark of 11-5.
Sheffield and Korn’s teammates have seen a change in her as she narrowed her focus and overcame the physical obstacles she faces. Korn is still the outgoing, opinionated and fun-loving person she always has been.
She is just more focused on getting the most out of her track and field career.
“It has been a 180-degree change from years past,” fellow UNT pole vaulter Madison Northcutt said. “She has worked so hard this year and is determined to jump high.”
Korn’s goals have been to clear 12 feet and to finish her career on a high note.
That opportunity will come this week, when Susan Korn will make the trip to Houston to see her daughter compete one last time and put into practice the lessons she started to learn when she first took her daredevil approach to life from the living room couch to the local gymnastics center.
“Growing up, Sarah had gymnastics coaches who always told her, ‘That’s not good enough. Get up and do it again.’ That is what has driven her,” Susan Korn said.
Korn always has returned to compete again, even if that meant another surgery or another injection in her back.
This week, she will tear down that familiar runway for the last time, back throbbing, content in the knowledge that she is capitalizing on every last opportunity in her track career.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.