GRANITE FALLS — Kelsey Bassett spent an entire decade training and competing in gymnastics, often devoting four or five hours per day to the sport.
So when injuries ultimately ripped away her lifelong passion more than two years ago, the then-Granite Falls High School sophomore struggled with the harsh reality that her career was over.
“I was constantly upset and sad and crying,” Bassett said. “And then I went through a phase where I was just angry. It was a lot of emotions at once.”
Bassett, a former all-around gymnast who competed in the balance beam, floor exercises, vault and uneven bars, began experiencing extensive pain in her lower back during her freshman year.
The wear and tear of her gymnastics training had caused three stress fractures, but Bassett didn’t know that at the time. So for eight months, she trained and competed on a broken back.
“I was constantly taking ibuprofen and pain killers, and using Icy Hot and heat patches and anything I could,” she said. “I was doing everything I could to stay in the sport, because it was all I’d ever done.”
Eventually, the pain became too much. She had qualified for the Level 9 national championships in the summer of 2015, but was unable to participate.
“It was hard for me to even walk around,” she said.
Bassett was eventually diagnosed and wore a back brace for six months while undergoing physical therapy.
Although the fractures healed, the pain never completely went away. She attempted a comeback, but ultimately came to the realization that gymnastics was simply too much of a strain on her body.
“I just tried to fight through it for as long as I could, until it came to the point where I realized I wasn’t going anywhere in gymnastics,” Bassett said.
And that was a tough pill to swallow.
“Gymnastics was all I’d ever known,” she said. “My friends were my teammates. My family were my coaches. I knew everybody’s parents and everybody’s siblings. I practically lived in the gym more than I did my own home.
“So it took that entire time that I was doing physical therapy for me to actually come to terms with the fact that I was never going to be a gymnast again.”
Looking to fill a void
Bassett first heard of the parallels between gymnastics and pole vaulting from one of her former gymnastics coaches, who had several pupils who went on to become successful pole vaulters.
In addition, Granite Falls track and field coaches encouraged Bassett to join the team and try pole vaulting.
“I had never really watched the sport,” she said. “I didn’t even really know what it was.”
But looking to fill the massive void left by gymnastics, Bassett decided to give the pole vault a shot.
She turned out to be a natural.
“She can learn really fast,” Granite Falls pole vault coach Paul Sheppard said. “Usually those first six weeks of practice are trying to figure out how to carry the pole. Well, that took like a day (for Kelsey). And it (only) took another two days to figure out how to get off the ground.
“That was really special,” he added. “There’s a lot of technical stuff that (pole vaulters) have to learn, and it’s not easy. … I went through stuff with her that often takes at least a whole season, and we were doing it the first week and a half.”
Bassett said her gymnastics background — aside from causing some bad habits like pointing her toes in the air — has benefited her in the pole vault.
“It definitely helps with air sense (and) the swinging motion,” she said. “Also, just being a gymnast for so long, you kind of just have this work ethic and you have high expectations for yourself. And so being out there on the runway, I always want to perfect stuff.”
Bassett said things really began to click midway through her sophomore season after seeking the advice of another pole vault coach.
“(He) put a couple more pieces together for me so that it was easier to wrap my head around it,” Bassett said. “He explained it very well through physics terms, which helped me understand the dynamics of the vault. I’m a very math and science-y person, so it clicked very well in my mind.”
Bassett continued to progress throughout her sophomore season and took sixth place in the 2A state meet, clearing 10 feet, 9 inches.
“For a pole vaulter, you’ve got to have a certain mental toughness,” Sheppard said. “When you take off, you’ve got to have confidence, you’ve got to be disciplined about what you’re doing and you’ve got to do things the right way all the time to keep yourself safe and to keep progressing. And that’s the way she is.
“That mental toughness and (being) acutely aware of what’s going on with her body and how to use it all the time, that’s why she can move from sport to sport.”
After training the following offseason, Bassett continued her success last spring as a junior, clearing 11 feet in just her third meet of the season. Her personal-best mark of 11-9 later that spring was tied for the seventh-best mark in the state last season, regardless of classification.
Bassett went on to place second in the 2A state meet last year while matching her personal-best of 11-9, but fell short of the state championship by virtue of a tiebreaker.
Both Bassett and Fife junior Madison Licari cleared 11-9 before failing to clear 12 feet. But since Licari cleared 11-9 on her first try and Bassett needed two attempts, Licari was awarded the state title.
“She was disappointed,” Sheppard said of Bassett. “You’ve got to be disappointed. But that didn’t stop her. She’s the kind of kid that (if you) put a wall in front of me, bring it on — I’m going to take it on. She’s worked hard all summer and she kept jumping higher, so she’s ready to go.”
Diving into a new sport
This past fall, Bassett decided to try diving — another sport former gymnasts have had success in.
“I wanted to participate in a fall sport, and I didn’t want to do soccer like I had done the previous year,” she said. “So with gymnasts (sometimes) being pole vaulters and divers, I was just like, ‘Well, maybe it will work.’ And it ended up working well.”
It sure did.
Two months after taking up the sport, Bassett won the 2A state diving title. She finished with 339.25 points, more than 33 points ahead of the nearest competitor.
“It was a little shocking to me,” she said. “But it was just a really exciting season. I had no expectations (coming) in. I mean, I was scared of the pool, really. I did not want to be 12 feet deep and touch the bottom of the pool.
“But it was just a fun sport. And that’s why I’m walking into this pole vaulting season just looking for a fun time, rather than being so stressed and worked up about jumping (a certain) height or getting to (a certain) place. It’s just for the fun and for the experience.”
The pain still lingers
To this day, Bassett still experiences lower-back pain while pole vaulting.
“It’s about every single vault and every single sprint I take down the track,” she said of the pain. “It’s constant. I’ll probably have pain for the rest of my life.
“Ice, heat and Epsom salt baths (are) pretty important for me,” she added.
However, Bassett said pole vaulting is significantly less painful than gymnastics.
“There’s a lot more impact (in gymnastics),” she said. “(In pole vault), I’m landing on a squishy mat. Before, I was landing on my feet on a pretty hard floor. It’s much easier on the body.”
Sheppard said they have to constantly monitor Bassett’s back and tailor training to keep her healthy.
“We’re trying to protect it and still get (in) the technical work that she needs to get done,” Sheppard said. “So we found some drills that are low-impact that work on her muscle memory.”
Bassett, a full-time Running Start student at Everett Community College, said she plans to study biology in college and has aspirations of becoming a veterinarian. She said she’s been talking to coaches at several schools about continuing her pole vault career at the next level.
“She’s got a lot of potential,” Sheppard said. “And wherever she decides to go to college, they’re going to be lucky to have her. Anybody that wouldn’t look at her and say she’s got huge potential has their eyes closed.”
Reflecting on her journey the past few years, Bassett said she’s grateful for how everything turned out.
“Even with all of the hardships and pain and everything that I’ve gone through, I’m really grateful that I actually broke my back,” Bassett said. “I think I always knew that gymnastics wasn’t going to take me anywhere, but I was hopeful that it would. So I was kind of holding onto it.
“But I never would’ve been a pole vaulter (and) never would’ve been a diver if that hadn’t happened. Some of my greatest friends are kids on the (track) team, and I don’t think I ever would’ve had that without the pain that I went through.”