Zach McWhorter never planned to drop out of a prestigious East Coast university or abandon his education after just three weeks. He never planned to find himself backpacking alone in Indonesia for two months last fall. He never planned to turn pro and chase pole vault competitions in Europe and Asia. Oh, and he also never planned to compete in the world track and field championships this week in Budapest, but here he is.

“It was embarrassing. For two months I was in hiding. I lived in my dad’s basement, and I trained in the evenings so no one would see me.” — Zach McWhorter

Ever since McWhorter completed his degree at BYU a year ago, almost nothing has worked out the way he planned, but it all led to this: He is representing the U.S. on track and field’s biggest stage, the World Athletics Championships in Budapest. McWhorter qualified for the world championships with a second-place finish in the pole vault at the U.S. championships last month in Oregon.

“I was surprised,” he says. “Others were too.”

His best performance of the year had been 18 feet, 9 inches, and most of his jumps had been in the 18-foot range. In one meet he topped out at 17 feet, 8 inches. Then in the U.S. championships, he cleared 19 feet, 2 ¾ inches, a lifetime best.

The U.S. is loaded with high-flying pole vault talent, making it especially difficult to make the U.S. national team. At the U.S. championships, five vaulters cleared 19 feet. Sam Kendrick, the six-time U.S. champion and former world champion and Olympic medalist, tied for fourth place with K.C. Lightfoot, the American record holder.

For BYU pole vaulter extraordinaire, it’s a family affair

“There are probably eight (Americans) who could go to worlds and would definitely excel, but only three can go,” says McWhorter. “It’s so competitive.”

McWhorter traveled to Budapest with his father, Rick, a surgeon and former BYU vaulter who moved to Provo from Arkansas several years ago to coach his son and the other BYU vaulters. At BYU, the younger McWhorter placed second in both the outdoor and indoor NCAA championships, setting school records outdoors (18-10 ¾) and indoors (19-2 ¼).

After graduating with a degree in entrepreneurial management last spring, he decided to pursue graduate studies at Duke while also using his remaining two seasons of NCAA eligibility there. He drove 32 hours from Provo to Durham, North Carolina, and enrolled in school. Less than three weeks later, he drove back to Provo. The graduate program did not meet his expectations or his interests and some of the classes were scheduled during track workouts.

“It was embarrassing,” he says “For two months I was in hiding. I lived in my dad’s basement, and I trained in the evenings so no one would see me.”

He flew to Indonesia — where he had served a two-year mission for his church — and backpacked around the country for two months, mostly alone, contemplating his life, past, present and future. He was disillusioned with his sport — the pressure, the pursuit of championships, the harried pace of his life. When he returned to Provo, he decided he was going to slow down, make pole vaulting fun again, take a break from school and pursue his sport full time.

“I fell in love with pole vaulting again,” he says.

He skipped the indoor season and focused on training and experimentation with different poles. In April he began to compete again, even though he still wasn’t in great shape by his estimation. His marks weren’t so-so, but, like a golfer changing his swing or his clubs, he expected that ultimately the experimentation would lead to improvement. 

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He traveled to Texas and California for competitions, then on to Korea and Poland for more competitions. “The results were not great,” he says. “I was not jumping well. It was stressful.” Of the 16 vaulters who qualified for the U.S. championships, he entered the meet with the 13th-best vault of 2023. The competition came down to Chris Nilsen and McWhorter going for victory at 19-4 ¾; Nilsen cleared it, McWhorter didn’t, but he was elated with second place.

BYU’s Zach McWhorter breaks school pole vault record again

He’s all-in with pole vaulting. He is uncertain about when or if he’ll return to school. In April, he was admitted to the USATF’s Talent Protection Program, which provides funding for top athletes, covering living, training, traveling and medical expenses. By joining that program he forfeited his remaining NCAA eligibility. McWhorter hired famed pole vault agent Karen Locke, who got him admitted to two Diamond League competitions, one in Poland and the other in Monaco (both eighth-place finishes). 

“I want to focus on pole vaulting through the Olympic trials,” he says.

He has already achieved the qualifying standard for next summer’s Olympic Games in Paris; all he has to do is finish in the top three again at the 2024 U.S. national championships, which will double as the Olympic trials. Meanwhile, he is embracing the opportunity to compete in the world championships. Fate seemed to lead him here when nothing else worked out as he planned it.

BYU pole vaulter Zach McWhorter goes up for a vault as he trains at the Smith Fieldhouse at BYU in Provo on Friday, March 5, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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