CHARLESTON — In the grand scheme of things, there really wasn't that far for Maddy Smith to go.
From wondering if she'll ever be physically able to compete in the pole vault again to becoming yet another legend in that event in Ottawa High School's storied track and field history, it was actually about 11 feet, 9 inches.
Smith — who last spring placed 10th in Class 3A pole vault at the IHSA State Meet despite a quad injury — had much higher aspirations in that event this season. However, those were put in doubt in early December of last year when she suffered a dislocation injury to her left elbow while competing for the Pirates wrestling program.
With a brace to shore up that elbow, plenty of help from her coaches and a gritty determination all her own, Smith came all the way back — ALL the way back — on Saturday afternoon, when the Lady Pirates senior easily cleared that personal-best height of 11-9 to capture the 3A pole vault state championship here at O'Brien Stadium on the campus of Eastern Illinois University.
"Absolutely, this fulfills every dream," the sun-induced pink-cheeked Smith said through a bright smile. "Starting out last year in 10th place and going through the elbow injury over the last five months right up through today, I really have no words. ...
"I was a head case with the whole (elbow) thing, but I looked into my faith with the Lord, knowing he would support me through this. ... Some people think I wouldn't be here today, but I did everything I needed to, listened to the right people supporting me, and here I am.
"There are so many people to thank, but especially Coach (Rusty) Wells, the state champion back in '71. To know I'll have my photo up there on the wall with him for being a champion is just amazing."
Smith joins Wells (1971), Denny Brue ('70), Jay Hearn ('83) and Greg Fenza ('88) as vaulting champions for Ottawa with the first ever medal won in that event by a female. The Pirates boys program has a whopping 15 state medals, including those firsts, nearly all of them under former coach June Gross.
"Coach Gross would have really loved this," said Wells, tears welling up in his eyes. "I have no doubt he's been with us all day and looking down at all this right now with a smile."
Smith certainly made the most of her opportunity to net the first championship by a Lady Pirate since Tracy Weygand won back-to-back AA shot put crowns in 1992 and '93 and the first Ottawa girls medal since Alyssa Mussato (3rd, discus) and Alex Ortiz (fourth, 400) in 2011.
After finding last year's quad injury had a chiropractic cure, the elbow injury threatened her ability to rotate her arm enough for the vault, but through vigorous training at the YMCA, consulting with an orthopedist and a training program set up by Wells and his brother, Fletcher, Smith was able to return to form to the point she was able to win the Moline Sectional with a PR of 11-6.
After making it through Friday's 3A prelims with a mere 11-0, Smith breezed through the finals without a single miss, clearing the bar on her first try even at a new best of 11-9 despite a wind at her back so strong it required workers to use poles to keep the bar from blowing off the standards until the competitors planted.
It was at that height that three other girls fell out, leaving just Smith and McHenry's Jenna Pauly, who trailed the Lady Pirates star due to a miss at 11-6. The Warriors senior went for the win and passed at 11-9, going straight to 12-0.
When both missed all three attempts, it reverted to the previous made height, and Smith had her title.
"Because I'd been running the 400 and 1600 relay also every meet this season, I I knew I had the endurance to be strong today," Smith said. "Now I'm so ready to get back to Ottawa and celebrate."
Smith was not alone in major accomplishments on the day.
Lady Pirates throwing ace Samantha Satterfield claimed ninth place in the 3A shot put with an effort of 40 feet, 6 1/2 inches. That throw was from Friday's prelims, as she had an uncharacteristically tough day in the ring in the finals with her best toss in the finals 39-7 3/4 feet.
"At first I was definitely a little upset about not making finals in the discus, but the more I thought about, the happier I am to be here in the shot because I still PRed by a foot and a half in that yesterday," said Satterfield, who was a state qualifier in both events a year ago as a sophomore. "For me, that was a huge accomplishment, so even if I didn't do enough today to get a medal, I'm still happy with my performance.
"And I still have next year, so I'm excited."
"This was a terrific day for the program, obviously, including everything that an athlete dreams of," said OHS head coach Jessica Kuhn. "Maddy suffered through all the adversity and made it through. She really deserves this, because she's worked so hard for this and all she's accomplished. ... So has Sam, and we're very proud of her, too. For her to be the champion in a sectional as tough as ours was really something, and we can't wait to see her back here next year."