Hectic weekend ahead for James Island pole vaulter

James Island Charter senior Hailey Sweatman has won three state titles in the pole vault.

On Saturday, at 3:30 a.m. — three-and-a-half hours before the sun rises — Hailey Sweatman will wake up in the pitch dark of the morning.

By 4:30 a.m., she’ll pull up to a deserted James Island Charter High School and catch a bus. Somewhere around 7 a.m., she and a few teammates will arrive in Columbia, where Sweatman will compete in the Taco Bell Classic’s pole vault event. Last year she finished sixth in her event at the prestigious track and field meet that features more than 200 schools.

If all goes as planned, Sweatman will be back on James Island by 3:30 p.m. with just enough time to get ready for the biggest social event of her high school career.

And if she’s running behind?

“Everyone’s freaking out to get ready for prom,” she said with a grin. “You can be late to prom. I’ve got to finish (the meet) first.”

Such is the hectic lifestyle of Sweatman — one that often pits track and the more traditional activities of a second-semester high school senior against each other.

Just last week, while her classmates slept in and snapchatted from their tropical spring-break vacation spots, Sweatman stayed on James Island to practice her vaulting every day.

She doesn’t mind the sacrifices. It’s those sacrifices that have earned her a slew of accolades — a state record in the pole vault with a 12-feet, 8-inch vault from 2015; three state championships and on the cusp of a fourth; and a partial scholarship to vault for her beloved Gamecocks at South Carolina in the fall.

“I’m always that person that’s busy, busy, gotta go,” she said. “When I have free time it’s like, ‘What do I do now?’”

It’s been that way for the better part of six years, from the first moment Hailey discovered what pole vaulting was.

“I remember we were at a track meet over there in Mount Pleasant and she was a little distance runner,” her father, Dean Sweatman, said of his sixth-grade daughter at the time.

“Me and her, we walked by the girls over there pole vaulting ... ‘I wanna try that,’ (she said). I said, ‘Alright. That’s fine. You can try it.’ ”

Hailey doesn’t remember that specific moment, but she has no trouble believing she was attracted to something out of the ordinary. Of the 56 women currently on USC’s track team, just one is a vaulter.

“It just looked so different and unique,” Sweatman said. “I wanted to have a challenge.”

At 5-10, Hailey, a former competitive cheerleader, has the perfect build for pole vaulting. She’s long and lean and flexible. All the years of stunting and tumbling in cheerleading taught her how to maneuver her body precisely.

“I remember being at a few meets and people said, ‘Oh, how old is she?’ And we said eighth grade,” said her coach, Dave Lee. “They got bug-eyed. They were like ‘Oh my gosh — an eighth grader going 9-foot-6, 9-foot-9.’”

The 9-9 vault broke the high school record at James Island Charter when Hailey was still in middle school.

By her freshman year, she had worked her way up to 10-6, delivering her father the only birthday present he wanted that year. Her sophomore year, she climbed the ranks by almost two more feet after dad promised her a new car if she cleared 12-3 at a national meet. She nailed 12-3½ on the nose and is now the proud owner of a tan Mazda Tribute. Dad doesn’t bet her anymore.

Next on the to-do list is to either break or maintain her own state record, the 12-8 vault Dean was able to catch on video last year before Hailey barreled over to the stands to hug him and her mother, Tiffanie.

It’s a moment that still brings tears to his eyes a year later and he’s looking forward to seeing what she does at South Carolina with a professional pole vault coach. Up until now, Hailey and Lee have learned together via YouTube videos.

Hailey isn’t sure if she wants to vault professionally after college, because she’s always seen herself in either physical therapy or occupational therapy, working on the pediatric side.

But the possibility seems there. The previous state record holder before Hailey, Sandi Morris, vaults professionally and is sponsored by Nike. Just last month Morris won the event at the USA Indoor Track & Field Championships in Oregon, edging out world-record holder Jenn Suhr.

“If I grow over college and actually become really good and am still enjoying it, then if I’m capable and qualified enough, I’ll try it,” Hailey said. “I’m just not sure how to go about that.”

Dean hopes she’ll give it a try, but he won’t pressure her either way. For now she’s still in high school, about to graduate in June and looking forward to the prom on Saturday.

“She practices, she works, she studies, keeps her grades up, does well in sports,” Dean said. “Couldn’t ask for a better youngin’.”

Grace is the Post and Courier's Clemson reporter. She graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in journalism.