When McNair Academic junior Christina Keller cleared the bar at seven feet in the pole vault at the recent Merli Invitational at the Bennett Center in Toms River, it made local track and field aficionados to scurry to the record books to see if it was some sort of a Hudson County record.
As it turned out, Keller’s leap most certainly represented a new record in the pole vault for both boys and girls in the county. Because honestly, the pole vault isn’t exactly an event that Hudson County athletes have cornered the market at.
In-depth research failed to produce another Hudson County athlete – male or female – being successful in a competitive indoor meet in the pole vault, so with that, Keller becomes the county record holder.
Not bad for someone who just began competing in the event less than a year ago.
Keller really never even participated in track before enrolling at McNair Academic a little more than two years ago. In fact, Keller was a competitive gymnast and was once the state champion on the balance beam when she was 12 years old and the all-around state champ for her age group when she was just 10.
But Keller walked away from gymnastics when she entered high school.
“I honestly always wanted to try running when I was younger,” Keller said. “For no specific reason, I joined the cross country team when I was a freshman in high school, basically because I didn’t know what kind of runner I could be. I knew I wanted to be involved in school sports and there wasn’t a gymnastics team at McNair, so I decided to join the track team.”
Veteran McNair Academic head coach Matt Hogan liked Keller’s athleticism.
“She’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades,” Hogan said. “She’s pretty multi-talented.”
Keller’s talents go far and beyond her athleticism. She’s a member of the National Honor Society, carrying straight A’s in all of her classes and a 98 grade average. She is also a talented pianist and vocalist. Just how talented?
Well, Keller has graced the stage performing at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall at least five times.
“It’s five or six times,” Keller laughed. “When I perform, it’s mostly classical.”
Keller has written original songs and performed with her younger sister Clara, who was the state overall, regional and world champion in gymnastics, having earned the youth world title last June in Orlando.
The Keller sisters performed last year as a request from Hamilton and Mary Poppins Returns star Lin-Manuel Miranda for a gala honoring his parents. Among those in attendance included Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey, Law and Order SVU star Mariska Hargitay, singer Christina Bell, singer Pitbull and TV and radio personality Ryan Seacrest.
“I was really nervous performing in front of all of them,” Keller said. “But I was really excited as well.”
But through all her achievements, Keller wanted to be more recognized for her athletic ability.
So Keller learned how to do the high jump, long jump and hurdles. She participated in the sprints and was part of the Cougars’ relay teams.
But Keller was also told that she should consider trying the pole vault. It was an event that always intrigued her.
“I didn’t know much about the pole vault,” Hogan said. “I told her that if she could do it, it would be an advantage to us getting points in the big meets like the state sectionals.”
So with the help of her parents, father John and mother Bernice, Keller would sign on to take pole vault lessons at Apex Vaulting in Fairfield.
Bernice Keller did the homework and found Apex on the Internet. It was going to take a joint effort from both parents to bring Christina to Fairfield for the lessons. Of course, there was a cost involved as well. More than 75 of the state’s top competitors in the pole vault traveled to Fairfield regularly to learn from the pros.
Keller’s teacher is Branko Miric, who learned the pole vault in his native Croatia and has been the coach at Ramapo College for the last six years.
“I was really nervous when I started,” Keller said. “I didn’t know how I would do, but Coach Branko told me that I was a natural, so that gave me some confidence.”
Of course, the event is not easy to master. One fails far more times than one clears the bar.
“It was hard for the first couple of weeks,” Keller said. “I had to learn to turn my body going over the bar. I couldn’t get it at first. There are so many ways, so many techniques to learn. I went to West Point to learn at a special camp, but Coach Branko wants me to do it a certain way, so it was harder.”
But Keller started to feel some sense of achievement when she cleared the bar the first time in practice.
“The first time I did it, I cleared six feet,” Keller said. “I did it three times.”
That was only Dec. 22.
“I knew then I was going to work harder, to get better,” Keller said.
A week later, Keller reached her personal best of seven feet, leaping her way into the Hudson County record books with the successful clear at the Bennett Center.
“It was fun and exciting,” Keller said. “It made me pretty happy that I could do it.”
Keller heads to Apex Vaulting twice a week, sometimes after regular McNair Academic track practice. So twice a week for two hours a session, Keller rigorously tries to get better at an event that no one else in this county even dares to try.
“It can get pretty tiring, doing my regular track work, then go to pole vault and then do my school work,” Keller said. “I’m running back and forth. It’s especially tough during meets. But I want to be good at it, so I keep trying. I want to compete in the other events. It’s very tiring, but I’m glad I do it. I’m always busy. This way, I’m never bored.”
Hogan has been impressed with his athlete’s progress.
“I’m pleasantly surprised,” Hogan said. “I think it’s great that she has set good goals and is going after them. I’m hoping that this opens the door for others to try. I think it’s impressive because she took it upon herself to try it and succeed. She does it among a million other things that she does.”
Yeah, like singing and performing in front of Tony, Emmy and Oscar winners. And yes, carving her own niche in the Hudson County track and field record books.
“I’m very happy about it,” Keller said. “I thought McNair had to have had pole vaulters before. I’m excited that all my hard work is paying off.”
Ready for this? Keller wants to pursue an education that will include a trip to medical school in the future.
“I might want to become a surgeon,” Keller said.
That might reach heights even greater than vaulting over a bar. Christina Keller is well on her way.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com (the latest entry is a wet and wild meeting with a former President of the United States) or you can follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar.