Kara Whitson is a student-athlete who likes a challenge.

The graduate student from Port Lavaca believes that is why she ended up competing in the pole vault.

As a track athlete at Calhoun High School, she participated in multiple events. According to Whitson, her introduction to the pole vault was not planned.

“One day, the coach handed me a pole and said, if you can vault across that ditch, you’re doing the pole vault this year,” Whitson said. “I made it. When I got started, people told me how hard the pole vault is. They were right. It’s hard. But I really like that. I like the challenge.”

Whitson has responded to the challenge with success. Last spring she and her teammates Katelyn Wynn and Ashley Thompson picked up valuable points to help the Sam Houston women win both the Southland Conference indoor and outdoor team championships.

Whitson was the runner-up in the Southland indoor pole vault with a mark of 12’ 4.75”. She followed up by taking gold at the Southland Conference outdoor meet with a winning height of 12’ 10”.

In her final season at Sam Houston in 2015, Whitson is off to an impressive start with victories in both of the Bearkats’ first two meets (the Texas A&M Reveille Invitational December 12 and the Houston Cougar Indoor Opener January 9).

At the A&M meet, Whitson broke a seven-year-old indoor school record with a mark of 13’ 2.25”. The former record of 13’ 1.75” was set in 2007 by Jennie Sewell. A seven-time Southland Conference champion, Sewell is one of only three Bearkat women to earn NCAA Division I All-America honors in track and field.

“Breaking the school record in the first indoor meet of the year was exciting, but it’s a challenge as well,” Whitson said. “You want to continue to improve every meet.”

More important to Whitson than individual accomplishments is the success of the Bearkat women’s team as the Bearkats look to defend their two league titles.

Wynn, a senior from San Antonio, won the Southland indoor pole vault with a mark of 12’ 8.75”. Thompson, a junior from Frisco also scored indoors with a height of 11’ 10.75”. Both Wynn and Thompson scored outdoors as well to pick up points on the SHSU women’s march to the title.

Wynn and Thompson also have had successful starts to the 2015 season. Both finished in the top 10 at Texas A&M. Thompson was the runner-up to Whitson at Houston.

“As teammates we really push each other,” Whitson said. “We all are competitive with one another, but we support each other as well. Winning both the indoor and outdoor conference championships last year really has given everyone on the team a lot of confidence. 

“While ours is basically an individual sport, the team aspect helps a lot. You know just one point can make a difference in winning the championship. You want to scrap for every point you can get.”

Cutter Bernhard, a former Sam Houston track and field letterman, now coaches the pole vault as a graduate assistant.

“Sure, the early success for the girls puts a little pressure on them, but that is the nature of track and field,” Bernhard said. “You’re always trying to better that personal best. You want to go higher every meet. Now our goal is that 13-6 mark and hopefully getting a height that can qualify for nationals.

“The girls are very competitive but they support each other as well. They push each other every day and that helps.”

In a sport that is as demanding on the body as the pole vault, Whitson explains the key is to break things down into pieces.

“Every day of practice we do something different,” Whitson said. “You don’t vault every day. That would take such a physical toll on your body. We work on building up our strength and our core.  We work on our approach and our technique. It’s very challenging.”

Whitson also has accepted challenges in her academic life.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in food science and nutrition last year, Whitson decided to change her focus towards a new goal.

“Everyone in my family is in some sort of medical career and I was headed that way as well,” Whitson said. “But then I got involved with some of the behind-the-scenes aspects of athletics. I worked with game management doing things like running the score board at baseball.”

Whitson’s work with Sam Houston Associate Athletic Director for Student Services Chris Thompson was the clincher. She now serves as a graduate assistant in athletic student services.

“Being around Mrs. Thompson really got me interested in working in athletics,” Whitson said. “I’m not as much interested in coaching as in mentoring student-athletes in other aspects of their college life. Not every athlete makes the transition from high school to college. Even fewer advance into the professional ranks. I want to help student-athletes get their degrees and move on to careers outside sports after college.”

Every day at practice, Whitson’s focus remains on helping Sam Houston to earn another conference track and field title. The sport is demanding but her coach knows she likes a challenge.

“The pole vault is hard on the body but our guys and girls are going to push through each week,” Bernhard said. “They will have some time to recover before conference. When the competition begins, Kara and the girls get excited and the aches and pains go away.”

Coming up for the Sam Houston track and field team are indoor meets at Texas A&M January 16; Albuquerque, New Mexico January 23; Houston January 30 and the Southland Conference Indoor Championships in Birmingham, Alabama, Feb. 16.