Road To The Olympic Games

Anicka Newell excited to compete at Toronto's fan-friendly Track & Field Takeover

Former gymnast Anicka Newell is Canada's second-ranked women's vaulter behind Alysha Newman, and on Tuesday she competed at the Track & Field Takeover in downtown Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square, a unique event that borrows from similar "street meets" in Europe.

Canada’s No. 2-ranked pole vaulter placed 12th at last year's world championships

Anicka Newell, Canada's second-ranked women's vaulter behind Alysha Newman, competed at the Track & Field Takeover in downtown Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square on Tuesday. The 24-year-old boasts a best jump of 4.65 metres. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images/File)

​When a back injury ended Anicka Newell's gymnastics career, she missed the thrill of flying through the air.

She found it in pole vault.

The 24-year-old makes a living hurling herself up and over a bar more than four-and-a-half metres high — or the height of an average full-grown female giraffe.

"For me, pole vaulting is the closest feeling to flying," Newell said. "I love that."

Newell is Canada's second-ranked women's vaulter behind Alysha Newman, and on Tuesday she competed at the Track & Field Takeover in downtown Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square, a unique event that borrows from similar "street meets" in Europe. Newman was scheduled to compete but is battling a knee injury.

Both Newell and Newman saw serious back injuries end their gymnastics careers. Gymnastics is a common crossover sport to pole vault, due partly to a gymnast's sense of body awareness and co-ordination.

I have more family that lives in Canada than I do in the states, and I really have a lot of love for that country.— Canadian pole vaulter Anicka Newell on spending time as a child living in Saskatoon

Newell's high school coach, who wasn't a pole vault coach, heard she'd been a gymnast and suggested she try vaulting.

"Basically he handed me a stick that was one of the boys' poles, and said 'OK, grab it and jump over that other stick over there,"' Newell said laughing. "I'm like 'OK.' I tried and it was a lot of fun.

"I watched some videos at home, and tried to kind of teach myself, and ended up really liking it, and so went to a couple of summer camps in Texas, I found some good coaches, and it went from there."

Newell jumped at Texas State University and then turned pro. With a mom and grandma who grew up in Saskatoon, the Texan chose to compete internationally for Canada.

"I have more family that lives in Canada than I do in the states, and I really have a lot of love for that country, I have really good memories from growing up, so it was definitely not a difficult decision for me," she said.

Personal best of 4.65m

Growing up, Newell spent several weeks in the summer and winter in Saskatoon.

"Cold. So cold. The snow, oh my goodness," she said.

Newell boasts a best jump of 4.65 metres — Newman's Canadian record is 4.75. Both vaulters qualified for the final at last year's world championships, Newman finishing seventh, and Newell 12th.

With Toronto's city hall providing the backdrop, Tuesday's Track & Field Takeover is an endeavour to showcase the sport, with 60-metre men's and women's races, men's high jump, and women's pole vault. Calgary's Olympic Plaza will host a similar event on June 23.

"We're not selling tickets to these things, this isn't a revenue generation thing, it really is just about putting the sport in places where there's already a whole bunch of people so more people can see our sport and see our athletes," said Mathieu Gentes, Athletics Canada's CEO.

"Putting our athletes in Nathan Phillips Square, the way it's set up, you're leaning on the barricade and you can practically reach out and touch [athletes] as they're jumping, so it's really intimate, and allows for interaction with the fans and the athletes."

The events are IAAF certified, so results count, making it more than just a showcase.

Street events all the rage in Europe

Three-time Olympic medallist Andre De Grasse was there but didn't compete as he continues his comeback from last summer's hamstring injury. Newman was also on hand.

Street events are popular in Europe. Brussels hosts a shot put competition in its lovely Grand Place square. The world's best pole vaulters compete annually in Zurich's busy Main Station.

"I've been in a lot of [street events], they're so much fun," said Newell, who'll be easy to spot with her bright pink hair and large mermaid tattoo down her right side. "When you're in a stadium on the track, it's a little bit more serious and you don't have the music, and it's a big crowd, so it can bit a little more quiet and lonely, versus when you're on a runway [close up], people come up and they're really loud and they usually have a DJ that's pumping really loud music, so it's a hugely different atmosphere."

Gentes said the experience will be more viewer friendly than the traditional big-stadium track meet, where events happen concurrently and it's sometimes tough to follow. Plus, fans can get a better sense of the athleticism.

"You lose that if you're in a big stadium or you're watching it on TV," he said. "If you're standing right there and these women are running down the vault runway, and then they're jumping in the air off that stick, you're like 'What?!' It's so much more impressive.

"Same thing with sprinters who are sprinting right in front of you, and you can feel the wind as they go by. It's like going to a hockey game and the difference between sitting at the boards and sitting way up in the nosebleeds."

Gentes said it's the first of many similar events they hope to host.

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