'Helmet Girl' won't let concussions, bullies kill her Olympic dream

Pole vaulting isn't her first love, but after concussions drove her out of gymnastics, Canada's Robin Bone is raising the bar and keeping her Olympic dream alive.

Gymnast-turned-pole-vaulter Robin Bone keeps raising the bar

After concussions drove her out of her preferred sport, Robin Bone has found a new passion in the pole vault. (@robinbone/Instagram)

This week, Robin Bone competed in her second World University Games in the women's pole vault competition.

She's a three-time U Sports national champion and record holder in the event.

But pole vaulting wasn't her first love.

"Gymnastics is still my number one passion. Pole vault is a close second but gymnastics still has my heart," Bone says.

The London, Ont., native was forced to walk away from gymnastics after suffering a fifth concussion before the age of 15. She describes the moment as a "really bad break-up," having invested her whole life and so much time in a sport she loved.

Competitor within

While Bone could no longer compete in gymnastics, the competitor within couldn't keep her away from sports.

The 23-year-old was trying out for her high school track and field team in Darien, Conn., when the coach approached Bone and asked her to be one of their pole vaulters.

The fact that the sport involved a vault and sounded like fun was enough for the former gymnast.

She knew it wouldn't be as simple to sell her parents, but they knew they couldn't deny their daughter the opportunity.

"For the first time, they saw some excitement in my eyes since the moment I was told I could no longer do gymnastics," Bone says.

Due to her concussion history, Bone must wear a helmet whenever she competes. (@robinbone/Instagram)

'Helmet Girl'

Bone and her parents went to their doctor and they agreed the she'd be allowed to take up the new sport on one condition — that she wore a helmet when competing.

While it wouldn't guarantee safety from a concussion, the helmet gave Bone a second shot at sports.

But it also subjected her to bullying from competitors.

At one meet, Bone remembers approaching a group of female pole vaulters while in line at a concession stand. She heard them laughing and asked why.

The girls told Bone that they were laughing at the pole vaulter with a helmet.

Of course, Bone was that pole vaulter — she just wasn't wearing her helmet while waiting in line.

"I remember thinking to myself, 'OK, you think you know "Helmet Girl?" Well, I'll show you Robin Bone,' she says.

"I'm not resentful by any means, but it definitely fired me [up] to really dig into my potential. I went on YouTube and watched [pole vault] world-record holders over and over. That same year, I broke the Connecticut state record."

Home away from home

Bone went on to a standout collegiate career at Western University — including five OUA gold medals — embracing the helmet look every step of the way.

She now trains at Altis — one of the most prestigious track and field training hubs — located in Phoenix, Ariz.

Many Olympians and world-class athletes work out there, including Canada's Andre De Grasse.

But Altis isn't just for any athlete. They choose who to recruit, and as much as they're looking for talent, they search just as hard for character.

"The atmosphere is second to none so I'm really happy I was accepted and invited to train out here," Bone says.

The coaching staff is highly regarded.

Bone works with Greg Hull, whose 40 years of coaching have seen him guide Olympic and world champions, including former Canadian pole vault record holder Kelsie Hendry.

Bone is hopeful Hull will take her results to new heights.

"Training with a lot of girls who jump over 4.60 [metres] makes my bar of 4.40, 4.50 seem not so high," Bone says.

"When I committed to coming out here, my coach said to me, 'You have to commit for two years because I have a lot of technical changes I need to make.' Often times when you make those technical changes you have to go down before you can go up again."

Olympic dreams

Bone set a goal of qualifying for Rio 2016 but bowed out at nationals at a height of 3.85 metres — well below her personal best of 4.36.

"When you don't perform to your absolute greatest, you're feeling a bit down. But I don't really focus on it too much," Bone says.

"As soon as it's over, I just move on and focus on the next competition. Of course you want to go to any meet and have a personal best. But no quarterback in the NFL has a perfect game every time and throws for a record number of yards."

The Summer Universiade in Taiwan was Bone's final event of the season, and although she didn't advance to the final this week, she sees it as a building block.

"My biggest step right now is committing to the technical changes that will take me from being the jumper that I am to on the Olympic team and in the hunt for medals," Bone said.

Bone will take a month off before returning to Phoenix, where the long road to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics continues.

"I'm really fortunate that once I stopped gymnastics, I had another chance in something else," she says. "You can't take things for granted and I work hard every single day to make that dream into a goal and a goal into a reality."


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