By Jenelyn Russo     5/17/2015

When she was in sixth grade, Kaitlyn Merritt decided to trade in the gymnastics vault for the pole vault, and the Santa Margarita Catholic High School senior has been soaring ever since.

“I think what I love about pole vaulting the most is the intricacies of it…and what a challenge every jump is,” says the former competitive gymnast. “It’s such a challenge to get each aspect of the jump down; the challenge of knowing that I still have room to improve.”

The 18-year-old not only vaults for the Eagles, but is a sprinter and relay team member on the girls’ track team. Merritt is also in her third year as captain, a responsibility that is close to her heart.

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“I think what I will miss the most about representing the Eagles is the family we’ve established,” says Merritt. “I think our main role is being role models for the younger members of the team. It’s really meant a lot to me to be able to grow with the team.”

Santa Margarita’s head track and field coach, Gil Garcia, says that it’s Merritt’s commitment to the team aspect of the sport that makes her a standout leader.

“Many people think track is just an individual sport, but our philosophy has always been ‘the team first, the individual second,’ and Kaitlyn bought into that philosophy from day one,” says Garcia. “She is that rare athlete that coaches wish to have on their team, and she is a leader that every girl on our team looks up to and respects.”

Launching herself time and again over the bar, Merritt has learned that the path to mastering this event is more mental than it is physical.

“I think the mind is more powerful than the body. That’s what holds most pole vaulters back—thinking they can’t do it,” says Merritt. “I think being a pole vaulter has taught me how to deal with all the mental challenges.”

Santa Margarita pole vault coach Mandie Rowell recognizes Merritt’s ability to overcome adversity and the special qualities she brings to the team.

“She is trusted by her teammates and is known to live her life with honesty and integrity,” says Rowell. “She is enthusiastic and passionate about her sport and her teammates respond to her because of that. She is a natural born leader.”

On campus, Merritt serves as a Student Ambassador, and in her spare time, she enjoys playing the guitar and being outdoors with her family. The Trabuco Canyon resident will be taking her pole vaulting skills to Stanford University where she will study for a possible career in public health. She’s looking forward to reaching new heights with her new team.

“It’s a scary event,” says Merritt, “but it’s the most exhilarating event, once you trust your body and just go for your goals.”