Jenna Pfeiffer grew up around track and field, so she knew how to speak the language. But when a college coach mentioned the heptathlon while she was on a recruiting visit, Pfeiffer was admittedly stumped.
So she did what most millennials do — she turned to Google.
“I went on a visit at Villanova, and a coach told me, ‘We think maybe if you might come here, we might train you as a (heptathlete).’ And I was like, ‘What’s that?’” Pfeiffer recalled. “I’d heard of the decathlon before, but didn’t really know anything about it. I remember Googling, ‘What events are in the heptathlon?’”
Five years later, Pfeiffer can not only answer that question easily herself, but the Baylor senior ranks as one of the top heptathletes in all of college track and field. This week the former walk-on will attempt to close her career as an All-American after qualifying for the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore.
As a young girl growing up in Bremen, Indiana, Pfeiffer didn’t have to leave her own driveway to encounter a feisty challenge. Her older brother Tyler enjoyed pushing her, and in the process he stoked Jenna’s competitive fire.
“He’s three years older than me. He was always beating up on me,” Pfeiffer said. “We’d go play basketball, and he’d just swat me, swat me, swat me. So I think that kind of got my competitive spirit going. I always wanted to compete with him. I was definitely the kid in PE class who was trying to win everything.”
Pfeiffer tried her hand at every sport, and earned varsity letters in three of them in high school – soccer, basketball and track. On the oval, she served in a jack-of-all-trades role for her small school’s team. She was a regional champion in the high jump, clearing 5-7, and also occasionally helped out in the hurdles, the long jump and the 800.
Unwittingly, Pfeiffer was preparing herself to become a heptathlete — the track team’s version of a smartphone. There’s an app for that? Yep, and there’s an athlete for that, too.
Pfeiffer had a few small-school scholarship offers, but she had her sights set on bigger things. Namely, Baylor, where she had received some academic scholarship money. She talked to BU assistant coach Stacey Smith about joining the team as a walk-on high jumper, though the idea of trying out the multi-events still bounced around in the back of her mind, thanks to that conversation with the Villanova coach.
“At the very first team meeting I ever went to (at Baylor), a week into my freshman year, I stood up and said, ‘I’m Jenna, I’m going to high jump, I might try the multi,’” Pfeiffer remembered. “Then Henry (Vildosola), who is actually one of my coaches now, he was still on the team at that time. He came up and said, ‘You have to try the multi, you can always go back to high jump if you want. You have to at least try it.’
“I remember the first day of practice, it was like, ‘OK, I’m either going to go with Coach Stacey’s group or Coach (Danny) Brabham’s group.’ And I said, ‘OK, why not? We’ll go with Coach Brabham and see how it goes.’ And here we are.”
But one does not transform themselves into a NCAA championship-level decathlete or heptathlete overnight. When she started, Pfeiffer had never even picked up a javelin before. She also had to get past the temptation to devote too much time to any one of the seven different events — which include the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, the 200, the long jump, the javelin toss and the 800.
Not striving for perfection
“With us, we’re touching in so many different areas that we don’t have time to be perfect in everything,” Pfeiffer said. “Which is also hard, because I definitely have been a perfectionist in the past. But I’ve had to get to the point where you have to segregate your time to where it’s most valuable. Not everything is going to be perfect. You just have to work hard day in and day out, and you have to love it.”
Flexibility is a prerequisite as well. Pfeiffer has had to learn to adapt, to evolve. Coming out of high school, Pfeiffer had always jumped off of her left foot in the high jump. But by her junior year at Baylor, she found herself steadily experiencing issues with her left heel.
Thankfully, she’d always been a little ambidextrous. So she tried out jumping off her right foot, coming at the bar from the complete opposite direction. On her very first attempt, she cleared 5-7. So, now she might switch off meet to meet, even jump to jump.
“That used to be the event going into it where I’m like, ‘OK, this is my event, this is where I’m going to score points.’ Now coming into high jump, it’s like, ‘What side am I going to jump off of today?’ High jump has been a roller coaster,” Pfeiffer said.
But she has grown, she has developed. She has made incremental improvement over the years, from garnering all-conference honors by her sophomore year to setting the school record in the heptathlon and the javelin at the Big 12 meet this year.
She also was voted as a team captain her junior year — which she called “one of my all-time highlights” — and shed her walk-on status by receiving money for books and a bit of scholarship money as time progressed.
“It’s fun to see that I’m just an important part of this team,” Pfeiffer said. “Because coming in, there were no expectations. I wasn’t expected to perform. I wasn’t expected to go to nationals. So now, I’m kind of expected to do those things, and I like it. It puts a little bit of pressure on you, and I think I handle pressure pretty well.”
On the same day she set the school record at the Big 12 meet, Pfeiffer earned her master’s degree in accounting from Baylor, graduating with a 3.98 average. Once the NCAA meet is complete, she’ll set off for a new job in Denver, Colo.
Through the years Baylor coach Todd Harbour has had other walk-ons step on campus and help out in various events. Vildosola, who now serves as a volunteer assistant coach, followed that path in the decathlon.
But you can’t take a Jenna Pfeiffer for granted, Harbour said.
“In the hep and the dec it takes time to develop an athlete,” Harbour said. “A lot of them come out of high school with good marks, maybe not great marks, so we’re fortunate that Jenna thought enough about Baylor to come here, give us a chance.
“She’s been a captain, been a great leader on our team. She’s just been very much an inspiration to a lot of our athletes, how hard she’s had to work to get to where she’s at. She has put herself in a position now to be an All-American and finish on a great note in her career.”