After tough section win, LCC’s Iliana Downing dominates to take girls State pole vault title

LCC junior Iliana Downing is the 2023 CIF State champion in the pole vault.
LCC junior Iliana Downing is the 2023 CIF State champion in the pole vault.
(Ken Grosse)

What a difference a week can make. In the space of eight days, La Costa Canyon pole vaulter Iliana Downing soared to first place finishes in both the San Diego CIF Championship and the CIF State Championship meets in her specialty. But the scenarios and the emotions could hardly have been more different.

Last Saturday, May 27, at Veterans’ Memorial Stadium in Clovis, the Mavericks’ junior standout cleared five heights without a miss, brushing aside the best of the best in California while claiming the State gold medal at 13-5. That she was unable to navigate what would have been a p.r. in three attempts at 14-3 was relatively inconsequential with the title already in her pocket.

“I was just really happy I won and didn’t really care about the mark,” said the 17-year-old Carlsbad resident. “I knew that I had it won when I cleared 13-1 and the 13-5 vault came together really well.

“I moved up to a bigger, stiffer pole, had a lot of adrenaline and was really moving the pole. I was pretty excited that I won on my mom’s birthday and she was there.” It was actually a bit of a small miracle that Downing was there herself.

Downing, shown here at the San Diego CIF Championships, cleared 13-5 at the State meet.
Downing, shown here at the San Diego CIF Championships, cleared 13-5 at the State meet.
(Ken Grosse)

Unlike the State Meet, the San Diego section triumph was hardly smooth sailing. Downing, the heavy favorite based on the fact that she had been a model of consistency and posted a state-leading mark of 14-0 against Torrey Pines earlier in the season. Surprisingly, she missed her first three attempts at an opening height of 12-3, eliminating her from the competition. The pressure, tension and disbelief in the air prior to the third vault was unmistakable and when Downing hit the bar on her final attempt, her shot at a CIF State crown appeared to have vanished.

But during the regular post-vault pit inspection, officials detected that the standards had been set incorrectly, requiring them to award Downing an additional attempt. In the most intricate of events, a technical detail had opened a door for redemption and Downing charged through it, clearing 12-3 to stay alive and finishing at 13-3 to secure first place and a berth at State.

To her credit, the 17-year-old Downing did not let the “white knuckle” experience affect her going forward and certainly came to Clovis ready to perform, skating miss free through Friday’s prelims in advance of her finals triumph.

“Honestly, after CIF, I was just focused on training, recovery and school,” she said. “This sport can be unpredictable so I try to keep from worrying about that extra stuff.” For Downing its more process than results.

“Going into State, I just wanted to do my best. I’ve always had confidence and don’t think there was much hesitation in my approach.

“I’m kind of 50-50 on in terms of thinking more about winning or getting a good mark. The goal is in the back of my mind but I’m focused on the right poles, the run-up and being in the right position vault-wise. If I do that, the rest takes care of itself.”

Downing says she has “good genes.” Her father was a professional body builder and her mother ran marathons and is still an avid cyclist. She was in competitive soccer up until junior high school when she switched to club volleyball. She played her first two years at La Costa Canyon but by then, the notion of pole vaulting was getting stronger and although she liked volleyball, it was soon in the rearview mirror.

Downing had been involved with track since fourth grade, primarily running events, and was introduced to the pole vault while at an eighth grade hurdles camp at San Dieguito Academy. Not long thereafter, she told her mother she wanted to give it a more serious try.

“I think it just looked really different and was so unique, I knew from the first time I picked up a pole it was something I wanted to do,” said Downing. “My mom’s always thought of me as fearless and I was never scared to vault. It was really exciting, such an adrenaline rush.”

Starting off with basic pole-carrying drills, it was two-to-three months before Downing actually started bending the pole and vaulting. She spent most of the CoVid period learning the craft and competed in her first club meet at 14. From there it’s been a one-way trajectory.

Training year-round, she gets up at 4:20 a.m. every morning for workouts that include lift sessions and interval training on the treadmill. Then there’s school, afternoon rest and homework. Downing typically vaults only twice a week. She’s coached at both club and LCC by former University of Georgia star Kayla Smith.

Planning on competing in college, sporting a 3.8 high school GPA and looking for an all-around school that meets her athletic and academic aspirations, Downing visited 10 potential campuses last year and hopes to have a decision on that part of her future soon.

In the meantime, her summer schedule figures to be full as she prepares for what she hopes will be a memorable senior year. Downing will go to the Nike Outdoor Nationals, June 15-18, in Eugene, OR and return to the University of Oregon venue in July for the USA U-20 meet in July. She says her main summer objective is to “stay in shape, clean up my technique a lot and just stayed dialed in so I can hit the ground running next season.”

Short and long-term goals are plentiful. “I’d really like to break Ashley Callahan’s San Diego section record (14-6),” said Downing. “I’ve got a lot of work to get to that place but want to improve on technique, get on bigger poles, hopefully be jumping high 14s and be running sprint events in track next year.

“A little further down the line, qualifying and going to U20 Worlds in 2024 (Lima, Peru) would be something to shoot for.

“I’m pretty satisfied with what I’ve accomplished so far but believe there’s a lot more out there for me as a pole vaulter. I’m excited about my senior year and what my collegiate path might look like.”