Westmont’s Chena Underhill achieves great heights as pole vaulter and student
Chena Underhill knows life isn’t perfect, especially when your pole-vaulting career is grounded by a pandemic.
But the NAIA All-American came close — especially in the classroom.
Her near-flawless grade-point average of 3.97 as a political science and data analytics major tops a group of seven Westmont College athletes who have been selected to the CoSIDA Academic All-District 4 Team in their sports.
“Chena Underhill is the consummate student and athlete,” head coach Russell Smelley said. “She helped everyone enjoy being in the moment. Her ray of sunshine made everyone’s life brighter.”
The other six to earn All-District Academic honors include three of Underhill’s teammates in the track and cross country category: Charlotte Combrink (3.92 GPA), Jack Dickinson (3.87) and Michael Oldach (3.77). Also honored were tennis player Emily Peterson (3.89), volleyball All-American Cassidy Rea (3.92), and soccer star Maddi Berthoud (3.84).
Underhill said one of the “admonitions” that Smelley would deliver each Monday — “Have high aspirations and moderate expectations” — resonated with her when she learned last March that the rest of her senior season was being canceled over concerns about the coronavirus.
“Honestly, that hurts,” she said. “Being brave enough to care about something and really commit to it opens us up to pain and disappointment. That’s why I was leery of goals in the first place.
“But I’m going to keep on setting goals even though my athletic career is over. The process of pursuing goals is where good living and growing happens. The results may not be what I envisioned, but the living along the way will be worthwhile. So here’s to living with high aspirations and moderate expectations.”
Underhill did win NAIA All-America honors four times — thrice at the Indoor Championships and once at the Outdoor Nationals. But she admits that she “failed spectacularly” during her first trip to the Outdoor Nationals during her freshman year of 2017.
“I actually wrote down in my little notebook a height that I intended to jump,” she said. “This act terrified me a little bit. Because I set a goal, there was a possibility that I might not achieve it.”
She wound up missing on all three of her attempts at the opening height.
Assistant coach Tom FitzSimons said he offered her consolation by saying, “I’m proud of you for your freshman year, there’s more to come.”
“But what Chena said next was, ‘It’s OK Tom, we have three years to do better,’” he added. “She did exactly that. She took every moment, every practice, every competition as a moment to get better, as a moment to lead her teammates, and just truly enjoyed the entire process.
“That moment on, I knew Chena was going to be a special person to coach, and she didn’t disappoint, all the way until her final meet.”
During her sophomore year, just before the Indoor Nationals, Underhill said FitzSimons “put a bug into my ear that I could finish in the top five.”
“I came in ranked in the bottom third of contenders but actually finished in the top five — precisely in fifth place — and got a PR,” she said. “That was a very happy day.”
Her vault of 3.75 meters (12 feet, 3½ inches) ranks second in school history to the mark of 3.8 meters (12-5½) that Dana Bowers set during her senior season of 2019. Underhill came into this season determined to break that mark.
“I’ve been learning to set goals in athletics and earnestly pursue them,” she explained. “This process is scary because unlike school, I can’t control the outcome. All I can control is my input and my attitude.”
She came close on March 6 at the NAIA Indoor Nationals in Brookings, S.D.
“Chena had a clean scoresheet all the way until the bar got to a height just slightly over her PR,” FitzSimons said. “It’s how you hope it will happen, but never the way it occurs — but Chena did just that. She put pressure on the rest of the competition, stayed calm and executed.”
But her season — and career — were abruptly ended the following week when the NAIA canceled the rest of spring sports.
“Chena was always a positive and respectful athlete and competitor,” FitzSimons said. “I was very fortunate to watch her blossom into a highly effective leader on the Westmont track team and be a poised competitor in times when it mattered the most.
“She will be impossible to replace — and that’s with zero exaggeration at all.”
He did get one more chance to see his senior pole vaulter perform when he tuned into ESPN’s Sports Center and watched the “Senior Night” segment honoring those who had lost their final season of competition.
“Scott Van Pelt was doing an intro for a few teams, and we could see (video of) Chena on the side, coming down in a Westmont Warriors uniform and pole vaulting,” FitzSimons said.
“And yes, I’d much rather be coaching Chena for this spring season,” he added. “But if we’re going to lose a season, I guess one way to keep bringing the positive is to get on Sports Center in a Westmont Warriors uniform.”