Sunday Conversation: Polson’s Melinda Withrow transitioning from professional athlete to teacher, coach

POLSON — Melinda (Owen) Withrow was a state champion pole vaulter during her time at Polson High School, claiming the 2003 State A girls title. Withrow holds Polson records in both the pole vault and javelin.

Withrow then attended the University of Idaho, where she flourished. She still holds the school records in the pole vault, both indoor and outdoor. She won six individual Western Athletic Conference championships during her tenure with the Vandals — three indoor and three outdoor — and finished fifth at the 2007 NCAA Indoor Championships. Withrow also competed in three United State Olympic Track and Field Trials.

Withrow then spent time at the University of Montana as the pole vault coach before moving home to Polson to teach special education and coach the high school track and field team. She recently sat down with MTN Sports to talk about her days as a professional athlete and her transition into teaching and coaching.

MTN Sports: You were a pole vaulter at Polson, you won a state championship in 2003, but you didn’t place in the state meets before that. Did you have some injuries over that time?

Melinda Withrow: “I did. I was injured most of my high school career. I had a really bad ankle fracture when I was in the eighth grade that I ended up having a surgery on at the end of my eighth-grade year, and it kind of ran into creating a lot of injuries along my high school way. Wish I would have done a little more rehab. I try to do that with kids now, make sure that’s an important thing. Now we have a trainer at the school, which we didn’t have when I was here. That’s an awesome addition.”

MTN: You parlayed that performance at state into a successful career at Idaho. You won three consecutive indoor conference titles in the pole vault, you went to nationals both outdoor and indoor, but it kind of ended the same way that your high school career had gone. You had an injury there and that kind of slowed down the placing at outdoor nationals.

Withrow: “I actually, my senior year with outdoor nationals, it was outdoor regionals. I was ranked No. 1 in the nation going into it. I just had one of those days that everything was going amazing, and we just didn’t quite have the poles I needed. We had been used to Idaho weather, we were in California. It was on a little bit of a runway, it was awesome because it was downhill, but things just did not line up for me that day. It was a little heartbreaking. The one nice part was I had the Olympic trials still to go to, so that really took some of the pain out of it. I ended up making my goal that I would beat any collegiate athlete at the Olympic trials. I was able to accomplish that, which made it feel a little less painful, but it was hard.”

MTN: How many times did you go through the Olympic trials?

Withrow: “I have done three Olympic trials.”

MTN: Obviously the last one, what was that, 2016? You no-heighted there. Talk about just being able to, you place at nationals, and then the lows of no-heighting at the Olympic trials.

Withrow: “Highs and lows of sport are just that – really high and really low. I just seemed to always have a pretty major injury on the year leading into the Olympic trials. The year before the 2012 I had an ankle surgery. Then leading into 2016, I had suffered from a back injury that then it would shut the nerves off all down my left leg. In the trials in the semifinals, I hit it wrong and my whole leg shut down and they couldn’t get it fired back up the next day.”

MTN: What’s the process for you as an athlete when something like that happens in the middle of competition?

Withrow: “Just trying to get through it as best you can. For that, I couldn’t feel that leg, so it made it really hard to trust. When you’re running as fast as you can and then trying to fling yourself into the air, it can get really scary when you don’t trust your run. That’s just a hard thing at that point. Everything is so particular and you’re meticulous about it. It made it really difficult, clearly.”

MTN: After your time at Idaho, you turned that successful college career into a coaching career at the University of Montana. How did that come about?

Withrow: “I was lucky enough that when I moved back to Missoula the year after the 2012 trials, I had been away from my husband. We were at that time actually planning a wedding. I was sick of being long distance. I decided for that year to come back. I actually thought I was going to stop competing all together. Just with that ankle injury – I kept breaking my ankle every time I’d run, and I was kind of over it. When I came back here, the doctors I was working with at the Olympic training center did one more round of, it’s called bone marrow aspartame, it was really successful. As I healed from that injury, I had moved back and the U of M coach had been one that I would jump with when I’d come home. He had a position open, so I jumped on the opportunity. They were wonderful. I got to still train and then help kids and help the team. I did some of the manager ops stuff, and I love that type of thing. So I really enjoyed my time.”

MTN: How were you able to find time for yourself training and then be able to use what you’d been learning and transfer that to the kids?

Withrow: “It does get hard. In order to give of yourself as a coach, it takes a lot of energy out of you. Where I came from, the Olympic training center, really only focusing on myself all day, everything down to meals are prepared for you. You have very little energy output besides your practice. And then moving and helping kids at the youth, there’s something I found such a passion. I was so enthusiastic about helping kids. And then you’d see the things you were telling them make a difference. I also got energy from that. The other thing is, I noticed how much it helped my own vault trying to explain things to somebody else. When I had to break it down like, OK, what do I do to make my jump look like that or to make this happen? And really having to stop and figure it out and visualize it, all of that was really helpful for me and it transferred over to my own jumps.”

MTN: Was it during that time when you were coaching at Montana that you found the passion for coaching?

Withrow: “Definitely. I think that’s something, I would like to say, that I was born with. I come from a coaching family, it was wrestling for everyone else. I actually just found out last week, my dad said when he first started coaching that he coached track and he coached the pole vault, and he never told me that. It was interesting. He coached wrestling, football. I grew up around that. All of his six brothers all coach. Every time we had any family reunion, it was like a coaching clinic with wrestling. At the same point, that was what I was most familiar with was coaching and teaching. So I definitely found my way in that realm. It’s something that when you get bit by that bug or have it in you, I get so much out of coaching that it just seemed in my nature. I don’t know, there was never a question about it.”

MTN: Now you’re teaching special education, coaching track here at Polson. Obviously, you didn’t envision yourself in this spot about five years ago.

Withrow: “I always said I will never coach high school and I will never teach at the high school level. I thought they’re just brats. There was no way I wanted anything to do with high schoolers. And then this opportunity was one, there was just no way I could turn it down. I thought, ‘OK, I’ll try it for a year. It will really show me if special ed is what I wanted to go in to, because my background was elementary ed.’ Once I started, I just fell in love with it. And then you build these relationships with kids and I care about them so much and want to see them succeed. It’s very much like coaching. I’m coaching these kids to hopefully be successful adults. I love it. Again, highs and lows, for sure, but I have great kids. In anyone you find really positive traits, and that’s the same with kids. They might come off standoffish or have some attitudes, but at their core they’re all just great kids and they all want to be successful.”

MTN: Whether it’s through education or athletics out there on the track, how much do you just enjoy giving back to the community and the kids in the community?

Withrow: “I think that giving is selfish, truly, at the end of it. You never give without getting something back. For me, my bucket is filled by all these kids and what they do, and when they have success, I feel successful with them. It’s definitely a two-way street. I love giving because of what you get back. Then you see what you do raising the community up, really getting to take the stuff that I’ve learned from my travels all over the world and bring them back to my hometown has been like a dream come true. I just want to keep building our community.”

MTN: You obviously have Flathead Lake right next door here. How are you in the water sports?

Withrow: “I really haven’t done a lot of water sports probably since college. I wasn’t really allowed to do water sports while I was training. It was strongly suggested that I did not do them. I haven’t even tried it again. I was a pole vaulter, I love extreme, so I still sneak down to the cliffs and jump every once in a while. I think the one down here on Flathead is somewhere around 80 feet. This summer I promised my husband it would be my last time, because I think I’m getting a little old for it, but there’s something about jumping. That’s the part of the water, I love being on it. I had a camp here this summer where we did light on the track, heavy on the life skills. So we did paddleboard yoga, we teamed up with the biological station on Flathead Lake to do a sucky dip in, so looking at the clarity of the water. And I though it’s so neat. Where else in the world do you have the opportunity to bring kids and teach them track, which obviously I’m very passionate about, but then they get to go play on Flathead Lake? We went and hiked and did a nature hike. They got to talk with the tribe and learn things about the hike. Where we’re from, there’s nowhere else in the world like it.”

MTN: You mentioned traveling all over the world. You’ve obviously had some good food out there. What’s the best food, best meal that you’ve had in your time traveling?

Withrow: “I think what sticks out in my mind, I’ve had a lot of really good food, but I think with anything it’s probably the collection of the entire memory. For me, in Italy we stayed in these, they call them hotels, but essentially it was a little bed and breakfast with this little old lady that would get up and cook us food every morning. The townswomen would cook us dinner, and it was just authentic, Italian cuisines that to this day, I don’t even know. It could have been terrible food, but I think it was just all of it that year. Getting served by these sweet, little ladies, it was such a neat thing. That’s the one I’ve always stuck to that was my favorite.”

MTN: What aspect of that professional, athletic life do you really miss the most?

Withrow: “Being selfish? No. It’s just such a difference, where, as a professional athlete, you’re the moneymaker, your body. Everything is about you being healthy, you eating right, it’s you, you, you, you. It’s quite a transition to go, like now, everything’s really about the kids. It’s a transition, good or bad, that’s a hard one. And the travel. As much as I was ready to be stationary for a while, I do miss traveling with friends. We got to see some of the neatest places and meet some of the neatest people, and I did that with really awesome teammates and traveling partners. It’s hard to explain, but really that journey part, it’s a cliché, but the journey is worth all of it. I think almost any athlete that I hung out with would say the same. That’s what we talk about. When they would ask me, ‘What do you miss the most being retired? We’re nervous, what comes next?’ I’m like, really, life is awesome. Next step, you get to focus on different things. I miss the girl time, where we sat and I felt like talked about really important issues with all different parts of the world and people from all over the world. That’s where I think that broadening your horizons, you really learn things that might be significant here and you’re like goodness, but you guys are dealing with this in Norway or Germany. I just loved talking with other people about their trials and highs and lows.”

MTN: You’re settled in Polson for now. What do the next 10-20 years look like?

Withrow: “I feel like probably Groundhog’s Day. Like this. I hope to keep building this program. I believe so strongly in what track and field can do for character, and that’s what is so important to me out there. It’s not just titles, it’s not getting kids to be just the best to be the best, it’s learning the work ethic to get you there, the things that I know will carry on for them in all that they do after this, because that, to me, is the most important thing is the character building you get out of doing hard things and having success and learning how to deal with failure. Continuing on that journey on the next 10-20 years. And getting better at it I hope; I still have a lot to learn.”

Alec Bofinger

Alec Bofinger

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