Ashley Petersen visited Wichita State for the first time in 2011. Despite record heat in July, she returned to New York and told her parents she found her college.
“My mom said, ‘No, you’re looking at more schools; I want you closer to home,” Petersen said. “My dad said, ‘OK, it could be a possibility, but let’s keep looking.’ ”
Three years later, the Petersen family is driving around Oregon, entertaining Ashley with a trip to the coast while she prepares to compete in the high jump at the NCAA championships in Eugene on Saturday.
For Wichita State, of course. A school she hadn’t heard of until the day she arrived to compete in the 2011 Junior Olympics.
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“I tried talking her out of it,” Ellen Petersen said. “She’s very strong-minded.”
Ashley Petersen, from Allegany, N.Y., never worried about traveling halfway across the country for school. She liked WSU track and field coach Steve Rainbolt’s expertise in the high jump. She liked her future teammates. She visited one other school, Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire, and decided on WSU.
“I was the child in the family who would go out and do new things,” she said. “I do all the things that scare my mom.”
Her mom describes her as the family daredevil. Her daughter bungee jumps. She rides a zip-line. She wants to sky dive. She went whitewater rafting for the first time and the boat tipped and sent her into the water and briefly trapped her under tree branches on the bank.
“The person she is, she went back and did it again,” Ellen Petersen said. “She has that drive.”
That drive turned a multi-sport athlete into an NCAA qualifier as a sophomore and a two-time Missouri Valley Conference champion. She jumped 5 feet, 9 3/4 inches to qualify for the national meet, surviving a jump-off with six others at the NCAA West regional in Fayetteville, Ark., in May.
Petersen left the area after her final attempt to join her teammates in the stands. She needed to get her left knee taped again and prepare to compete again at 5-9 3/4 — after missing that height three times.
“She bounces right over that sucker,” Rainbolt said. “That was a clutch performance. That is a difficult stage to compete on.”
Petersen came to WSU as an all-around athlete who learned high jumping largely on her own. She loved soccer and considered playing that sport in college. She played baseball from age 7 to 13 and fractured her right knee sliding into home.
In high school, she tried the high jump and made it her sport.
“She just had a knack for it,” Ellen Petersen said.
Her dad, Daniel, learned the event to help. She studied videos on YouTube and bought VHS tapes of Olympians. She went to camps with her father.
“It’s hard to find a technical coach for the high jump,” she said.
Under Rainbolt’s instruction, she quickly improved, jumping 5-4 at the Junior Olympics and hitting 5-10 as a freshman. She learned the importance of each step leading up to the jump, starting her curve with the fifth step, and use the last three to set up her move up and over the bar.
“I never really knew how a high-jump approach was supposed to be,” she said.
Petersen is WSU’s lone qualifier for the national meet. Her goal is to place in the top 10 and beat her personal-best of 5-10 1/2. She says she’s been close to clearing 5-11. She practiced with two members of WSU’s men’s team this week to combat the loneliness that bothers national qualifiers after most of team is gone for the summer. She makes her first appearance in the national meet and faces a field in which the top competitors easily clear the 6-foot mark.
“I know it’s going to be 10 times different,” she said. “If I can go out there and be who I am, I know I can compete with them.”