There's No Limiting Boyne City Vaulter

May 4, 2018

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

BOYNE CITY – Anna Harmeling is a smart, multi-talented, grounded 18-year-old.

Well, grounded except when she’s tracking her speed down the runway, then hurtling her 5-foot-5 frame into the air to clear a bar in the pole vault.

It’s an event in which she’s become quite accomplished. In a meet last Thursday at Harbor Springs, the Boyne City senior broke her own school record three times, clearing 11-6, 11-9 and finally 12 feet.

Harmeling is now the fourth vaulter in the state, and the first in Lower Peninsula Division 3, to clear 12 feet this weather-abbreviated season, according to

“Going for four PRs in a day is tough – she almost had 12-4,” Ramblers pole vault coach Andy Bryant said. “It’s an emotional rollercoaster. You’re celebrating one jump, but then you have to quickly re-focus for the next.”

That breakout afternoon was a confidence builder for Harmeling, who admittedly has struggled adjusting to a bigger 13-foot pole. She went 11-1 a year ago to break Katie Martin’s school record, but then had trouble finishing jumps and exceeding that height, including during the indoor season, as she tried to transition to the new pole.

“I was stuck there for almost a year,” she said.

Then, the Ram Scram at Harbor Springs happened.

“She’s finally getting comfortable with the longer pole,” head coach Andy Place said. “We’re excited for her. It’s been an adjustment. You need a longer pole to go higher, but you have to adjust your steps, and when to bend the pole. There’s a technique to it.”

Even at Harbor Springs, Harmeling reverted to her old pole to clear 10-6.

“Then, (Bryant) said, ‘OK, you’re going back to the new pole,’” Anna’s mother Andrea said. “It just clicked for her after that.”

“I had to apologize to Anna afterwards,” Bryant said. “I didn’t celebrate that much when she went 11-6 and 11-9 because I knew she was going to make 12.

“I told her when she changed (poles) she had to be patient. The timing is different. It’s hard to jump from one pole to another. But I knew once she started to get it down, the heights would come - and it finally happened. It’s a lot of stress off her shoulders now. She knows she can do it. Now, it’s working on the technical things that college vaulters work on.”

Like form.

Harmeling said with better technique she could have cleared 12-4 that day.

“I had the height, but I need to work on tightening my form to keep pushing that record up,” she said.

How high can she jump? She doesn’t know.

“I don’t know what my limits are,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve reached my peak. There’s more to learn. And I’m going to keep trying until I hit those limits, which is hopefully never.”

It’s been an interesting journey for the Stanford-bound Harmeling – and Bryant, who recruited her as a freshman.

Since few athletes gravitate to pole vaulting, Bryant, a science teacher at the high school, looks for students who are athletic and coachable.

This was an exception: Harmeling was not an athlete.

But Bryant, who had her in class, saw potential.

“Physically, I probably wouldn’t have approached her,” he said. “She was a teeny little freshman who had never played sports. But I saw her determination in the classroom, how she attacked her academics. I thought let’s give this a try. She’s a clean slate. She has no bad habits (from playing other sports).”

Bryant, who has been coaching the sport 20-plus years, had to not only convince Anna, but her parents Mike and Andrea, too.

“We went to a parent-teacher conference and met with the science teacher,” Andrea recalled. “My husband and I are doctors, so we’re science people. We were excited about the conference. Andy Bryant was her science teacher. When we walked in he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, she’s good. She’s fine with science. Now, has she chosen a sport?’ My husband and I looked at him and said we’re not really sports people. I said we think of math as a sport.”

“That’s part of why Anna wanted to try it – to prove to us math wasn’t the only sport,” added Mike, laughing.

“(Bryant) said he thought she would be really good at pole vaulting. It sounded interesting, so we said, ‘Sure, why not, let her try.’”

Pole vaulting is not an easy event to learn. Anna quickly found that out.

Boyne City has a vault box in its gymnasium floor so vaulters can work on their craft during the offseason. Training sessions typically draw vaulters from across the region, who come to train with Bryant, a former vaulter at Central Michigan University.

It’s also a testing ground for new vaulters to see if they will like it before spring practice begins.

Harmeling, however, had research to do first.

“I had to look it up online and watch a video,” she acknowledged. “I didn’t understand the concept. That first day wasn’t good at all. I had no idea what I was doing. I was terrified trying my first jump. But, I thought, I can’t end it on a bad day. I, at least, have to do well enough before I quit.”

Well enough was good enough for Bryant.

“That first practice I ran her through some preliminary drills, and she just floored me,” he said. “I remember telling my wife I haven’t been this excited about a kid in a long time. She’s not only coachable, she’s smart.

“When you meet her, you can see that determination in her eyes. I could tell the first week of school (her freshman year). She is a kid who will find a way to get more out of an assignment, more out of a question, than you intended. You ask any teacher and they’ll say she challenges you in a good way. You put something in front of her and she’ll make it better. She’s always pushing that limit. That’s the quality I zeroed in on.”

Harmeling tackled pole vaulting like she does her classwork – with a vengeance. If she wasn’t practicing or working on plyometrics, she was in the weight room gaining strength.

“A lot of young athletes today want the quick hit,” Bryant said. “They want to be No. 1 with minimal work. It’s so refreshing to see a kid work her tail off to reach her goals. In season, out of season, she’s there. Now, she has a great chance to win at the state meet.”

Harmeling finished fourth at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals the last two years.

It took one year to make her way on to Bryant’s classroom wall, where he posts pictures of vaulters. He started with collegiate and world class vaulters, but he’s gradually replaced those with his own jumpers. The standards: Boys must jump at least 12 feet, girls 10.

“He told me, ‘If you jump high, I’ll put your picture up here, but you have to work hard,” Harmeling said.

Bryant started the board to attract interest in the discipline.

“Kids look at the wall and begin to understand what it’s all about,” he said. “Then they’ll say, ‘What’s the story here?’ That’s the hook. That’s when I say, ‘Want to try it?”

Today, Harmeling, a team leader, owns the school record that Martin, a 2004 MHSAA champion, had previously set at 11 feet.

“I thought that record would stand for a while, and it did,” Bryant said. “But as soon as I saw Anna as a freshman I remember telling her parents when they were trying to understand what pole vaulting was about that if Anna doesn’t challenge for a state title, there’s something wrong with my program. That’s the kind of kid she is. If you want to know how good your program is, you put Anna through it, and you’ll find out because this kid does everything you ask.”

And more.

Harmeling is also the lead runner on the 400 relay, and Tuesday in the Boyne City Invitational she tried the long jump for the first time after the pole vault was cancelled due to strong winds.

“She has never long jumped and had not practiced it,” Place said. “She used her pole vault approach … and won the event with a jump of 15-6, which makes her one of Boyne City’s top four jumpers ever. A 15-9 is the MHSAA state qualifying mark in Division 3, so after some practice we may have her jump again.”

Off the track, Harmeling, who carries a 4.048 grade points average, excels in other curriculars, too. She was the technical director for the Rambler Sports Network, which broadcasts football, basketball and volleyball games online. She was a section leader for the Rambler Rowdies, one of three finalists for the MHSAA Battle of the Fans VII championship. She was a state champion in a DECA business competition that qualified her for the international career development conference. And she plays stand-up bass in the family band that performs around the area.

“That’s kind of who she is,” Andrea said. “She’s not afraid to try new things – and when she does she goes all out. It’s been fun to watch. We would not have predicted any of these things for her when she started high school. She starts them, loves them and she’s good at them.”

That’s what happened when she needed to pick up some arts credits and came across a TV production class.

Bryant is a broadcaster during basketball season and works closely with Harmeling.

“She sits in the truck with all the TVs and camera angles (usually four cameras) coming into that feed, and she is the one picking out the camera shot, talking in my ear when to go to replay, when to go to commercial. She’s coaching me.

“I told her teacher, if you take her, she’ll be running this thing in a year. And she was.”

“I loved it,” Harmeling said. “I’m still part of the program now. I’m helping edit a final senior year video. It’s such an interesting platform to be part of because it’s so high-paced. I got to work with great people. It’s so interesting to learn the people side – figure out what the viewer wants to see, how things should be visually organized – and the technical side of programming. It’s like a puzzle.’

As for the family band, Mike is a banjo player in the Horton Creek Bluegrass Band. He also plays in the family band with Anna (stand-up bass), Katie (fiddle), Megan (guitar) and Ben (guitar).

Katie, a junior, and Megan, a freshman, play on the Ramblers soccer team. Ben, a seventh-grader, also plays soccer.

Anna, after posting a 1550 out of 1600 on the SAT, is off to Stanford in the fall. She also was accepted at Harvard. The Harmelings visited Stanford in February.

“I loved the people, the campus, the academics,” Anna said. “It was amazing. It became my dream school.”

Plus, it had something Harvard couldn’t offer in the winter – warm weather.

Harmeling has touched base with the Stanford track coaches about the possibility of walking on. That didn’t seem too promising until she cleared 12 feet last week.

“They told her to keep them posted so when she popped 12 one of the first things she said is, ‘I’ve got to send the Stanford coach an e-mail,’” Bryant said. “I don’t know if there’s a coach in the country that wouldn’t take a 12-foot walk-on.”

If it happens, it would be awesome, Harmeling said. If not, academics will keep her busy and she’s interested in contacting the school’s broadcasting program, too.

“I would love to work in sports broadcasting,” she said.

She’s also interested in international business.

There’s so much in the air right now, including how high she can go in the pole vault.

“Fingers crossed at this point,” she said. “I’m just trying to have fun and see how high I can go and not put any number in my head I have to reach.”

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Boyne City’s Anna Harmeling prepares to begin her pole vault approach. (Middle) Harmeling clears the bar during a meet. (Below) Harmeling points to her spot on coach Andy Bryant’s board of honored pole vaulters. (Photos courtesy of Anna Harmeling.)

VIDEO: Boyne City’s Anna Harmeling clears 12 feet for the first time during a meet April 26 at Harbor Springs. (Video courtesy of Anna Harmeling.)

East Kentwood Friends Continuing to Excel as NCAA Champ, Pro Soccer Keeper

By Steve Vedder
Special for

August 8, 2022

Maia Perez and Gabriela Leon saw it coming.

In fact, the two 2017 East Kentwood all-staters each predicted remarkable post-high school success for each other long before graduation.

Perez was a four-year letterwinner as a soccer goalkeeper who led the Falcons to the Division 1 Semifinals as a sophomore and now plays professionally in Los Angeles. Leon, an all-state pole vaulter in high school, recently became University of Louisville's first NCAA champion in that event.

The two say the success doesn't come as a surprise to either, that part of that success can be explained because they continually pushed each other athletically at East Kentwood.

"Obviously there are a lot of good athletes at East Kentwood, and she was one of those amazing athletes," Perez said of Leon. "When she accomplished something, I wanted to do something big, too. I was all-state in soccer, she was all-state in track, and it was nice to have someone push you, even on days when you didn't feel like being pushed."

Leon credits Perez for helping her grasp the difference between toiling as an ordinary athlete and rising to an elite status as early as the ninth grade.

"When you see high-caliber athletes in the state finals, I think you see the struggles that others don't see," Leon said. "I saw what she was doing, and I learned from that. I learned, and I think she did too, that you have to work hard to be good, to achieve your goals. There is definitely mutual respect between us."

East Kentwood track & fieldThe two met as freshmen and quickly became friends. They originally had soccer in common as both played junior varsity as freshmen before Perez was promoted to varsity later that spring. The teammates began hanging out together off the field, be it at the beach or while taking the school's advanced physical education class together. By the time they were sophomores, however, it had become apparent that Perez's future – despite being a good basketball player – would remain in soccer, while Leon – who had also lettered in volleyball and cross country – narrowed her focus to track.

Both excelled after leaving East Kentwood. Leon had earned her first top-eight MHSAA Finals places as a sophomore, and as a senior placed fourth in pole vault, third in long jump and ran on the fourth-place 400 relay and third-place 1,600 relay as East Kentwood finished third in Lower Peninsula Division 1. Her high school personal records were 13 feet in pole vault and 18-11 in long jump (with a wind-aided 19-7). She broke Louisville's indoor and outdoor records in the pole vault as a sophomore and never looked back. She won the 2022 NCAA outdoor championship in June with a jump of 15-feet, one inch (4.6 meters) while becoming just the fourth collegian ever to amass three clearances over 4.6 meters.

Perez was a three-time Ottawa-Kent Conference Red soccer pick in high school who helped the Falcons in 2015 to their best postseason finish, when they lost to 1-0 in a Semifinal to eventual Division 1 champ Saline. She went on to play at University of Hartford after attracting interest from other programs including Western Michigan, Coastal Carolina and Pittsburgh. She wound up playing every minute of all 37 of her starts as a sophomore and junior while missing just 45 minutes over 19 games as a freshman. COVID-19 wiped out the program's season when Perez was a senior. Still, she is eighth on the school's all-time saves list with 206 while ranking 10th in shutouts with 12.

Following college, Perez was signed by the Los Angeles-based Angel City FC of the National Women’s Soccer League. While she wasn't drafted by any NWSL club, Perez impressed coaches enough during a tryout to land a spot on the team's "Discovery List" as the youngest of three goalkeepers.

"Things have been going real well for me there," Perez said. "I feel like I've improved a ton."

While Perez credits Leon with pushing her as an athlete, she said the two didn't necessarily dwell on what they accomplished in high school. They did, however, compare notes on the similarities it took for both to succeed, both physically and mentally.

"We didn't necessarily talk about (honors) a lot," Perez said. "We both knew what each other accomplished, and I don't think we need to talk about it. But I just knew one day she would be really good in track."

East Kentwood soccerLeon said the trait which stuck out about Perez in high school was her competitive drive. She hated to lose, Leon said.

"She was always a very impressive athlete," Leon noted. "She always had (success) in her because she was a real hard worker. Going into high school you could see her work ethic. We had a mutual friendship, and I saw what a work ethic and being humble could do for you."

As for herself, Leon, like many athletes, explored playing many sports. But she always came back to track.

"I always wanted to be the best athlete I could be," she said. "I was never just satisfied with just doing something. I always had this deep desire to perform to the best of my ability."

Perez remembers the first sport which interested her was skateboarding. In fact, the first time Perez met then-East Kentwood coach John Conlon, she told him she was only marginally interested in soccer. Conlon, who led East Kentwood’s girls and boys programs to a combined 654 wins and the boys varsity to five Division 1 championships, quickly made a convert of Perez.

"It's funny how things work out," Perez said. "I was looking for something that I could really be a part of, and now it's my job and I'm so happy I can say I'm getting paid for something I really like."

2021-22 Made in Michigan

Aug. 3: 3-Time Finals Champ Cherishes Memories, Considering Golf Future - Read
Aug. 1: 
Lessons Learned on Track Have Jibowu's Business Surging to Quick Success - Read
July 28: 
Running Set Life's Stage for Grosse Pointe South's Record-Setting Meier Sisters - Read
July 25: 
2005 Miss Basketball DeHaan Cherishing Newest Title: 1st-Time Mom - Read
July 21: 
Championship Memories Still Resonate with St. Thomas Star Lillard - Read
July 14:
Portage Central Champ Rolls to Vanderbilt, Writing Next Chapter in Alabama - Read
July 12: Coaching Couple Passing On Knowledge, Providing Opportunities for Frankfort Wrestlers - Read
June 30: Hrynewich's Star Continuing to Rise with Olympic, Pro Sports Arrivals - Read

PHOTOS (Top) Clockwise from left, Gabriela Leon competes for the East Kentwood and University of Louisville track & field teams, and Maia Perez plays soccer for East Kentwood and trains for the NWSL's Angel City FC. (Middle) Leon holds up her NCAA championship trophy in June. (Below) Perez is one of three keepers for Angel City FC. [Photos courtesy of East Kentwood's athletic department (2017 soccer), Run Michigan (2017 track & field), the Louisville athletic department (2022 track & field) and Will Navarro/Angel City FC (2022 soccer).]