Ask Arkansas women’s track head coach Lance Harter for words to describe pole vault standout Tina Sutej and he’ll use words like “careful” and “deliberate” and “calculating.” Yet there is one more word that sums up her second season – undefeated.
In 13 meets this season, Sutej is perfect. Thing is, she’s not just winning; she’s smashing records all over the place. Like at the Penn Relays, where she not only defended her title, she set a meet record (14 feet, 7 1/2 inches) previously held by LSU’s Rachel Laurent (13-10 ½).
Then there was the meet where Sutej almost decided not to compete because, of all things, a student-athlete decided to actually be a student and take a makeup test. Now Harter could have applied tacit pressure to Sutej since it was the Arkansas Twilight, the last home meet of the season, but he didn’t.
“It was during finals and I understood her decision,” Harter said. “I didn’t have a problem with it. A lot of these athletes are so competitive they always want to go, and she is one of them. Part of being a coach is not having to push them to compete, but knowing when to tell them to pull it in sometimes.”
Still, it was on her mind, somewhere among the massive amounts of info she stored in her head for that Ecology exam. The conditions that day were great and Sutej knew it. She also knew she was weary from studying for a makeup test that she knew would be considerably more difficult than if she’d taken it the first time.
“Sometimes it’s really hard to do both,” Sutej said. “There are times you just get overwhelmed and feel like you are about to fall apart. School is hard, but the teachers have been very supportive.
“Finals are so stressful. I felt I had to take it because I was traveling [and missed the initial test]. I knew I’d had some late night and didn’t have much sleep, which was bad because the makeup is always a harder test. I took it, but was still thinking about competing.”
Thinking about it morphed into competing after some busy thumbs got her attention.
“[Harter] texted me the new poles are here,” Sutej said. “I got really excited. After reading that, I wanted to try them.”
Well, she gave it the old college try by lighting up the Arkansas Twilight with a school record 14-9.5 in the pole vault, which at the time topped her personal best and the school record (14-9), a mark she had already cleared twice.
It was yet another honor for Sutej, who set the U.S. collegiate record (14-10 3/4) at the SEC indoor championships and the NCAA indoor championship meet record (14-7 1/4) after that.
She then outdid herself at the SEC outdoor championships where she jumped 4.61 meters (15-1.5) to set a new NCAA record.
“I’d been trying a couple of times before to get that record,” said Sutej, a native of Slovenia. “I’d been getting so close. I was glad to finally get it.”
In addition to setting the NCAA outdoor mark, Sutej, a junior, also set the Arkansas school record, SEC meet record, Spec Towns Track facility record, Slovenian national record and current world-leading mark. The previous NCAA record of 15-1 was set by former UCLA standout Chelsea Johnson in 2006.
All this would not have happened had it not been for a huge assist from men’s assistant track coach, Travis Geopfert. Sutej, with friends at various universities in America, had one who ran cross country at the University of Northern Iowa. In an email, that friend mentioned Sutej to Geopfert, who at the time was the men’s and women’s cross country and track and field coach at UNI. After arriving at Arkansas, Geopfert remembered the email and forwarded it to the Razorbacks’ track coach. Since then, Sutej has been in hog heaven.
“My goal is to just keep getting better,” Sutej said. “It’s been an awesome time. So much has already happened. The broken records I didn’t expect. I just want to keep improving on my techniques.
“I had no health issues, no injuries. So, starting in the fall, I said I wanted to do the things that would help me get better. I knew I was jumping higher than before. It’s been an awesome year. I have two more meets. I hope they end as awesome as the year has started.”