2016 Olympics: Washington alumna Diamara Planell Cruz vaults into history for Puerto Rico
RIO DE JANEIRO - As a seven-year-old gymnast, Diamara Planell Cruz dreamed of her Olympic moment. But injuries ended her gymnastics career at 14.
Rather than give up, the the University of Washington alumna found a second chance to make that same dream a reality.
Tuesday in Rio de Janeiro, the 23-year-old becomes the first female pole vaulter to compete in the Olympics for Puerto Rico.
“I cried,” Planell Cruz said about the moment she realized she qualified for the Olympics in April at the Mt. Sac Relays in California. “I just cried. I’m not even ashamed.”
Ever since the Puerto Rican native’s journey to Rio as a pole vaulter began in in high school, Planell Cruz had her sights set on joining the Huskies and working with assistant coach Pat Licari.
“I picked UW basically because of Pat,” Planell Cruz said. “When I said that I wanted to go to the Olympics, he was the only coach between Florida State and UW that said, yeah we’re going. Period.”
In her first year at Washington following her transfer from San Jose City College, Planell Cruz became the 2014 Pac-12 pole vault champion, the first Husky to claim the women’s vault title since 2005.
The former gymnast used her spacial awareness and body control skills to her advantage. Planell Cruz took fourth place at the 2015 NCAA Indoor Championships, was the 2015 Pac-12 pole vault runner-up, the 2016 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Champion and finished in third place at the 2016 NCAA Indoor Championships.
She also broke the Washington school and Puerto Rican national records along the way.
Licari has been right by her side the entire time.
“It’s been fun with her for the last few years breaking the Puerto Rican record on a regular basis, indoors or out,” the 25-year college coach said. “There’s been quite a few meets where we were looking at another national record so it’s always exciting to keep pushing, pushing that up and up and up.”
Licari knows the Olympics are completely new territory for Planell Cruz, but very beneficial for her future in pole vaulting.
“She’s always been an awesome competitor,” Licari said. “She’s just fierce when it comes time to compete at whatever meet, especially the big meets. Just to have that experience and be around all of the best pole vaulters in the world is great as she moves forward in the sport.”
Planell Cruz’s success also caught the attention of the Puerto Rican Olympic Committee.
Fernando Olivero, associate director of the High Performance Department of Puerto Rico’s Olympic Committee, has been working with the pole vaulter for the last two years and is excited for her debut in the 2016 Summer Games.
“We are very, very happy, especially with Diamara, because besides the Track and Field federation, the Olympic Committee and our office have been very directly involved in her road to Rio,” Olivero said.
The Puerto Rican Olympic Committee has helped with Planell Cruz’s development along the way, buying her a new set of poles for the Olympics and paying for travel expenses.
They believe Cruz, 23, will be in her prime for Tokyo in 2020.
“We are fully committed to back her up to repeat as an Olympian,” Olivero said.
While the fulfillment of the dream of finally becoming an Olympian still settles in, Planell Cruz has not lost sight of the sacrifices made to get to this moment.
Her goal is simple for her first Olympics – just make the final.
“Half the girls here have been pole vaulting since their preteens and I didn’t start until I was 17,” Planell Cruz said. “I think my goal is definitely to be in that final and show them that even though I’m new I’m still somebody to keep an eye out for.”
The former Husky also hopes to spread awareness of the sport and share her Olympic experience with all of Puerto Rico.
“I think the hardest thing is building that knowledge and building that base, that foundation for people to actually build up on and understand it,” Planell Cruz said. “Kind of like they do for example here in Brazil where it’s such a big thing because they got Fabiana (Murer, South American record holder), they watched her grow as an athlete. So I kind of want to do the same thing.”
With fellow Puerto Rican Olympian Monica Puig winning gold in women’s tennis this past weekend, the island’s first gold medal in Olympic history, Planell Cruz will look to set her own record.
“It’s all about making everything on your first attempt,” Planell Cruz said. “In my eyes I do have to PR if I want to make it into that final. And that’s kind of the mentality I’m going in with.”