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Lea Butler practices the pole vault at Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa on Tuesday. Butler finished second in the recent state meet, clearing 11 feet, 7 1/4 inches. (Photo by Christopher Chung, The Press Democrat)

A frustrating season left Lea Butler considering giving up pole vaulting and sticking with the jumps for the Santa Rosa Junior College track team.

Instead she hit the weight room, dedicated to gaining strength needed to soar higher. And rise to new heights Butler did, earning All-American honors with a second-place finish at the California Community College Athletic Association championships.

“Training helped me build a lot of confidence. I was really excited to see what I could do,” Butler said.

Now the Rancho Cotate graduate is preparing to compete at Cal State Stanislaus on a track scholarship.

“She’s made a dramatic improvement. She had the potential to do this. But I was pretty surprised,” said longtime SRJC pole vault coach Jim McCray. “She made tremendous progress. She was a totally different girl this season.”

A gymnast much of her life before injuries forced her out, Butler took quickly to the pole vault. She possessed the speed, strength and agility needed to fly over a bar high in the air.

Butler began as a junior at Rancho Cotate. She also competed in the high jump, in addition to competitive cheerleading outside of high school.

“I’m used to performing in front of other people,” she said. “Pole vaulting was fun. Just clearing the bar is probably the best feeling ever.”

At the junior college Butler joined the growing track program under coach David Wellman.

While she improved in the high jump, Butler could not gain more height in the pole vault. Her technique was solid but she needed more strength.

Lea Butler in 2012 (Press Democrat file photo)

“I was really frustrated. I couldn’t get higher than I had in high school,” Butler said. “I needed to get stronger and build muscle.”

Last fall, Butler began working out with weights more seriously. Taking to heart coaches’ urgings to improve and stick with pole vaulting, she hit the gym nearly every day.

In the months before track season, Butler added some 10 pounds of muscle in her legs, back, chest and shoulders.

“She did a lot of work and really got extremely strong. That’s kind of what put her over the top,” Wellman said. “And her attitude changed. She was a lot more confident.”

Butler cleared 10 feet at the first practice in January. Then she made 10-6 at the first meet — 14 inches higher than her best a year earlier.

“I cleared that, which made me just super happy,” Butler said.

With bolstered confidence, Butler aimed higher. She set a personal best of 11-7½ and went to the state championships seeking a medal.

At state, after making 11-7 on her first attempt at that height, Butler finished at 11-7¼. Her mark was good for second place.

“I was really nervous. But I got it together,” Butler said.

On Sunday she won the USA Track & Field Pacific Open Championships. Butler cleared 11-3¾ in a swirling wind at the meet in San Mateo.

“That’s just really impressive,” Wellman said.

College coaches took notice of Butler’s improvement and in the middle of the season, Stanislaus offered a scholarship.

“She’s got a great opportunity to improve. She’s got the ability,” McCray said.

With improved strength, Butler can use heavier, stiffer poles that lift her higher. Topping 13 feet is the next mark Butler will aim for and 14 feet could be within range.

The opportunity of competing at the NCAA level is a challenge Butler welcomes.

“I know I can do pretty good,” Butler said. “A lot of training will have to go into it. That’s what it takes.”

You can reach Staff Writer Michael Coit at 521-5470 or mike.coit@pressdemocrat.com.

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