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September 22, 2021
Lauren Kuntz is August Athlete of the Month
Wins international Isocathlon "Double Decathlon"
(Boston-North TC / Allston MA) is the USATF-New England Athlete of the Month for Autust 2021. The award comes in recognition of her winning performance at the Icosathlon World Championship event - 20 standard track and field events over 2 days - held in Epinal, France, on August 21 and 22.
A former high school gymnast and NCAA Division 3 All American in the pole vault, Kuntz has been an advocate for adding the decathlon for women to the USA national and to international championship meets.
USATF-New England spoke with Lauren about her accomplishments.
How did you initially get into the sport of track and field?
Partly by luck, to be honest. I had intended to compete in collegiate gymnastics at MIT, but right as I accepted my offer to attend, the school cut the team. I really wanted to compete at the varsity level so emailed every athletic coach - having never done their sport - asking for a chance to walk on. The track coach was the only one who got back to me, saying they’d had luck turning gymnasts into pole vaulters before so I could give it a try.
Can you describe to us how you went from having your sport of gymnastics cut to becoming a three time All American pole vaulter at MIT?
Pole vault was definitely challenging at first - as is learning anything new - and I was absolutely terrible for the first few weeks. I put in a lot of work outside of practices as well: practicing pole drops with a broom, doing the rhythm of the penultimate steps whenever I went upstairs, visualizing and watching as much video as I could. Once I started to get the hang on it, I was able to make progress pretty quickly with it. A background in gymnastics definitely helped, as a lot of the skills like body awareness and swinging upside down translate well into pole vaulting. It also somewhat helped having so little expectation going in - making NCAAs my second year vaulting felt like a total shock and then getting All-American at the competition was something I couldn’t believe. Especially for that first one, I was too surprised to be nervous - it hadn’t felt like a possibility so it wasn’t something I’d built up in my head.
You’ve had numerous accolades and accomplishments throughout your career in track and field. Where does this rank, and what is your all-time proudest moment?
For my personal athletic achievements, this is definitely up there, but I think as I’ve grown in my career, the impact I’ve realized I can have beyond the competition has become the most meaningful piece of what drives me. My proudest moment is actually not my athletic achievement; it’s convincing the organizers of the Icosathlon World Championships to allow women the opportunity to compete and having other women out there with me on the start line. Like the decathlon (my main event), which to this day is only contested for men at the international level, the icosathlon has really only been contested for men, with women doing a tetradecathlon (double heptathlon) instead. I had to make the case for women to be allowed to compete in the icosathlon, and initially was told no. Thankfully, this year's organizers were a lot more amenable to it and it felt like a massive victory to see other women out there doing it and all the positive press we got around it afterwards. It is so important to me that young girls see themselves as being able to do anything - on and off the track. Athletics can be such a character building endeavour, but what message are we sending as a sport when we’re implicitly telling young women they aren’t capable of doing what their male counterparts can do? Pushing for both the women’s decathlon and icosathlon is my own way of helping bring equity into track and field and create the world as I wish it was.
Out of all 20 events at the world championships, which was your favorite to compete in?
This is such a hard question because I really have grown to love and appreciate them all! Each has their own challenges - on the running side the 1500 is so mental and I love having to be ready for the pain, while the technique and power of the sprints feels like pure laying it all out. On the field side, I have grown to enjoy the physics of all the events, especially high jump and javelin even though those two can feel elusive for me. If I absolutely have to pick, I’d probably say competing in both pole vault and hurdles is where I’m in my competition happy space.
You’ve been an amazing advocate for equality, primarily surrounding the decathlon, an event that is seen as a “male” track event. What got you interested in the decathlon, and how did you start and will you continue to push for change?
Looking back, it’s wild to me how I initially just accepted that the decathlon was only for men. I always thought the multis looked fun, but since I was primarily a vaulter assumed I couldn’t do it since the heptathlon didn’t have that event. It wasn’t until grad school, when I was helping coach male decathletes, that I started to question why I couldn’t do the event. I distinctly remember sitting with one of my athletes during the high jump in a decathlon competition, talking about the mental challenges of the event and thinking to myself I REALLY want to try this myself. That’s the first time I questioned why I couldn’t, and decided to figure out a way to do it. I was lucky that the coach I was assisting at the time was more than willing to help teach me the foundational technique for all the other events. Since joining Boston-North Track Club, Coach Rockwood has also been incredibly supportive of getting me to where I need to be training wise - it definitely helps having so many teammates in the other events to push me to be better. I absolutely intend to continue to be out using my body and my voice for change and acceptance of the women’s decathlon at the international level. There’s not much better action of support for the women’s decathlon then just getting out there and doing it - it’s taking Gandhi's advice quite literally of being the change you want to see in the world.
What made you compete in the icosathlon rather than a standard decathlon?
When someone first told me about the icosathlon I thought it sounded absolutely nuts. Then I looked up the world record and thought I might have a shot at it. And then I found out that outside of the women who had set the world record, basically no women had been allowed to do it. And naturally that meant I absolutely had to do it! It also felt like a fitting way to push women’s decathlon forward as well - if women are out there doing 20 events, you’re standing on thin ice if you’re arguing they can’t handle 10 in a decathlon.
After your world championship in the icosathlon, what are your plans for the future and coming meets of your track career?
I’m currently in recovery mode after stepping back to have foot surgery I’d been putting off for a while. I’ll definitely be back for more decathlons and icosathlons in the future - the goal is definitely to break the icosathlon world record.
Aside from track and field, what are your hobbies and interests?
Track is actually my break time and “me time” away from my primary focus and work in energy and climate. When I’m not training, I’m working on technological solutions to help decarbonize the electric grid, creating educational materials around climate and energy, or pondering big picture pathways to solving the climate crisis.
We also spoke with Coach Jeff Rockwood:
When and how did you begin to become Lauren’s coach?
I met Lauren about 5 years ago when she was looking to get back into competing in the sport and "find the love" for it again. The first thing she said is, "I don't want to pole vault". I just told her we'd try out some events and see where things go. Lauren was initially interested in the 800m, then hurdles, then long jump, and so on.
Describe how you felt watching Lauren train and then compete in 20 events, winning a world championship?
I guess I'm spoiled, because watching Lauren train is just normal. She's an incredibly hard worker and mostly just needs to be told when to stop. You never need to play games to get her to do a hard workout. As far as the world championship, I was awake in the middle of the night texting with Lauren thru the 2 day event. She'd send updates and I'd give her corrections, points status, encouragement, strategy. I would have loved to be there in France, but I'm glad I was able to still communicate in real time.
How were you able to create a strong training plan for Lauren to be successful in 20 events?
This was a very big challenge for me since it's completely different from anything I've ever prepared someone for. To be honest, I wasn't completely sure it would work. There isn't a book to read on training for an icosathlon. I had to really sit back and create something from scratch. There were many, many revisions and adjustments made. I felt most coaches would have made a plan based on the almost 25,000 meters of racing in the icosathlon; however, I looked at it differently. Lauren is a sprint and jumps athlete so I wanted to capitalize on those skills. We did limited training for the longer distance events and focused on events that would score big points. Keeping her healthy was the most important objective, so I was constantly balancing risk vs reward.
What has it been like to coach Lauren and at Boston North Track Club?
Lauren is a hard working, self motivated individual - incredibly intelligent and focus driven. Coaching Lauren is not a job, it's a joy. She challenged me by deciding to do the decathlon, then again with the icosathlon. But what makes me say 'yes' each time is the reason she's doing it. It's not just that she wants success in sport or a personal physical challenge. She's doing it because women have been told "NO". Not only have we proven that women can do 10 events, she has now shown women are interested and able to handle 20 events. I couldn't be more proud of her for that.