When you’re an athlete, your biggest hope is to gain recognition for your accomplishments on the field. However, sometimes you receive negative press as a result of your poor attitude or lack of effort in the classroom. On the other hand, there are times when you receive unwanted attention as a result of circumstances beyond your control. That’s the story of one-time pole vaulter Allison Stokke, who in 2007 at the age of 17 experienced what a lot of female athletes have to endure: a focus on sexualization rather than on their feats. Let’s take a look back at one photo that changed Stokke’s life — and not for the better — and what she’s up to today.
Sports Run in the Family
It was natural that the native of Newport Beach, California would thrive in sports. After all, her brother David was a gymnast, competing at the national level in his youth. Allison gave gymnastics a try, but came to realize it wasn’t her thing. However, she discovered that she had potential as a pole vaulter.
Among the Best
A quick learner, Stokke rose to the top, winning the US national title in the 15/16 age group in 2004 with a record-setting vault of 12 ft 6 in. She subsequently set American high school records during both her freshman and sophomore years. Although she broke her leg, it didn’t stop her from twice at the CIF California State Meet. As a senior, she ranked second best pole vaulter in the country, and finished 8th place at the national junior championships.
One Photo Changed Everything
In 2007, a California journalist took a photo of Stokke while she was competing at a track and field event in New York. A few months later, a popular male-oriented sports blog called With Leather (now known as Uproxx) uploaded that photo with the headline “Pole Vaulting is Sexy, Barely Legal.” The journalist threatened to sue the website for using his photo without permission, but at that point it was too late. The photo of Allison had gone viral. Pandora’s Box had been unleashed.
Pretty soon, somebody had launched what was essentially an Allison Stokke-worshipping website, featuring photos of her at various competitions. It generated thousands of followers, many of whom probably didn’t have the best of intentions. Soon, major US newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, and even popular Australian and German publications ran stories on Stokke. CBS used the occasion to highlight the problems that can arise when the internet is used to sexualize minors.
Coping With Fame
Stokke initially tried to handle all of the requests for interviews and photo shoots by herself, but the burden became so great that the family finally hired a professional media consultant. She gave an interview on how she succeeds as a pole vaulter, but when it was posted on YouTube the comments were almost exclusively about her looks. Her father, an attorney, looked through websites featuring Allison to determine whether any of them were breaking the law. After all, Allison was still a high schooler. She personally found all of the attention to be “creepy” and stated that even if it wasn’t illegal, it was nonetheless demeaning.
California Golden Bear
Stokke accepted a track scholarship at the University of California-Berkeley, where she broke the school’s freshman record for both the indoor and outdoor vault. She would go on to compete at the Pac-10 championships as well. As a sophomore, she continued performing at a high level, finishing 8th in the conference in pole vaulting.
Cal-Berkeley happens to be one of the most difficult public universities to get accepted into, so the fact that Allison was a high achiever both on the field and in the classroom was very impressive. She made the Pac-10 all-academic team and received academic accolades from the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
By her senior year, Stokke saw a decline in her performance. While she finished 8th once again in the Pac-10, and participated in the NCAA Indoor Championships (placing 8th there as well), she failed to qualify for the NCAA outdoors. She had aspirations to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, but was unable to clear the opening height of 13 ft 11 ¼ in.
Sportswear Modeling and Other Endeavors
After graduating, Stokke continued to take part in competitions and also modeled for Nike, Uniqlo and Athleta. In 2016 she collaborated with GoPro, producing a series of YouTube videos in which she performs pole vaulting while wearing a camera. To date, these videos have received more than 6 million views.
Today Allison is happily married to professional golfer Rickie Fowler, who ranked as the top amateur golfer for 36 weeks in 2007 and 2008. After going pro, he won the Rookie of the Year Award in 2010 and has reached as high as 4th in the world on the PGA tour. Thanks to his success on the links, Stokke now golfs in her spare time.