Making Unique Journey from Norway to PU Track Team, Guttormsen Flies to NCAA Indoor Men’s Pole Vault Title
TAKING OFF: Princeton University men’s track star pole vaulter Sondre Guttormsen races down the runway on his way to a leap at the Division I Indoor NCAA Track and Field Championship last month. Junior Guttormsen won the event with a best mark of 5.75 meters (18’10¼). (Photo by Seth James Photography, provided courtesy of Princeton Athletics)
By Justin Feil
It’s been a unique journey to the top for Sondre Guttormsen from California to Norway back to California and finally to Princeton University with a stop at the Tokyo Olympics along the way.
The Tiger junior standout won the men’s pole vault at the Division I Indoor NCAA Track and Field Championships on March 11 with a clearance of 5.75 meters (18’10¼).
“It was a long time coming, coming back to the NCAA,” said Guttormsen. “I really wanted to win it and I knew that I could. It was amazing coming out there and taking the win, especially representing Princeton.”
Guttormsen was a rare transfer accepted to Princeton two years ago after competing for UCLA in his first year of college. As a freshman for the Bruins, Guttormsen placed ninth in the 2019 NCAA Division I Outdoor NCAA Track and Field Championships when he jumped 18’4½”. He did not compete for the Tigers until this year after transferring and then waiting out the COVID-19 pandemic cancellations.
“It’s been kinda crazy,” said Guttormsen, who holds the pole vault records in Norway and at Princeton. “I was thinking of transferring a little before we knew about COVID. I finished that quarter at UCLA at home because they sent us home. I thought they were going to send us back, but obviously that didn’t happen. I finished my application for Princeton. I didn’t really know what was going to happen – if I was going back to UCLA or if I would get into Princeton.”
Guttormsen was accepted into Princeton in 2020, but did not come to campus until this year. Last year, he studied at home in Norway and competed in select meets in Europe.
“It was definitely a weird time and scenario, just transferring and still not being able to be there in person,” said Guttormsen.
“The year after I was very glad to get back on campus and the season was starting like normal again. This season has been normal in terms of being able to go NCAA meets and training with the team. It’s really been a lot of fun.”
His transfer to Princeton reunited him with his brother, Simen, who is a year and a half younger, but the same year in school after beginning his schooling early. Simen’s positive experience in his first year at Princeton was a big selling point for Sondre. Simen is majoring in operations research and financial engineering while Sondre is a psychology major, but otherwise the two have a lot of similarities. Their shared passion for pole vault inspires both to improve.
“I love it,” said Sondre Guttormsen. “I had the expectation of coming here and being with him. It’s been great to having someone always with you to train with and to go to meets with. We’re even roommates. We’re not in the same room, but we’re in the same suite. It’s really been a big upgrade from what I had at UCLA. We trained together since I was 7 years old. I’ve never really not trained with him except the one and a half years that I was at UCLA. It has helped me to have him every day as a training partner. I hope we can continue this thing after Princeton, as we consider grad school or being professionals. I think it helps the both of us. Simen has had a lot of improvement the last few years.”
Simen, for his part, placed fourth at the indoor NCAAs. At the Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays on March 25, Sondre won the pole vault with a 5.75 meter clearance and Simen was second at 5.65 meters.
“He’s getting really close,” said Sondre. “A few years ago, I remember when it was a meter between us. Last week, it was 10 centimeters. I really have to up my game for him not to beat me. I hope that before we’re done in college that we’ll be one-two in NCAAs.”
Sondre, the oldest of four Guttormsen children, was born in California while his father, Atle, a professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, was studying for an economics Ph.D. at UC Davis. The family returned to Ski, Norway, where they lived in the shadow of a track.
“I can see it from my window,” said Guttormsen. “It’s literally across the street and we’re there and the pole vault pit is there. We would just try it a few times over the summer. As we got older, maybe 9, 10, 11 years old, we’d get more into it. I kept doing the other events, until I was 15-16 years old, the same with Simen. We’d kind of filter out a few events every year and narrow it down.”
The brothers are not just pole vaulters. Sondre is also an accomplished hurdler and long jumper. He was second in long jump at Norway’s U-20 Championships. He was also second in hurdles in the California state championships.
“In Europe, everybody who starts with track and field, they don’t just go into one event,” said Guttormsen. “In the U.S., it’s more normal that pole vaulters start just doing pole vault like in high school. We start a little younger. I was probably 7 when I started track, and I did every event possible really. My dad would have me and my brother try pole vaulting since we live so close to the track and we had a few poles for the club that we were a part of.”
The family lived in Norway except for a stay of less than a year in Davis, Calif., when Atle was on a sabbatical while Sondre was in elementary school and again during the boys’ senior year when he was on another sabbatical. Sondre won the California state high school pole vault while representing Davis High as well as placing second in hurdles.
“To be a 19-foot pole vaulter you have to be a superb athlete,” said Princeton head coach Fred Samara. “You not only have to be a sprinter, but a jumper, and a gymnast. It combines all the attributes of great athleticism.”
Guttormsen’s senior year in California influenced him to look for college opportunities, and he originally went to UCLA. California fit his personality well. He likes warm weather and lists cliff diving, scuba diving and surfing among his hobbies. At Princeton, he has enjoyed the smaller community feel, in particular the tighter group at his eating club, along with being a part of the strong program.
“Being my first year physically in Princeton and training all fall with the guys and winning Heps, it was great to score those points for the team and help us get a good scoring overall,” said Guttormsen.
Guttormsen is the first indoor NCAA individual champion for Princeton since Tora Harris, who won the high jump in 2002. Princeton last won any indoor title in 2013 with their distance medley relay. Beyond the physical attributes required, it also takes a mental toughness to win a title.
“Part of the success an athlete has is really equal to the experience they have competing at various levels as they get older,” said Samara.
“He knows exactly what to do, how to warm up, how to pace himself and not to get flustered. At the NCAAs, he had two misses at his opening height. That’s significant in pole vault.”
Guttormsen is a coachable athlete who seeks input and feedback in training and competition. He has experience at the very highest level. He had grown up competing in the Junior World Championships and World Championships while representing Norway, and last July he represented Norway at the Tokyo Olympics.
“It was definitely a cool experience,” said Guttormsen, who enjoys being able to visit the host cities of major competitions. “I kind of knew that I would go kind of a while back. It got pushed back a year so I was waiting for it for a long time. I had also gone to every single other major championship so the Olympics was the only thing missing. It was definitely way bigger than anything I’d been to in the past.”
Guttormsen cleared 5.50 meters at the Olympics before suffering a quad injury in his first attempt at 5.65 meters to conclude his competition. He is hoping to return to future Olympics when spectators are allowed again and for a chance to compete fully healthy. But the experience there helped prepare for his first NCAA Championships competition since 2019.
“I get nervous before almost any meet,” said Guttormsen. “Yes, I’ve been to the Olympics and of course I was nervous. I felt like I was almost as nervous at the NCAA Championships. You have goals of doing certain things. I had goals in the Olympics and goals in NCAAs. In the NCAAs, I had a lot to lose because I was ranked one of the best guys and I really wanted to win. When you’re in your first Olympics, it’s like you’re just there to take everything in and obviously do the best you can, but when you’re not one of the best guys, no one expects that much of me. NCAAs is still a big deal.”
Guttormsen and the Tigers have opened the outdoor track and field season with high expectations. Princeton is ranked sixth nationally as a team with aspirations of a top-three finish while Guttormsen will look to add the outdoor title to his indoor crown.
“I’m very excited,” said Guttormsen. “The fact that I’ve already won one makes me more relaxed going into the outdoor season, even though I’m maybe more expected to win. I already have one title. Now I can try to win as many as possible. I think our team can do really well outdoors. We have some guys that haven’t competed outdoors yet, and with our rankings I think we’re doing pretty well. Hopefully we’ll be close to what we did indoors if not better.”