Former Pali High Track & Field Star Kendall Gustafson Has Her Sights Set on Olympic Heptathlon
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
One of the finest track and field athletes ever to compete for Palisades High School, Kendall Gustafson led the Dolphin girls to three City titles in four years, winning the high jump and long jump and taking second in the 100 and 300 hurdles in 2013 when she was awarded the Palisadian-Post Cup as one of the school’s outstanding senior athletes. A 2018 graduate of UCLA, Gustafson is now a volunteer assistant coach with the Bruins’ track and field team, working primarily with the jumpers and multi-event athletes. She has been a youth coach for the past three years, having started her own business called LeapFrog Sports where she trains middle and high school athletes. As a kid she was a USATF Youth National Champion in both the pentathlon and heptathlon, as well as a Junior Olympic heptathlon champion. At Palisades she competed in the jumps and hurdles and qualified for the CIF state meet in four events all four years. After her senior year she was second at the USA Junior Championships and went on to compete for Team USA at the Pan American Junior Championships in Medellin, Colombia. She began her college career at Duke University before transferring to UCLA where she was an All-American. Gustafson is the Bruins’ record holder in the indoor pentathlon and second all-time in the heptathlon behind only Jackie Joyner-Kersee. She captained the Bruins in 2017 and 2018 and held the highest GPA on the track team both years. In her first year as a pro she had the No. 6 heptathlon score in the USA. She was seventh and ninth respectively at the Indoor and Outdoor USA Track & Field Championships and qualified for the Thorpe Cup in Germany. She is now training hard for the Tokyo Olympics:
PP: What do you like most about the heptathlon? Which of the seven events is your favorite? Which event is the hardest?
KG: The heptathlon is fun and different in that it tests overall athletic ability, not just one aspect of it. The winner of the multis (heptathlon and decathlon) in the Olympics is usually considered the “World’s Greatest Athlete.” It’s competed over two days and consists of the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200 meters, long jump, javelin and 800 meters. Training for all seven events as opposed to just one or two keeps the workouts varied and interesting, which is probably why I’m still competing after so many years. I’d say that the high jump and javelin are my favorite events, while the 800 is definitely the most difficult.
PP: What is training like in light of COVID-19? In what ways have you had to alter your workouts? Do you have anyone helping or do you train alone?
KG: With all the closures of tracks and weight rooms my training has been significantly impacted by COVID. I’ve done track workouts when I’m able to find an open track, but otherwise I’m sprinting up hills, running and doing plyometrics at parks or lifting with various types of weights and bands in my backyard. I’ve either been training by myself or my dad joins me.
PP: What does a typical day look like for you? How many days a week do you train and do you focus on a different discipline each time?
KG: My weeks have been anything but typical as of late but when I was in full training I’d train five days a week, between three and four hours a day. I typically emphasize one or two events per day and finish with weight lifting or circuit training. For instance, a typical Monday for me might start with a sprint workout, followed by shot put, a plyometric circuit and an hour in the weight room. I usually train in the morning and then eat lunch and coach the UCLA team in the afternoon, followed by private coaching in the evening.
PP: What is it like to be a volunteer coach at UCLA? What events do you coach there?
KG: I really enjoy still being involved with the UCLA team. I work mainly with multi-eventers and high jumpers, but will lend a hand wherever necessary. I tend to be at daily practice whenever I can and traveled to as many meets as I could last year. As far as I can tell the athletes enjoy having me around as both a coach and an athlete to look up to for both training and life advice. It’s a role I really love having, being able to have a positive impact on my alma mater. As my training for the Olympic Games increases, my role with the team will decrease slightly so that I can focus on my own training and competitions a bit more.
PP: How did you get the idea for LeapFrog and what has made it so successful? Are any of the kids from the Palisades?
KG: After I graduated I was initially offered a part-time job in the athletic department at UCLA but was unable to accept it because I was a volunteer coach on the track team and therefore couldn’t be paid by the athletic department at all. I began LeapFrog Sports because I really enjoy coaching and it’s something I can make work with my schedule while I’m training and coaching at UCLA. I also saw a need for youth coaching on the Westside of Los Angeles, which is something I’ve noticed since I was young growing up on this side of town. I’ve found a particularly successful niche with young girls, who I believe enjoy having a young female coach to relate to. I have several people that I work with from the Palisades. I’ve enjoyed running it and it’s been incredibly popular. Business has obviously been affected by the virus, but before that I was so busy that I’d book up about a month in advance.
PP: Where are you living now? Do you keep in touch with anyone from Pali High?
KG: I’m living at home in Mar Vista and commute to UCLA daily to work and train. I keep in touch with several people from Pali and they’re still some of my very best friends. I’ve been very lucky that regardless of where my friends have wandered since graduation in 2013 we’ve stayed close.
PP: When and how did you qualify for the Olympic Trials? Are you glad the Olympics have been pushed back a year so you have more time to train?
KG: The Olympic Trials automatic qualifying mark is 6,000 points, which only eight people in the country currently have. I qualified with my performance at the Bryan Clay Invitational last year, where I scored 6,078 points. That was the seventh best score by an American last year. I also finished ninth at the USA Championships, which qualified me to compete for Team USA at the Thorpe Cup in Germany last September. I’m glad that the Olympics got pushed back with the current conditions. Not only would it not be safe to bring the world together this year, but training has been severely compromised and athletes wouldn’t be at their best for the Olympics. While I’m bummed that I won’t be able to compete this year I’m using this time to better myself so that I have a better chance to move from being ranked No. 7 in the country into the top three.
PP: What are some of the weaknesses you are now focusing on? What are the standards you hope to meet in each event in order to win the heptathlon at the Olympics?
KG: Historically, my field events have been my strengths, and my sprinting and hurdling have been my biggest weaknesses compared to my competition, so I’m taking this time to really improve those. My coach is helping me get back to basics and focus on proper execution as opposed to being stressed about trying to be prepared for upcoming meets.
My current “bests” in each event are: 14.06 seconds in the 100 hurdles; 1.80 meters (5’11”) in the high jump; 14.01 meters (46’) in the shot put; 24.98 seconds in the 200 meters; 6.23 meters (20’5”) in the long jump; 46.71 meters (153’3”) in the javelin; 2:18 in the 800 meters; and 6,078 total points in the overall heptathlon.
My goals for next year, which would likely get me a spot on the Olympic team, are: 13.75 seconds in the hurdles; 1.82 meters in the high jump; 14.20 meters in the shot put; 24.70 seconds in the 200 meters; 6.30 meters in the long jump; 48.00 meters in the javelin; 2:16 in the 800 meters; and 6,370 points overall.
PP: What memories from Palisades stand out? How much did it mean to you winning the Post Cup Award?
KG: I absolutely loved my time at Palisades. Winning three City Section Championships with the track team have to be some of my favorite memories, because we really had to fight as a team to get them. The Pali track team was a chill and fun environment, yet competitive and rewarding to be part of. I loved Friday afternoon meets at the Stadium by the Sea, where we absolutely dominated and had the best time doing it.
Pali will always hold a very special place in my heart. Winning the Post Cup Award was a huge honor and one that was even more fun for me because I got to share it with my best friend [soccer and volleyball player] Molly Kornfeind… and we still are! I’ve always been extremely proud to represent Palisades and it was very special to be recognized for my achievements.
PP: Can you elaborate on why you decided to transfer from Duke to UCLA?
KG: I committed and went to Duke for two years directly out of high school. When I was initially looking at colleges I didn’t really take location into account and figured it would be good for me to get away from Southern California in order to grow as a person and an athlete. What I thought would be a good fit for me ended up being a really poor fit and I struggled with the weather, culture of the school, training regimen and ultimately injuries, which caused me to become pretty depressed. At the end of my second year there I decided to come home and called the coaches at UCLA, who welcomed me on the team with open arms. It was quite frankly the best decision I ever made, because UCLA ended up being somewhere I was able to thrive academically, athletically, and personally. I became a First Team All-American while competing for the Bruins, I was a Scholar Athlete of the Year finalist and I found some of my very best friends and connections. I was a Bruins fan growing up, so it was only fitting that I ended up going to the school and competing at the stadium where I’d go watch track meets with my dad and grandpa when I was young. I’m a true believer that everything happens for a reason!
PP: How much attention do you pay to a competitor’s times and marks? How much of winning a heptathlete comes down to strategy so you wind up with the most points?
KG: While I’m quite aware of the strengths and weaknesses of my competitors, it is usually just because I have spent so much time competing with them that it would be hard not to. I don’t purposely seek out their marks. I would say that coaches tend to spend more time looking at what other competitors are doing, but my job as an athlete is to focus on myself, and be the best that I can be. In a heptathlon, the only strategy is to do your very best in each event. Unlike many other sports, I have literally no control in how well my competitors do, so I just try to go out and execute, and hope that it is enough to win.
PP: Who are some of the coaches you have been working with (and in what events)?
KG: I actually work remotely with my coach, Joey Pacione, who lives in Chicago. He writes out my workouts weekly and analyzes my technique through videos I send him. He plans out the big picture, while I have a couple other coaches at UCLA that help me with specific events. Reggie Trotter, another volunteer assistant, has been pivotal in helping me with the long jump and high jump while throws coach John Frazier regularly helps me with shot put and javelin.
PP: Which high school meet stands out for you and why?
KG: I was never able to compete in my main event, the heptathlon, when I was competing for Pali as California doesn’t hold a heptathlon because of the fact that there’s no javelin, which is one of the events in the heptahtlon. Therefore my best finishes came at events like the Arcadia Multis, where I scored 5,217 points for the 17th best high school heptathlon score of all time, or at the USA Junior Championships where I finished second in the country and qualified to represent the United States at the Pan American Junior Championships in Medellin, Colombia. I was also honored as a high school All-American by Track and Field News my senior year.
PP: What do you remember about the Palisades Optimist YMCA Track Meet? Have you ever run the Palisades Will Rogers race?
KG: The YMCA meets were the very first meets I ever competed in and were my introduction to track and field. I remember how much fun it was to sprint, long jump and run the relays and then cross the finish line and get a ribbon. I specifically remember breaking the long jump record when I was 9 years old, jumping 13’9.” I’d always go with my grandparents who were Palisades residents, as well as my older sister Lauren (who was still faster than me at that point). I’ve run the 5K for many years and while I used to be more competitive I now just try to run it for fun every year with my dog, Kona. In fact, she was the first dog to finish the last two years.
PP: What sparked your interest in track and field? What other sports did you play growing up?
KG: I played almost every sport imaginable growing up because my parents wanted to expose me to as many things as possible before I chose what I wanted to spend more time on. Some of the sports I excelled more in were volleyball, basketball and soccer, where I was continually told how fast I was. I had several coaches and other parents ask if I’d ever thought about running track and by the time I was in middle school running was my favorite thing to do. I’d say track found me, I didn’t go looking for it. I went to Mar Vista Elementary, then to Paul Revere Middle School, where I was on the volleyball, soccer and track teams.
PP: What has been the biggest challenge that you have had to overcome in your athletic career? Was it more physical or mental?
KG: I’ve struggled throughout my whole career, particularly in college, with injuries. I’ve broken nine bones, had two knee surgeries, torn ligaments in my ankle, pulled various muscles, had tendonitis in my achilles, torn my labrum and partially dislocated my shoulder, and currently have arthritis in my knee and both of my feet, just to name a few. Injuries took away most of my years in college and robbed me of valuable time on the track and with my teammates. While injuries look like a physical issue, mentally they take a toll as well. After rehabbing over and over again and feeling physical pain everyday, there were definitely times when I wondered if it was worth continually asking so much of my body just for it to break down on me again. The answer was always ‘yes’ and I’ve come back stronger from every injury I’ve gone through. They made me tough and very aware of my body, which I think has made me a smarter and more resilient athlete and person. Ask me again in 20 years though if it was worth it and my answer may be different when I need new knees by age 45!”
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