Northwest Nazarene pole vaulter Payton Lewis considers his triumph Thursday at the NCAA Division II National Championships just another sign that he’s where he’s supposed to be.
The four-time Division II All-American finished fourth and third, respectively, at the NCAA outdoor championships in his first two years at NNU. The junior vaulted a school record 17 feet, 7 inches on Thursday in Bradenton, Fla., besting his previous school record, en route to the national championship.
His title is the third national title in program history; his mark would have placed him as the 14th seed at the 2017 NCAA Division I West Preliminary.
Considering that in the spring of 2014 he wasn’t sure what college he would attend, he ended up OK.
“Anything I need, (NNU does) the best to supply it, because they wanted me to be a national champion,” Lewis said. “And I’m a national champion now.”
Lewis comes from a long line of athletes. His grandfather, Ray, was the co-captain of Boise Junior College’s 1950 Little Rose Bowl squad and coached football, track and wrestling and was a teacher at Boise State for a combined 38 years. Payton’s father, Kasey, was a pole vaulter at Tennessee and Washington State and won a gold medal at the 1982 Pan American Junior Games. He later served as Boise State’s pole vault coach for two years.
Payton, who starred at Nampa Christian High, had a relatively easy college decision to make. He verbally committed to Boise State as a senior in 2013 and planned to compete under his father after taking a year off.
Before he ever set foot on campus, however, the program underwent a coaching change. Though Kasey Lewis was initially kept on staff, he was eventually relieved of his duties, leaving Payton in a tough spot and without a collegiate landing spot.
“They don’t have a pole vault coach,” Lewis said he thought at the time. “... I don’t know where I’m going to go.”
As fate would have it, a friendly voice made its way back into Lewis’ life. NNU head coach John Spatz knew Lewis from his high school days and reached out to the Lewis family when he learned of Kasey’s situation at Boise State. NNU was a fairly easy sell.
“(I told him), NNU is a great option for you. We’ll help you along the way athletically and academically ... It will be a family atmosphere,” Spatz said. “Come and be a big fish in a smaller pond, win a national championship. And that’s what I really love about NNU and Division II.”
Lewis began competing for the Crusaders in 2014-15 and was an instant success, winning six Great Northwest Athletic Conference pole vaulting titles (three indoors, three outdoors). He also competed in the hurdles, the long jump, the 4x100 and the decathlon events this season.
A combination of brand new poles, a solid tailwind and hours of preparation culminated in the best jump of Lewis’ career at the national championships. Central Missouri’s Cole Phillips matched Lewis’ jump but required three tries and had more misses overall, giving Lewis the title. Lewis bested his previous school record by more than 4 inches.
“You never take anything for granted at the big show. Payton just has the heart of a warrior,” Spatz said. “To see it happen for a great kid like that ... I have goosebumps right now. He’s earned it.”
Lewis has bigger dreams than ever with a year remaining in his college career. He’s already looking at ways to best his national championship-winning vault, knowing full well that it could have been even better. He also has his sights set on the Olympics and plans on practicing details over the next few months.
Lewis fully believed that he could have won the championship as a freshman and a sophomore. Now that he has it, he’s looking toward his next goal. Being a national champion and owning the title of “best vaulter in the Lewis family” isn’t enough.
“I’m going to go back to the basics,” Lewis said. “It’s at the point where I need to get down and perfect the little things.”
In 15 years as NNU’s head coach, Spatz has seen a handful of superior athletes, including two-time 800-meter national champion and fellow Nampa Christian alumna Ashley Puga.
But he says it would be difficult to put anyone above Lewis in terms of athletes he’s enjoyed being around.
“He’s right up there. He’s probably one of my favorites simply because he’s just a guy,” Spatz said. “Guys like that are pretty rare. He’s just not a selfish guy.
“He’d be hard not to rank No. 1.”