McKenna Brunick: Deliberate Leadership

McKenna Brunick: Deliberate Leadership

When McKenna Brunick signed a National Letter of Intent to compete for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her community came out en force.  In a jam-packed classroom at Leesville Road in Raleigh, filled with family, friends, teammates, and coaches, McKenna realized her dream of competing in the pole vault for a top school. 

In her two and a half years as a vaulter, McKenna has been sidelined with injury, twice. While she sacrificed the opportunities to compete, McKenna did not surrender. Instead, she figured out how to lead herself through the adversity. 

A level eight gymnast, McKenna had grown too tall for her success to continue; she needed a new discipline to pursue. Hanging up her leotard on a Friday, she attended summer camp at Pole Vault Carolina the next Tuesday. McKenna immediately knew she had found her next sport.

"The excitement of flying through the air, the joy of advancing to new heights, and competitive aspects, were all so similar to gymnastics, but way less stressful and mentally challenging for me. Signing up for the summer camp was the best decision I have ever made," said McKenna.


Seven months later, McKenna's personal best had soared to 12'. Then a fiercely competitive sophomore, McKenna looked forward to the NCHSAA Indoor State meet. An excruciating pain in her foot flared up, forcing her to scale back her game plan.  McKenna cleared 10'6" and 11" on the first attempts, but she could not continue. Placing 4th, she smiled and waved from the podium, and cried all the way home.

An X-ray revealed that McKenna has an extra bone in her foot and the tendons around it were prohibitively tight. Doctors orders were time and physical therapy, but New Balance Nationals Indoor was weeks away. McKenna arrived at The Armory wearing two different sized spikes to accommodate her large ankle brace. 

She made it halfway down the runway during warm ups before collapsing. Her coach, Jose R. San Miguel, brought her to the trainer, who massaged her ankle and taped it up. Coach Jose advised her not to compete; her parents, Milo and Maria, urged her to withdraw.  McKenna's inner voice drowned out their opinions. She calls herself to greatness and the pit is where she proves it.  Without a warm-up jump completed, she grabbed her pole, and took her place on the runway from four lefts.

Three brave attempts later, McKenna earned the respect of everyone watching. She nearly cleared a bar. She was out, but she was not down. 


Though broken-hearted, McKenna accepted the setback, and planned her comeback. In her time away from practice, she worked on arm and core strength. She figured out what she wanted, and what she had to leave behind.

McKenna exploded into the indoor season of her junior year with a 12'6" jump to win the Virginia Showcase at Liberty University. Weeks later, she placed 5th on attempts at New Balance Nationals Indoor Emerging Elite, with a personal record vault of 12'6.5".  All this while on the technical side, she was still learning how to properly carry the pole.          

Though difficult to do mid-season, McKenna resolved to fix her pole carry. The scope of her practices shifted. Feeling ready, McKenna entered a collegiate meet in mid-April, the Elon Phoenix Invitational as a high school junior. She won with a thrilling jump of 12'10.5".

Practicing with Purpose

McKenna prioritizes her life around school and pole vault practice. Unless she is injured or on vacation, she is at the club, deliberately executing drills to power her jump.

"Since joining Pole Vault Carolina, McKenna has attended practice over 300 times and taken an estimated 7500 jumps. McKenna practices when she is not feeling it, does drills in between jumps without fail, and is always coachable, " said Coach Jose.

McKenna leads in the club.  Spotting a younger athlete struggling with a drill, McKenna will take the moment to teach. If something is not working to everyone's benefit, McKenna will bring it to the coaches' attention, with a solution to fix the problem. 

At Leesville Road, where her GPA is 4.25, McKenna is a member of the National Honor Society, the Science National Honor Society, and the National English Honor Society. McKenna tutors high schoolers in science, and younger children in all subjects.

As a student athlete, McKenna intends to study genetics. When she considered schools to apply to, Stanford and the University of North Carolina were in her top five. McKenna reached out to then Stanford multi events coach Michael Eskind, and they discussed mutual interest and a trip to Palo Alto. When the Tarheels made a leadership change last summer, they hired five Stanford coaches to run their track and field and cross country programs, Coach Eskind among them. Shortly after arriving in Chapel Hill, Coach Eskind visited Pole Vault Carolina to watch McKenna practice.  An official visit to campus soon followed, and the rest is a story yet to unfold, the next chapter in McKenna's pole vault career.

"I am incredibly excited for McKenna to be joining our group and the entire Tarheel track and field program. She's a great overall fit for so many reasons. It is certainly a top priority for us to keep the very best in-state kids here at home. In addition, McKenna is a terrific student and an incredibly hard worker, both in the classroom and on the track, and she will be a great fit with our overall team culture," said Coach Eskind.

A leader by performance and by practice, McKenna's personal best is not about a height, but a commitment to self excellence. Failure is inevitable for every pole vaulter.  There is failure to clear a bar; failing the self by not practicing with consistency; and the ultimate, failing to encourage oneself through adversity. When McKenna's reality deviates from her intention, she has the mental discipline and emotional maturity to allow herself to begin again, and deliberately lead herself through it. 


Thanks to Adele San Miguel of Pole Vault Carolina for bringing this story to us!
Pole Vault Carolina is an indoor pole vault facility located in Durham, NC.  The club is home to 29 New Balance Nationals qualifiers, 21 State Champions, and 27 athletes who have continued their athletic careers in college.  Follow them on Instagram and Facebook.  Learn more at

McKenna Brunick 2020 Indoor Rankings