No two athletes’ journeys to a Division I program are alike, but for one pole vaulter the journey was particularly unconventional. For Illinois State University sophomore Eddie Winner, that journey took him from the other side of the world, through military service, another college, a gap year and a television game show before finally arriving in the ISU record books.
Born in Siberia, Russia, Winner moved to Israel when he was just a few months old. His athletic journey started when he joined a youth soccer team when he was 12.
“As a kid I didn’t really do much until I was 12 years old, I joined a soccer team in my town,” Winner said. “At the age of 14, while still playing soccer on the team, they took us to a track meet for our junior high.”
In that first track meet, Winner tried the 80-meter dash and long jump and won both events.
“I qualified for the next round [regionals] … and there again I won the 80-meter dash and long jump and I qualified for the national junior high competition,” Winner said. “There, I was second in the 80-meter dash and I don’t remember about long jump, but the fact that I realized that I was pretty fast and was curious to try track.”
Winner tried out for the track team during the soccer’s team off season and started competing as a sprinter. At the age of 17 he participated in the world youth championships.
“I understood that I am not as fast as I thought,” Winner said. “I was the last in my heat. I also started to do pole vault for fun and since then I’ve been a pole vaulter.”
Unlike his American peers who transition from high school straight into college, Winner was required to serve three years of mandatory military service under the Israeli Defense Service Law.
“In Israel every citizen has to serve three years of mandatory service in the military and if you are a good athlete, they give you a light service,” Winner said describing his service. “It hurts your schedule and you can’t fly abroad without permission.”
Serving in the military prolonged Winner’s recruitment for pole vault but grew his desire to go back to school.
“Those three years that I took a break from school helped me to be hungry to learn. In high school, I was really a different student; I didn’t really do much. But now, I am really interested in subjects and I think those three years that made me hungry really helped me. I feel more mature now.” Winner said.
After completing his service requirement, a friend convinced him to take the SAT and visit American colleges.
In spring 2018, he enrolled in Manhattan College and competed on the track and field team. As a Jasper, Winner placed first in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference indoor track and field championships and defended his title in the outdoor vault. He also qualified for the DI East preliminary round where he placed 27th in a jump of 5.00 meters.
“I understood really quickly that I needed to search for a stronger conference and a stronger team,” Winner said. “So, I went back to Israel and took a gap year in search for universities.”
During this time away from competing in the NCAA, Winner tried his hand at a different kind of athletic competition — Ninja Israel, a television gameshow competition.
“I prepared for the show like I prepared for a meet. I practiced twice, three times a week in a special facility.” Winner said about how pole vaulting helped him prepare for the show.
Winner completed the obstacle stage without falling from the course but due to time didn’t qualify to the next round of the show. Even though he was participating in Ninja Israel Winner never stopped his search for a school to attend for the upcoming school year.
His search led him to find ISU and coach Mary Wood, the associate head coach and event coach of long jump, triple jump and pole vault.
“I contacted coach Wood and I was really happy with the team and I came here.” Winner said.
Winner committed to ISU and enrolled for the 2019-2020 school year. As a Redbird, Winner is studying physics in hopes to one day work in the science field.
“I’m scared, stepping into it, it’s really hard, it’s even harder now to combine school and meets and practices and physics.” Winner said, chuckling.
Hard as it may be, Winner is finding success both on the track and in the classroom. Winner finished the first semester with a 3.7 GPA, landing him a spot on the AFNI honor roll.
On the track, Winner has stepped up and been a major contributor for the Redbirds. His vault of 16 feet, 10 ¾ inches is leading the team and first in the Missouri Valley Conference, as well as the fourth best mark in ISU history.
“The team is really even better than I thought in terms of atmosphere and the way we treat each other,” Winner said.
Winner still has big goals for this season. He has already attempted the school record height of 17-04.25 held by teammate and friend Luke Nelson.
“I really am trying to go after Luke Nelson’s school record,” Winner said. “He really, really supports [me] breaking the school record. He came to Notre Dame with his own car, drove four hours to see me maybe break his school record.”
Winner will have one last chance to claim the indoor record this year at the MVC conference championship meet.
“I hope to break the record indoors and win the conference,” Winner said.
Winner and the rest of the Redbirds will compete in the conference meet Saturday and Sunday in Cedar Falls, Iowa, at the University of Northern Iowa.