UW News

August 7, 2008

UW medical student vaults her way to the Olympics

On Aug. 16, first-year UW medical student Leila Ben-Youssef will attempt to catapult herself into the annals of international sports history by vying for a medal in pole vaulting at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

A dual citizen of the United States and Tunisia, Ben-Youssef will represent Tunisia, her father’s home country.

Ben-Youssef, 26, was introduced to pole vaulting in middle school in rural Sidney, Mont., (population 5,000) where she lived with her father (an orthopedic surgeon), her mother and two siblings. Ben-Youssef excelled at her sport and academics throughout her years at Sidney High School, where she competed and won the state championship in the event three times, setting a personal record of 12 feet, 7.5 inches. “I set my sights on the Olympics in high school,” she said.

“I love pole vaulting because it’s not about being the fastest, the strongest or even the greatest technician,” she said. “It calls for a little bit of everything — speed on the runway, a great jump off the ground, a solid core to invert your body, strong arms to push off the pole, and all-around technique. You have to bring it all together at the right time.”

Ben-Youssef readily credits her parents with her ability to dream big and her successes. “I’m lucky to have parents who gave us so many opportunities and allowed us to pursue our interests. They always said we didn’t have to be perfect, but to be sure we gave 100 percent.”

That outstanding effort in high school helped Ben-Youssef build a well-rounded and impressive portfolio. She was recruited to attend Stanford University, where she continued to compete in pole vaulting and became a scholar, graduating with an undergraduate degree in human biology in 2004 and a master’s degree in medical anthropology in 2005.

Since graduating from college, Ben-Youssef has worked as a course associate in human biology at Stanford and has continued her sport, competing for the Tunisian National Team.

Within the past year, she tied and then surpassed the Tunisian record by clearing a personal best of 14 feet, 1.25 inches in June. She also won gold medals at the Pan-African and Pan-Arab games, in Algeria and Egypt, respectively. This year, while competing and winning a gold medal at the African championships in Ethiopia, she took time to visit some women’s clinics to explore her interest in international, rural and women’s health.

Her goal for the Olympics is to make the finals. To achieve that, the athlete adheres to a rigorous training program.

“I train around six days a week, doing short sprints a few times a week, and pole vaulting twice a week. I also do some plyometrics [bounding, hopping and other exercises designed to improve reaction time and power] and a bit of gymnastics.”

Why gymnastics? “Some of the best pole vaulters were once gymnasts. In both sports you need to have great body awareness — knowing where you are in space, having no fear of moving in the air, and being upside down.”

On Aug. 16, Ben-Youssef will compete for a place in the Olympic pole-vaulting finals. Depending on the results, she will compete in the finals on Aug. 18. Win or lose, Ben-Youssef said the experience has been well worth it.

“I’m more excited than nervous,” she said. “My goal is to try to make the finals, but if I don’t, it will still be the most amazing experience — to be with all these athletes who devote their lives to this pursuit.”

After the Olympics, Ben- Youssef will take on the Herculean demands of medical school at the UW School of Medicine program at Montana State University in Bozeman.

Ben-Youssef said that the UW is a perfect match for her academic and athletic passions. She noted that the UW has been very supportive of her Olympian dreams, even allowing her to miss the first days of classes.

“The UW has incredibly supportive people and is a very supportive environment,” she said.

“I met with Dean Linda Hyman, who was excited about my opportunity to compete in the Olympics and flexible to starting a bit later. Not all schools were so supportive in discussing the possibility during interviews — saying I should defer or that it would harm my admission prospect. This speaks highly of the school and the type of students the UW selects. And, coincidently the UW is also a great school for pole vaulting; it has produced a number of national and world champions.”