Not Your Average Student-Athlete: A Feature Story About Joanna Lapucha

TULANEGREENWAVE.COM Tulane junior Joanna Lapucha
Tulane junior Joanna Lapucha

May 8, 2013

Joanna Lapucha is not your ordinary student-athlete.

Her academic pedigree alone speaks for itself; Lapucha is currently pursuing a double major in Chemistry and French, and has maintained a GPA of 3.905 through her three years at Tulane University, earning her three Conference USA Academic Medals and a spot on the Conference USA Honor Roll during her freshman, sophomore and junior years.

Besides her incredible academic accomplishments, Lapucha has been a star on the track, especially as of recent. During her indoor career, she has improved her personal best in the pole vault to 3.80 meters (12' 6"), which she first achieved during the Conference USA Outdoor Championships in 2012. She achieved this height again in 2013 during the Indoor season at the Cherry and Silver Invitational. However, her big opportunity to take the spotlight came in April of 2013, where she stepped up to win the pole vault event title during the South Alabama Invitational, jumping her new personal best of 3.81 meters (12' 6"). Her outdoor mark gave her the second best pole vault in Tulane outdoor history.

"Joanna and I sat down and had a conversation after the Stanford Invitational," stated Tulane director of track and field Eric Peterson. "Both she and Jessica Knierim were competing in the collegiate division, and it consisted of a field of vaulters that they could have beat easily, and it bothered me that they didn't to the point that I pulled each of them aside and I said, `When's the last time you thought about winning an event?' For those kids to not go into a competition hoping for or expecting themselves to win or place really high is the wrong approach, and the cool thing about Joanna is, a couple of weeks later, we were over in South Alabama, and Joanna won the event. When I had the chance to talk to her shortly after the conclusion of that event was, `Coach, I won.' That's significant for an athlete of her pedigree who hasn't won, but now has had enough success that she's beginning to think in those terms is huge, and I think it's a key element to her continuing to develop as she progresses."



The interesting thing about Lapucha is not necessarily how incredible of a student and an athlete she is, but how she was first recruited to come to Tulane University.

Lapucha was accepted to Tulane and offered a full academic scholarship -first and foremost due to her exceedingly high GPA and difficult course load taken at Lafayette High School. Tulane was not even considering her as an athlete; coach Peterson had never heard of the Lafayette native until the Tulane admissions office notified him that Lapucha had indicated on her application that she was interested in the track and field program.

"I'm from Lafayette, and when I was about to accept to Tulane I wanted to know about the track and field situation," recalled Lapucha. "I got into contact with coach Peterson, and he actually came out and visited me in Lafayette with Coach (Justin) Johnson, who was the jumps coach at the time. After that, we continued to talk even though I hadn't actually accepted Tulane yet; I was still weighing my options. I had the recruit visit, there was a spot for me, but my situation was definitely unique."

She received the best of both worlds by choosing to attend Tulane, firstly by receiving a full academic scholarship, and then being recruited to join the track and field team.

"We kind of lucked into it," said Peterson, calmly.

Lapucha has come a long way since she set foot on the Uptown campus. In her freshman season, she held the team's top marks in the outdoor and indoor seasons, but didn't win any events. In her sophomore year, she set new school records for Tulane in the pole vault (three times in outdoor, once in indoor), and notched her first individual title of her collegiate career at the Jaguar Invitational with vault height of 3.65 meters (11' 11.75") - a personal best at the time.

In this current season, Lapucha held the seventh highest vault in indoor (3.80 meters), with the top six being held by teammate Merritt Van Meter. Lapucha also holds the third best vault height currently in the outdoor season (3.81m), with the top two being held by Van Meter, while also winning the aforementioned event title.

Lapucha's success has coincided with the hiring of Doug Fraley - Tulane's current jumps coach - in September 2011.

"The thing with Joanna is, her consistency level and her average have gone way up compared to her freshman year," said Fraley. "The big thing is that she has showed up at the most critical time for our team which is the conference meets. That's really what you want out of an athlete, you want them to be at their best in the highest possible situations, where they can help their team take home a championship, and Joanna has done that all three years."

Lapucha has continued to improve season after season, pushing herself harder and harder to not just be the best on her team, but also be the best of the entire field, and her continuous improvement in results over these past three seasons has shown that her tireless efforts do pay off. Peterson considers her strongest asset to be her work ethic and calls Lapucha "relentless."

"She is so dedicated to doing everything necessary to continue to improve," added Peterson. "I just root for her. I just really hope she can realize the level of success that she's capable of because of how hard she works. It's remarkable that she can carry the load that she does academically and be as committed to her academic development. She is as good a student-athlete as there is, and I'm a big fan of hers."

As any coach and student-athlete will tell you, having great relationships between the two is key to the success of the team, and Lapucha and Peterson have a strong bond. They both separately referred to their relationship as "trusting."

"We've built that kind of trust that comes with time and makes for a good student-athlete combination," said Lapucha.

Lapucha also has a great relationship with Fraley, who handles more of the specifics of her day-to-day training. After replacing Johnson - who took a similar position at his alma mater of Cal State Northridge - Fraley has given Lapucha all the credit in being able to adjust to his new system from the moment he was hired.

"She has adjusted to an entirely different philosophy than anything she had ever dealt with from Coach Johnson or on any level," stated Fraley. "I never have to wonder what percent of effort I'm getting from her. She pops out of bed, seven days a week, ready to give whatever she's got. Whatever 100% is for her is on any given day, she gives that. As a coach, that is one of the greatest compliments that I can give somebody; that I know you're giving your best every single day."

It's fairly obvious that the strong relationships that have developed between Lapucha and her two coaches over these past three years is a big part of the success the pole vaulter has had during her tenure at Tulane University.

After college, Joanna plans to pursue a job in a cosmetics company, because she is "really interested in the formulation of cosmetics and perfumes." Because most major cosmetics companies are based in France, Lapucha is double majoring in chemistry and French.

Lapucha is as well-rounded a student-athlete as there is. She is a double major in chemistry and French - on a full academic scholarship - while studying in one of the most rigorous science and liberal arts curriculums in the country, maintaining a 3.905 GPA. On the track, she has cemented herself in the Tulane record books for her performances in the pole vault in both the indoor and outdoor seasons. Many may wonder if there is anything she can't do.

"I don't run cross-country," said Lapucha, jokingly.

Tulane's track and field team, including Lapucha, will head to the Conference USA Championships in Houston this weekend where they will look to put on a strong showing.

"Joanna is right on the cusp of a breakthrough right now, and if she goes and does some of the things recently she's been doing in practice, she's got a really good chance to set a new personal best, place really well, and score really high for the team," stated Fraley. "The table has been set for her, so now it's just a matter of going, getting excited, and having fun. I expect Joanna to perform very well this weekend."

Lapucha has already set goals for herself during the biggest stage of the outdoor season.

"I just want to keep going in the competitive spirit that I've been getting into," stated Lapucha. "At the conference championships, I tend to do better. Hopefully that holds up this time around. I definitely want to show that I can still keep competing the way I have these past couple conference meets, where you go in and you make the heights you know that you can make. I just really want to come in there, be competitive, and make a 3.90 meter vault or higher."

Once again, Lapucha has set her sights on vaulting a new personal best, and knowing all the spectacular things this athlete has accomplished so far, it is obvious that she is bound for glory in the future.