Her body slices through the still air, feet bouncing across the red rubber, pole in hand. She moves her arms down and flings herself into the air. The pole begins to fall to the side as she soars towards the sky. Her body then begins to fall to the blue mat. She hits, and looks up at a pole, sitting in its place, unbothered. The edges of her lips curl upwards. She qualified.
Track and Field coach Leila Ben-Youssef holds much more to her name than just coach. The former Olympic pole vaulter and current ER doctor started her career off early, a career which would introduce her to different countries, teams, and people.
Ben-Youssef, a track athlete throughout middle and high school in her hometown Sidney, Montana, attracted a recruitment from Stanford, where she joined the first generation of female pole vaulters.
“Pole vaulting became an Olympic sport only in 2000, and so really in ‘94, ‘95 was the first time some of the states allowed girls to pole vault in high school,” Ben-Youssef said.
After college, she joined the Junior Worlds representing the U.S., and had later won African and Arab championships. Soon, she set her sights on the Olympics. Her father from Tunisia and mother from France, Ben-Youssef had the option of choosing between three countries to represent in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she said.
“I didn’t really think I’d be able to [qualify] because I needed to jump a lot higher in a year, but I was pretty persistent and somewhat lucky and managed to do it the very last week you could qualify for the Olympics,” Ben-Youssef said.
She decided to represent her father’s home country, Ben-Youssef said.
“My family has always had a lot of history in Tunisia and it’s something that my whole family was very proud of,” Ben-Youssef said.
Ben-Youssef said that her Olympic experience was very fun and valuable.
“It was awesome to work towards a goal that you didn’t necessarily think you were going to achieve but wanted to get closer to,” Ben-Youssef said.
During the year she took off of medical school, Ben-Youssef got a research scholarship from the National Institute of Health to go Kenya to investigate measles among kids with HIV. There, she approached the Kenyan national track and field team about a coaching job which was quickly granted to her. At first she noticed a lack of coaches and basic resources, but soon Ben-Youssef’s four initial athletes turned into fifty, and her once a week coaching turned into three times a week.
“We are very lucky for what we have because they have half the resources we have here; they didn’t even have tennis shoes.” Ben-Youssef said.
After returning from Kenya and finishing medical school, Ben-Youssef said that she got a job at Highland hospital as an ER doctor. One of her colleagues there suggested she come coach at Piedmont.
“I love high school track and field,” Ben-Youssef said. “There’s something for everyone, which I think is really unique to the sport. I love working with high school kids because they have so much potential.
Senior pole vaulter and team captain of the track and field team Grace Charron said that Ben-Youssef has a lot of energy when coaching and is very good at managing her time.
“Everything that she gives you comes from such a place of qualification, and it’s really incredible,” Charron said.
Ben-Youssef said that because she is now coaching a high school team, she has had to tweak her coaching to match the intensity level.
“They don’t have the same advantages of having a lot of years of training, so you do change [your coaching style] a little bit, but at the same time it’s all down to the basics,” Ben-Youssef said.
Everyone has a different background and different skills that they bring to the sport, the challenge is just to be able to communicate it, Ben-Youssef said.
“What’s awesome about Piedmont track and field is that they have so many amazing coaches that have different backgrounds and different training,” Ben-Youssef said.
Charron said that especially as a pole vaulter, she feels like she is getting a lot of valuable information through Ben-Youssef that she may not be able to get anywhere else.
Ben-Youssef said that the most challenging part about being a coach is balancing the different methods it takes to coach athletes of varied abilities.
“The Piedmont track team is a really mature group of individuals and they’re comfortable asking questions and showing their weaknesses and being willing to improve,” Ben-Youssef said.
As much as she loves coaching, Ben-Youssef said that because she works shifts in the hospital, she never really knows when she will be able to make practice, so she usually only comes once or twice a week.
“We’re really happy to have her even for just two days a week,” said track and field head coach Jeanine Bourcier Holmlund.
Ben-Youssef said that the most rewarding part of coaching for her is not necessarily seeing people improve, but seeing them have fun with the sport, and she loves contributing to that.
“My coach was there every step of the way, and so I hope I can dedicate a little bit of time from what all of my coaches, even collegiate and post collegiate levels, did for me,” Ben-Youssef said.