Alison Stokke felt like the world was at her feet when she was a senior in high school. Even though she would find herself racking up the achievements, Allison started out as the best pole vaulter in the country. But with only one photo, her entire world was turned upside down.
Allison was born to her parents Allan and Cindy Stokke and lived in Newport Beach, California. You could say that sports ran in her family, considering her older brother was a national-level youth gymnast. It was obvious that Allison would show great athletic ability, as well. Before getting into track and field in high school, which would be a glorious time for her, Allison tried out gymnastics.
Almost as soon as Allison began attending Newport Harbor High School, she was a pole vaulting star. In 2004, Allison broke the American record for a high school freshman with a height of 12 ft 73/4 in (3.86 m). The following year she did even better by breaking the high school sophomore record with a height of 13 ft 53/4 in (4.11 m). Then, Allison became a senior in high school.
Allison was a senior in high school in 2007. She was ranked second in the high school national rankings, with a new best of 13 ft 63/4 in (4.14 m). During a competition in New York that year, a photographer from a track and field magazine in California took pictures of the athletes. It may not have been the first time Allison had been photographed, but it would prove to be the most life-changing.
A few months down the road, a photo of Allison made its way to a sports blog called With Leather. Most people look at this picture and see a young athlete waiting for their next jump. But to many men of the fanbase, the picture becomes something a bit more sexual. The pictured was included in an article titled “Pole Vaulting is Sexy, Barely Legal.” This picture would prove to cause Allison a lot of emotional distress.
The article gained a lot of online attention very quickly. It wasn’t long before the original photographer heard about it. He threatened the owner of the website with a lawsuit, but it was too late. Unfortunately, the photo had spread around the Internet too far, and way too fast. It took only a few months for the 17-year-old athlete to become a sex symbol. There were even social media groups dedicated to her. Eventually, the photo made its way to mainstream media.
Several newspapers, such as the Washington Post, LA Times, and the New York Times, wrote about Allison’s accidental rise to fame. She became internationally known after it gained attention from Germany, Australia, and the UK. After recognizing her last name, her mother’s dry-cleaning attendant told her mother how everyone in her native country of Korea was talking about her. Allison was wanted all around the world.
The amount of people trying to send Allison a friend request on Facebook actually caused the site’s counting mechanism to break down. Not only were media outlets sending Allison requests and emails, grown men were sending her notes and post cards, many of them with inappropriate content. But Allison wasn’t going to let it destroy her.
After earning an athletic scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley, Allison chose to ignore all of the unwanted attention and focus on sports, and her major, sociology. Allison ended up breaking the school’s record for freshman athlete, as well as her personal best, with a vault of 13 ft 91/2 in (4.21 m) at her first competition. But after the photo outbreak, competing became a bit more difficult.
Allison’s presence began to attract large crowds of spectators and photographers that were trying to get “sexy” pictures of her. She was constantly being approached by strange men wanting to take a picture with her. Because men continued to ask for a signed copy of her headshot, the university was forced to remove it from their website. Allison’s whole life was being affected by the attention.
Allison didn’t enjoy being known all over for the way she look and it began to negatively affect her. She felt all of the staring was “creepy and a little scary” and she even began locking every door behind her. Allison began to feel like all of her hard work was being overlooked. “Nobody sees that. Nobody really sees me,” she said. Even thought she continued to strive athletically, nothing was being noticed.
Unfortunately, in order to avoid the wrong kind of attention, the university took extreme measure to distance themselves from Allison. “I think at some point Cal just decided: ‘Don’t put anything up about her,’” she said. “So even if I jumped high or won a meet, they wouldn’t put up a picture or article, and that’s actually the kind of recognition I would have liked to see.” Allison continued to stay focused, and finally, in 2012, Allison was given in once in a lifetime opportunity.
Allison graduated from college and continued training with hopes of making it the Olympics one say. She was at her lifetime best height of 14 ft 31/2 in (4.36 m). Unfortunately, she was disqualified from the Olympics, after failing to clear the opening height of 13 ft 11 1/4 in (4.25 m). A new path opened up for Allison.
For quite a few years, thanks to the viral photo, Allison had to turn down countless offers to be in the spotlight, like being on the cover of Maxim and appearing on the Today show. But once Allison reached her mid-twenties, she had a bit more maturity and a lot more life experience, she chose to take the reins and use the viral attention in her favor.
Allison was becoming a sportswear model. She even appeared in ads for Athleta, Uniqlo, and Nike. She also attached a camera to her pole vault and made videos for GoPro! Allison continued to train, but sadly, she didn’t qualify for the 2016 Olympics. Regardless of that, Allison is now able to appreciate her viral photo with the new perspective on life that she has.
Allison spoke about the picture that changed her life: “I feel like me and that picture are two different people. I feel it has taken on a life of its own. It’s like that picture is my alter-ego and sometimes I feel like I use it for a positive force, and sometimes I just choose to leave it out there and not engage with it.”