Raising the Bar

Medical student vaults into championship contention
By Clair McLafferty
Photo of student Neal Tisher pole vaulting
Medical student vaults into championship contention
By Clair McLafferty
Neal Tisher had quite the week in June 2014. She began it in Maine, attending a medical conference devoted to kidney research. She finished it in Eugene, Oregon, flying high at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

Tisher is that rarest of combinations: a pole vaulter and a UAB School of Medicine student. But the blend came naturally to the Mobile native, whose grandfathers were physicians. “I’ve always liked medicine,” she says. And as a pole vaulter and cross-country runner, she constantly saw people “healing and making comebacks,” she explains. “I’ve always been interested in how it works.”

Saving the Season

At Ole Miss, she won All-America honors in pole vault and spent summers conducting research, including several weeks studying ischemic kidney injury at UAB. The experience cemented her desire to pursue medicine and her love for Birmingham. However, after applying to the UAB School of Medicine, Tisher had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. She didn’t heal as quickly as expected and had to miss her senior track season at Ole Miss.

Luckily, a former teammate told her that she could retain her last year of eligibility by jumping at UAB as a graduate student. “He said that it would be hard, but that I could do it during my first year,” says Tisher.

Due to the rigor of her classes, she often can’t get to the scheduled practices. “Medical school has put the responsibility for working out in my own hands,” says Tisher. “I’ve made team practice three to four days a week and practiced on my own the other days.”

In addition, UAB doesn’t have a pole-vaulting pit on campus, so Tisher and Kurt Thomas, head coach for women’s track and field, have had to set up practices at other local schools. “Every week is different,” says Tisher. “I appreciate Coach Thomas for taking me in and working with my schedule."

Healthy Outlet

That schedule can be challenging. In one three-week period, she won her chance to compete at the national championships, took her last medical final of the year, trained with her coach, attended the Maine conference, and pole-vaulted in Oregon.

But track has provided Tisher with a healthy outlet for the stress that comes with being a first-year medical student. “Being able to go to the track, blow off some steam, and have a few hours not to think about school is fantastic,” says Tisher.

The hard work has led her to new heights. In 2013-2014, Tisher made history for the UAB Blazers, vaulting 4.28 meters (14.5 feet) to break a six-year-old Conference USA record. The mark also was a personal best.

With the national championships behind her, Tisher has considered competing in the open division for another year; for now, she’s back in medical school, deciding what specialty she’ll pursue. “I haven’t found a field that I highly dislike,” she says. “I’ve been told that it will hit me in my third and fourth years when I start doing clinical rotations.”

She also has an idea of where she would like to land when she begins her residency. “There are so many top programs at UAB that it wouldn’t surprise me if it is my first choice,” says Tisher.