Most of us appreciate it when others recognize us for our talent. But how would it feel if you got famous for something about yourself that you can't control? That’s what happened to Allison Stokke when she was just 17...
The Competitive Spirit
Allison Stokke was a California girl who grew up in an athletic household. Her older brother David was a National level competitive gymnast, and it was assumed that Allison would follow in his footsteps. She wouldn’t.
Pole Vaulting Passion
Gymnastics wasn’t exactly Stokke’s thing. But it didn’t take long for her to discover pole vaulting as her sport of choice. By the time she was 15, she was well on her way to setting records.
Stokke became one of the youngest pole vaulting stars of her time. With practice and dedication, she was able to set a record by 15 years old, vaulting 12 ft 6 in and winning the US title in return.
Stokke wasn’t just a natural athlete; she was a natural beauty as well. And while she was a senior in high school, she spent some time modeling on the side for extra income.
Senior Year Record
By her senior year, Stokke was being recognized as a competitive pole vaulter, in spite of having broken her leg earlier in her high school career. She also beat her own record, vaulting 13 ft 6 3/4 in, and finished eighth at the national junior championships.
In 2007, With Leather was a popular sports blog that had a pretty substantial male fanbase. The viral site was known for its objectification of women, particularly in the sports arena, and Stokke was next on their list of targets.
The Photo That Changed Everything
That year, a journalist for a California track and field website took a photo of Stokke at a competition she was attending in New York and posted it online. It soon found its way to the With Leather website.
Spread Around the Internet
The original photographer didn’t exactly appreciate his work being used without his permission, under the headline, “Pole Vaulting Is Sexy, Barely Legal.” He threatened to sue With Leather’s owner if it wasn’t taken down, but the photo had already spread to other sites.
Stokke became the subject of a tribute site, which posted several images of her in pole vaulting competitions. From there, the images spread through social media, and fan sites cropped up that garnered thousands of followers.
Stokke and her family had hoped her newfound internet fame would be only temporary, as most things of this nature are. They couldn’t have been more wrong, and their struggle against the internet was only just beginning.
The Fandom Goes Overseas
It only took a couple of weeks before the effect of Stokke’s photos were felt around the world. Comment pieces by The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the BBC, The Sydney Morning Herald, and the German weekly Der Spiegel all reflected on Stokke’s unwanted fame.
When Superfans Cross the Line
A million search engine results. Numerous fan sites devoted to Stokke’s physical appearance. Emails and photo requests. Stokke had become an unwilling sex symbol, and for some internet fans, obsession became the next logical step.
Eventually, Stokke and her family realized that her internet fame was a problem that was just too big for them to solve on their own. She hired a media consultant to help handle the situation.
The Sports Interview
Stokke decided to try and shift the internet’s focus back from her looks to her athletic career. She participated in an interview on pole vaulting techniques that was uploaded to YouTube, where it received over a hundred thousand views.
An Unwanted Effect
Unfortunately, the comments section of Stokke’s YouTube interview remained in a very dark place. Rather than a discussion on her abilities as a pole vaulter, the majority of the comments instead focused on her sexual desirability.
Dad Steps In
Stokke’s father, Allan, happened to be a lawyer by trade. He began the lengthy process of wading through a sea of internet comments to see if he could find something potentially illegal that could be used to shut down his daughter’s “fan” sites once and for all.
The CBS Story
Keep in mind that throughout all of this, Stokke was only 17 when the infamous photo of her was first published. To highlight the dangers of young people who are sexualized over the internet, CBS aired a story focusing on Stokke and her own personal struggle.
A Mental Toll
Stokke never asked to be a sex symbol, and she unwillingly found herself in that exact position. She found the constant leering “creepy” and “scary” and felt the need to ensure doors were locked behind her.
Stokke only ever wanted to be known for her athletic ability. She told The Washington Post, “Even if none of it is illegal, it just all feels really demeaning. I worked so hard for pole vaulting and all this other stuff, and it's almost like that doesn't matter. Nobody sees that. Nobody really sees me.”
During her freshman year at UC Berkeley, Stokke broke the school record with a vault of 13 ft 5 3/4 in. By her sophomore year, she had added another 4 in to her length and finished eighth at the Pac-10 Championships and seventh at the MPSF Indoor Championships.
Keeping a Low Profile
By junior year, Stokke took a more academic focus on college. While she continued to compete athletically, by her senior year at Berkeley, she only came in eighth again at the Pac-10 Championships and didn’t even qualify for the NCAA Championships.
In 2012, Stokke set her sights on the London Olympics. Although she had hit a personal best with a vault length of 14 ft 3 1/2 in, but the time of the US Olympic trials, she was unable to even clear the opening height.
Her Own Terms
Stokke has since gone on to do sportswear modeling, working for big name companies like Nike in 2015 and Uniqlo in 2016. She also did a series of videos for GoPro, which have received more than six million views on YouTube.
In 2017, Stokke began dating professional golfer Rickie Fowler. Like Stokke, Fowler was something of an athletic prodigy, having been ranked the number one amateur golfer in the world for 37 weeks before hitting his 20s. The two became engaged in June.
Regardless of her placement in national rankings, Stokke continues to compete professionally. In 2016, she placed eighth at the Chula Vista OTC High Performance Meet, and by 2017, she had improved enough to place third at the 2017 Austin Longhorn Invitational.