Four-time national champion Cimran Virdi ’16 reflects on amazing 4 years at MIT

During this past academic year, we have featured a number of exceptionally talented student-athletes from different sports at MIT in our Player of the Month series.  In this commencement edition, we feature a sensational senior who has four individual national titles to her credit and has literally jumped higher than any female athlete in division III history. 

Cimran Virdi ’16 gives us a glimpse of what it takes to be an elite student-athlete at MIT. At the same time, Virdi comes across as someone with a lot of gratitude and humility for her accomplishments. Following a most untimely injury that prevented her from competing in the outdoor track and field season in her last season, Virdi reflects on her struggles, the adversities she had to overcome, and how ultimately she learnt to enjoy the journey and not just focus on the milestones no matter how significant they may be.

Virdi had started competitive pole vault from her freshman year in high school. By the time she was ready to go to college she had already jumped a height of 3.90m (12’ 9.5”) and was deciding between going to MIT or UCLA. On of her coaches back then had advised her to go to the school where she would be most happy if she got injured.

Having been injured, Virdi reflected, “It is hard to make that kind of judgment—UCLA or MIT without having experienced it all. But, I am happy with the choice I made. I have enjoyed my four years here.”

Like many of her peers, MIT posed unique challenges for her.

“6.046: the advanced algorithms class,” quipped Virdi when asked about the class that challenged her most. She was quick to add, “It seems harder than it really is because everyone goes into it knowing it is going to be hard.”

Virdi, however, was up for any challenge.

This is how her coach Patrick Barragan PhD ’12 put it: “She had to work hard to adjust to MIT and excel in school as well as pole vault. And it was no easy task. Within 3 years, she had jumped 4.27 [m] (14’), the highest any woman had ever gone in Division III.”

Virdi credits her coach for having a unique perspective into coaching pole vault.

“My coach, who is mechanical engineer with a PhD, SM, and SB from MIT, is very methodical about coaching pole vault.  He looks at the sport from a physics standpoint, [and] that helps in understanding what kind of forces need to be put on the pole and how to optimize efficiency,” said Virdi.

But for all the technique and expertise in physics it often comes down to mental toughness.

Virdi explained, “Usually in a lot of sports within track and field where you are trying to do your best, what primarily holds people back is whether think they can do something. For me, it came down to putting myself in a position to believe that I could do something even if I had not done it before.”

For someone who had ‘achieved something she had not before’ multiples in a trophy-laden career, we asked her if she had any favorites.  From her response, we get a unique insight about the person behind those national titles.

Virdi reflected, “The meet I am most proud of is not a national championship. It was my second outdoor nationals, and I finished second. That championship was right after my indoor national title. But I ended up jumping higher [than my personal best] than I did indoor.”

“It was a great competition. I did not let anything get in the way of taking the best jumps I could.  It was the most exciting competition as well as there were just two girls left. We kept raising the bar, clearing three heights each time with no misses. Only after I had jumped my personal best did I have three misses. I performed my best in that meet. That is the one I am most proud of. No one would know it, as I did not win that one,” added Virdi.

Having to navigate stiff competition from premier athletes from other institutions could take its toll on a person, but Virdi had a different outlook: “I think the rivalry was good, as it set the bar in the nationals, which is the only competition I got to see [her rival] and some other athletes. But as far as my performance goes, I focus on doing my best. When I perform, I am not looking out for Marissa or Anna or anyone in particular.”

Virdi went on to explain how, just like her one of her rivals, Marissa Kelsey, had gotten injured and missed this outdoor season.

“One thing I love about this sport is the community it builds. We have become friends and dealt with disappointments together,” added Virdi.

For the senior with four national titles, looking to “move on from school and live in the real world” while keeping the dreams of representing Canada at the Olympics alive, how does she look back at such an amazing career?

“I think when I look back, I reflect less on the accomplishments and more on the journey—the friends I have made, the lessons I have learnt, the injuries, the struggles, the people I was able to help, and the people I was able to learn from. I feel very grateful for it all and lucky that on paper [my accomplishments] looks great.”