One Photo Almost Sabotaged This Promising Young Athlete’s Whole Career

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Allison Stokke became an overnight Internet sensation, but it almost ruined her life. At the time, Allison was a rising star in the sports community, smashing records left and right for high school pole vaulting. They say that you should be careful what you share online—but what if it’s out of your hands in the first place?

Young Athlete

Back in 2007, Allison Stokke was still in high school. The 17-year-old was only a senior when someone snapped a photo that would change the way the world perceived her forever. Determined to make it to the Olympics, Allison only wanted to focus on training for track and field. Unfortunately, her future would soon risk being derailed by something totally beyond her control.

One Photo Changed Everything

Allison was one of the most talented pole vaulters in the nation. After the photo went viral, she had no choice but to try and brave the storm. Once Allison’s story was picked up by the news, the teenager knew that her career—and her sense of worth—might be damaged beyond repair...

Family of Athletes

Allison tried to follow in the footsteps of her older brother who competed as a gymnast for the youth team at a national level. However, Allison soon realized gymnastics wasn’t her passion, and she moved on to another sport that would prove to be her true calling.

Pole Vaulting

The first time Allison experienced the adrenaline rush of clearing a beam, she knew that she wanted to pursue pole vaulting seriously. The young athlete quickly went on to gain national recognition, breaking records that established her as the best high school pole vaulter in the country. Allison was riding high on her success… with no idea that things were about to take a turn for the worse.

Talented Girl

By 2004, 15-year-old Allison won the U.S. title and set a superhuman record, vaulting over 12-and-a-half feet. Allison then proceeded to break her own record as a freshman in high school, and she cleared it once again in 2005 during her sophomore year. No one in Allison’s age bracket had ever vaulted over 13' 5 ¾", which Allison had managed to accomplish with ease.

Taking a Risk

Allison was constantly pushing herself to achieve new goals, but one day during practice, the teenager bit off more than she could chew. Against her better judgment, Allison attempted to use a pole that was significantly larger than the one to which she was accustomed. What happened next could have been the end of Allison’s pole vaulting career.

Error of Judgment

Allison launched herself into the air. She instantly realized that she had underestimated how much height she would need to clear the bar. With a resonating crack, Allison landed in the concrete launch box below the bar. Allison, blinded with pain, knew that something was seriously wrong.

Down for the Count

It turned out that Allison had shattered a bone in her ankle. She was forced to undergo surgery, hopeful that the operation would allow her to compete again. Sadly, Allison’s chance at becoming state champion for a second year running was no longer an option…

The Waiting Game

The recovery process was grueling. Allison just wanted to be back on the track, competing with her peers. Six months passed before Allison was able to return to pole vaulting. She was a true competitor, dogged in her pursuit of the next state championship—but there was another obstacle on the way.

Sullied Reputation

Allison believed her senior year was going to be the best one yet. Her athleticism had made her a star member of the track and field team, and she was seeking to break her latest record of 13' 6 ¾". Sadly, Allison’s reputation was about to be tarnished in the most grotesque way possible…

Living the Good Life

Despite the odds, Allison went on to take home yet another CIF title. By the end of her senior year, she had earned a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley. Allison truly thought that things couldn’t be any more perfect.

The Event That Changed It All

Allison spent a brief weekend in New York where she competed in a pole vaulting competition. She was 17 years old with her whole future ahead of her. Afterward, she returned to California and resumed life as a regular high school student. That's when a California track and field website posted photographs from the event, one of which featured Allison in line as she prepared for her turn...

One Photograph

The images had been taken by a journalist and uploaded to the site. This was standard practice for sporting events; Allison didn’t think anything of it. Although social media hadn’t quite spawned into the all-consuming nightmare it is today, it still served as a powerful tool for disseminating information. Soon, Allison’s life was about to spin out of control.

She Was Only 17

The photo was simple and seemingly harmless. It featured Allison standing in line with her pole, not paying attention to the photographer while waiting for her turn. Although the image was just a casual picture of an innocent teenager, it sparked controversy that consumed the nation. What was the catalyst?

Reposted and Degraded

In May of 2007, Allison’s image was reposted by a blog called With Leather, a sports blog with a fanbase of mainly adult men. With Leather would later be owned by UPROXX. The blog uploaded Allison’s photograph alongside a heading that sexualized the minor without her consent.

Barely Legal

The blog’s target demographic went ballistic, remarking on Allison’s appearance and commenting nasty things about the 17-year-old girl. With Leather had titled the image: “Pole Vaulting is Sexy, Barely Legal.” It didn’t take long for everything to spiral into pandemonium.

Lawsuit on the Horizon

The picture began to circulate, spreading across the Internet like wildfire. The photographer who took the photo threatened to sue the owner of the site, Matt Ufford, if he did not comply with their request to remove Allison’s image.

She Was Technically an Adult

The With Leather post went up approximately two months after the photographer had posted it online. In the interim, Allison had turned 18, although she was only 17 in the photo—meaning that in all likelihood, legal action was hopeless.

She Couldn’t Escape

Along with photos in all the major news outlets, a tribute website dedicated entirely to Allison also emerged. The site featured a collection of photos of Allison competing in pole vault competitions at various meets. Once knowledge of the site hit mainstream media, Allison was terrified that her life might never return to normal.

Harassed Online

After Ufford sexualized the teen on With Leather, the original owner of the photograph decided to hedge their bets and seek legal action against him and his blog. Unfortunately, the image had spread beyond all control. It was impossible to corral the masses, who descended upon Allison like vultures.

Parents to the Rescue

Allison had no idea how to manage the unwanted attention. Just a few weeks earlier, she had been a regular high school student and star athlete. Now, she feared for her safety and wellbeing. Allison was being bombarded with photoshoot and interview requests from every direction. She felt totally overwhelmed. Then, Allison’s parents sprang into action...

Bringing in the Big Guns

The Stokkes were left with no choice but to hire a media consultant, who they hoped would help Allison handle the sudden barrage of attention. The media consultant was tasked with the gargantuan duty of repairing Allison’s public image—but their advice would soon land Allison in an even more undesirable position.

Big Mistake

Allison never wanted to be a sex symbol. She longed to return to the days before strangers had violated her image online. In an effort to refocus attention on her talents as a sportswoman rather than her appearance, Allison listened to her media consultant and made a YouTube video in which she discussed pole vaulting. No one could have prepared for the public’s reaction...

Turn for the Worse

After Allison posted the video, the comments section began to flood with shameless, disgusting remarks about the 18-year-old. Allison felt totally hopeless. She had never asked for any of this—it was unconscionable that an innocent girl was being harassed by anonymous men online. Her family had to make a serious choice about the measures they would take to protect their daughter from harm.

Public Obsession

Allison’s everyday life was thrown into upheaval. Twice as many photographers appeared at her pole vaulting events. Fake profiles claiming to be her were cropping up all over Facebook and MySpace. Message boards dissected everything from her looks to her merit as an athlete. There was even a fan page dedicated to worshipping the teenager. Allison’s parents decided enough was enough.

Feeling Invisible

In an interview with the Washington Post, the Stokke family came forward about how the sexualization of their daughter had affected them. Allison’s mother said how horrified she was to read such degrading locker room talk about her daughter. Allison herself said, “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.”

Dealing with the Aftermath

Allison’s senior year drew to a close. She attended the University of California, Berkeley with a 4.0 GPA. Allison continued to succeed as a college athlete, breaking multiple school records and earning recognition as one of the most gifted pole vaulters in the Pac-12 Conference. Still, it was difficult for Allison to leave her past behind…

New Direction

By the end of college, Allison had become an Academic All-American, allowing her to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Although she desperately wanted to make it to the 2012 London Olympics, she failed. Allison’s athletic career was on the path to becoming a distant memory. Fortunately, Allison finally managed to capitalize on the exposure that had destroyed the final years of her adolescence…

She Was In Control

With her dreams of becoming a professional athlete shot, Allison pivoted in a whole new direction: modeling. Allison partnered with sports apparel brands like Uniqlo, Nike, and Athleta. She even landed a partnership with GoPro. This time, she was sharing photos of her face and body that she could control.

Finding Love

GoPro produced a series of videos featuring Allison and the sport that landed her in a world of chaos. Allison continued to participate in events here and there, but after several years, she gave up the pole vaulting in favor of another all-consuming affair—falling in love.

Meet the Fowlers

Allison began dating professional golfer Rickie Fowler in 2017. Fowler had also experienced a rapid rise to fame during his youth. The following year, Allison and Rickie were engaged, and the sporty couple wed this past October. Allison has continued to work as a fitness model, even pole vaulting from time to time.

Beware the Internet

Allison serves as an inspiration to millions of people around the world who watched a strong young girl blossom into an even stronger woman. Despite the obstacles she faced, Allison managed to overcome adversity and succeed on her own terms as an athlete and a model. Hopefully, Allison’s story can be heeded as a cautionary tale: what goes online, stays online.

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