Senior pole vaulter commits to Naval Academy

Riley Perumal goes from track leader to marine officer


Neena Sidhu

Leaping over the bar, senior Riley Perumal completes her pole vault event at the Dan Christie Relays track meet. Perumal placed fourth at the meet. Perumal will continue her pole vault career at the Naval Academy.

In the pit, senior Riley Perumal serves as a leader to fellow track teammates, but now she looks to leap to the next level and become a marine officer through the Naval Academy.

Putting on chalk, senior Riley Perumal prepares to compete. “It’s always a goal of mine to vault in college,” Perumal said. “Also meeting double digits in like, feet was a goal of mine. But now a goal of mine, I want to vault 12 feet – I mean, I vault 11 now so it’s not too far off.” (Neena Sidhu)

Perumal committed to USNA track and field, specifically pole vault.

“I was a gymnast for, like, eight years, and then I quit before seventh grade,” Perumal said. “My PE teacher at Rogers Middle School was like, ‘you’re fast, you actually seem like you work hard in PE. You should do track.'”

Perumal began track in middle school, and this year marks her sixth year of participation.

“My mom was like ‘you should try pole vault because gymnasts are usually really good at pole,” Perumal said. “And then the middle school football coach, Coach (Chris) Rod (said) ‘Oh, you’re actually kind of good at this. Keep doing it.’ So I started doing it at a club.”

Perumal began club pole vault at Texas Express Track her freshman year. Chad Andrews holds the head coach position at Texas Express.

“It’s always been a goal of mine to vault in college,” Perumal said. “Also meeting double digits in feet was a goal of mine. But now a goal of mine, I want to vault 12 feet – I mean, I vault 11 now, so it’s not too far off.”

According to Texas Express, her personal record for the club 2022-2023 season is 10’6”.

“I did gymnastics, which builds a lot of upper body and core strength and coordination,” Perumal said. “So that really helps, a lot of people that were gymnasts are usually pretty good at pole vault.”

Pole vault requires upper body strength in addition to leg strength.

“Just, (when there are) ups and downs, like injuries, I feel like I can always go to my school coaches, and also my club coaches. They’re just such great people,” Perumal said. “My club coach, he’s like another dad to me. He’s so sweet. And if you’re having a rough time, they’ll just sit down and talk to you about it.”

Andrews coaches Perumal at her club practice. Jackie Crisp coaches PHS girls track and field and is an assistant cross-country coach.

“In coaching Riley, I have supported her by making sure she has the best equipment – and encouraging her to be the best that she can be,” Crisp said. “I have watched Riley grow as an athlete in her work ethic of being dedicated year-round to pole vaulting – and leading the track team by example.”

Perumal’s dedication to pole vault and academics brought her many opportunities and offers from universities.

“I got an offer from MIT,” Perumal said. “My dad went to MIT. So, he wanted me to go there. But, I would rather go to the Naval Academy. For me, I want to be a Marine or a naval officer, and this is a better opportunity for me to do that. I got a $180,000 scholarship from the Marine Corps to do ROTC at college. And, so that was an option, but I just would rather go to the Naval Academy just because, I’m surrounded by people who can do that.”

Perumal was one of 25 other students in the nation to receive the Naval Reserve Officer Corps scholarship.

“I want to be a Marine officer,” Perumal said. “I’m thinking like infantry. But, maybe pilot. I want to major in aerospace engineering because I find it really interesting – I’m in the aerospace class here.”

Perumal’s interest in the military career path peaked when taking a military history class offered at PHS.

“She did express great interest in the academy during military history class, and I am hopeful that the discussions in the class kept her interest alive,” history teacher Maurice Atkinson said. “I sent letters of recommendation to both senators for her and just generally encouraged her to stick with the process when she got discouraged.”

I believe that the USNA is a good fit for Riley because she has the self-discipline that it takes to continue her athletic success, but also she has the leadership qualities that are needed to become an officer in the military.

— Jackie Crisp, track coach

The USNA application includes recommendations from politicians and a physical test in addition to regular college application requirements.

“I look forward to Riley having an outstanding career in the Navy,” Atkinson said. “She is a very driven young lady and seems to be a natural leader. She always puts duty before herself in her job and in school, and prides herself on doing an outstanding job.”

Perumal will carry on the family legacy, as her father was in the navy, and many of her other relatives were members of other branches of the military.

“It’s such a pretty place, but if you go there, you have to want to go there,” Perumal said. “There’s people that have talked to me, and I’m like, ‘Well, do you really want to go?’ And ,they’re like ‘Well, I don’t know,’ then don’t go. You have to want to go because it’s so hard. I mean, I leave end of June, and like, I (can’t) have my phone until August.”

Military academy students attend plebe summer before their freshman year. During this time they go through demanding physical and mental training.

“I would say if people want to do track in college, or whatever, go to camps. Go to things at the college,” Perumal said. “I didn’t do any college visits. Not even a tour (at a) college. I literally only went to the Naval Academy because I went to a camp there. And, that was my only experience.”

USNA offers a Summer STEM program for rising freshmen through rising juniors. Rising juniors can attend the USNA Summer Seminar program. Both programs offer STEM-focused academic modules and physical activities at the academy, and last a week long.

“I had applied for the summer seminar program, and then I was like, that’s such a big commitment actually going,” Perumal said. “But, I went, and I loved it. And, there were people there that were just complaining. But, I was like for me, ‘I really want to go here.’ But obviously, for some people, it told them that they didn’t want to.”

USNA Summer Seminar applications are open until April 1, and Summer STEM will close on April 15. Junior Yebom Yang attended the USNA Summer STEM program and said he also hopes to attend the college.

“I met her since we are both on the track team, but I got to know her better with our common interest in USNA,” Yang said. “She definitely is a daily inspiration, as I get to see her go above and beyond at practice and every small workout. The way she carries herself in her integrity and commitment encourages me to do the same. I think she also (has been a) mentor, as I got an idea of what to expect during the extensive application process, as well as insight into mental preparation. Riley sincerely is an amazing leader, and I’m so glad she found her place at the Naval Academy.”

At the Naval Academy I hope Riley will be able to excel at everything she does there. I really am so proud of how far Riley has come, and I hope the satisfaction of finally reaching the goal she’s been working so hard towards is everything she wished for and more.

— Kate Blachowski, senior

Perumal serves as a mentor to both underclassmen and her teammates on the track team.

“I have seen Riley grow in so many ways,” senior Kate Blachowski said. “Riley has always been such a focused and driven athlete who seemed to always have goals she was reaching for, and I, along with so many of our teammates, have admired that about her.”

Blachowski met Perumal through the track team when she transferred her sophomore year.

“Over the past few years, her confidence has grown exponentially, which has shown both on and off the runway,” Blachowski said. “Being able to compete with Riley is always refreshing because we are able to balance each other’s nerves and adrenaline perfectly. Whether that be dancing before we vault or helping each other with mental cues, it makes every vault that much easier.”

Outside of the team, Pemural expanded her leadership through her job at the nonprofit Mane Gait. Mane Gait offers therapy for children and adults with disabilities through horsemanship.

“I kind of talked about this for my NROTC interview — I work at Mane Gait,” Perumal said. “There was a guy that came in one time – he was on the shift and he was so confused. I was telling him what to do. He was so nice, but I asked him to do something, but he’s an adult male, and I’m a minor and a girl. And, I don’t know, I kind of thought it was funny. ”

Despite being a young woman, Perumal said she hopes to continue as a leader in her career at USNA.

“So, I told the officer that was interviewing me for that scholarship, and he kind of told me that people sometimes don’t think that (women) are (strong enough) to do this type of thing,” Perumal said. “I’m a leader in track, so I think (being a leader) definitely helps, but it’s just kind of like defying the odds. People don’t really expect that much of you. It’s about respect.”