We all want people to recognize us for our hard work, drive, and talent. But what happens when you get famous for something completely out of your control? Because that’s what happened to Allison Stokke when she was only 17. And you won’t believe what she had to go through to get her life back together.
Growing Up Competitive
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.
5 Athletes Who Went Viral for Reasons Other Than Sports
Sports stars have always made for great celebrities. But with some viral athletes in the era of the social media, fame doesn't necessarily come from sporting success...
Michelle Jenneke is an Australian hurdler who competed in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. As a teenager, she won a silver medal in the 100-meter hurdles during the 2010 Summer Youth Olympics. But these achievements aren't what made her famous...
During the 2012 World Junior Championships in Athletics in Barcelona, Jenneke was caught on camera doing an absolutely adorable warm-up dance that involved swaying her hips from side to side. Immediately, the internet fell in love with this enthusiastic hurdler.
Taking Instagram by Storm
At present, Jenneke is just shy of half a million followers on Instagram, where she regularly posts pictures from her athletic meets as well as model photos. As a natural result of her fame, she found that a lot of doors were open to her in the field of modeling.
The Internet's Favorite Hurdler
Jenneke's fame spread far and wide across the internet. She appeared in a comedy YouTube video for The Chive that earned over 10 million views, and was a star at the Top Gear Sydney Festival, where she took part in a race driving a Nissan GT-R.
Bigger and Better Things
Jenneke's story isn't over yet, as she continues to hurdle while her fame grows. Her hope is to compete again in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
American runner Morolake Akinosun won a gold medal as part of the 400-meter women's relay team at the 2016 Rio Olympics. But as impressive as this achievement was, the thing that took her viral was actually a tweet from 2011.
Akinosun knew from a young age what she wanted to do with her life. Even at age 12, she was convinced that she wanted to be an Olympian. In 2011, at age 17, she set out her goals in her tweet, stating that in five years she was going to graduate college and head to the Olympics.
In 2016, Akinosun revisited her earlier tweet. With no small amount of satisfaction, she was able to tweet out a photo of herself, dressed in University of Texas graduation robes, and wearing her gold medal. Not only had she achieved her goals, but she'd surpassed them.
Akinosun's 2016 follow-up tweet received over 350,000 likes and 190,000 retweets. Her fans know her by a new name: Ms. Fast Twitch, a name that she has had embroidered onto her running shoes to remind the world what she's capable of.
In 2018, Akinson received what could have been a career-ending injury when she tore her achilles tendon. After fighting her way through the recovery process, she went right back to running. She tweeted, "I’ll rise up, in spite of the pain; I will rise & I’ll do it 1,000 times."
Pole vaulter Allison Stokke got a lot more online attention than she ever anticipated. Despite failing to qualify for the 2012 London Summer Olympics, she is still one of the most famous pole vaulters in the world—for better or worse.
Stokke's fame skyrocketed when this photo of her at a track meet gained enormous popularity online. One website published an article actually encouraging readers to objectfy the up-and-coming sports star. But, thankfully, that article is deleted now.
Despite only being 17 at the time the infamous photo was taken, Stokke found herself at the center of a full-blown internet craze that overshadowed all of her athletic achievements. Even when her family hired a PR firm to try to fix the issue, it was clear that her fame wasn't going away.
In the wake of a constant onslaught of media attention, Stokke has taken ownership of her fame. She has become a sportswear model, and featured in commercial videos for GoPro in an effort to make her online presence work in her favor, even though it continues to get in the way of her athletic pursuits.
Stokke still trains hard, and while she never made it to the Olympics, she continued to compete at a national level until 2017. Now, as a model for brands including Nike and Athleta, she has managed to use her unwanted fame to her advantage.
As a 17-year-old in 2018, Chloe Kim became the youngest person ever to win an Olympic gold medal in the women's snowboard halfpipe. This achievement in and of itself would be enough to win her some fame. But Kim's popularity exploded because of something else: hanger.
Pausing to Tweet
What makes Kim's achievement feel so incredible is that she made it look so effortless. In between sessions on the slope in the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, she took a second to pick up her phone and send off a quick tweet.
Kim's tweet read, "Wish I finished my breakfast sandwich but my stubborn self decided not to and now I'm getting hangry." The tweet earned her tens of thousands of followers as she then took to the half pipe and won herself a gold medal.
The Power of a Skipped Breakfast
Followers online were amazed at just how much Kim had achieved while hangry, and loved the fact that her thoughts in the midst of her greatest achievemenet were focused on food. Kim's quirky, offbeat personality resonated with audiences around the world.
Braving the Slopes
Kim has many years of competing left in her yet, and it'll be interesting to see where her career takes her next. Even injuries (which are common in her sport) don't slow her down for long, and she'll no doubt be back for another round of snowboarding in future competitions. If this is what she can achieve on an empty stomach, who knows what she'll manage at the next Winter Olympics?
McKayla Maroney won a gold medal during the London 2012 Olympics for the Women's Team All-Around gymnastics event. But while this incredible achievement may have earned her a win, her silver medal at the same Olympics is what earned her the love of internet.
A photo of Maroney looking very disgruntled with her silver medal in the vault event turned into an instant meme. Online audiences fell in love with Maroney, as they could easily relate to the barely contained frustration displayed on her face.
All The Way To The Top
It's customary for American Olympics winners to be invited to the White House to meet the president. Maroney's fame was solidified when Barack Obama copied her famous expression in a photo of the two of them together. Before long, she'd won a long-lasting online following.
Maroney's Instagram following blew up. She allowed herself to act freely on the platform. It turned out that her meme only scratched the surface of her entertaining personality, and she enjoyed interacting with her fans.
A #MeToo Hero
Maroney retired from competitive gymnastics in 2016, but continues to be a noteworthy name online. In 2018 she was heavily involved in the #MeToo movement, and while at present she has withdrawn from social media, there's a good chance we haven't seen the last of this internet superstar.