Renaud Lavillenie has the hollow cheeks of a man who doesn’t weigh an ounce more than he needs. He puffs them gently before each vault attempt, as if the extra breath could make him lighter, as if the little air could lift him higher. Then he takes the end of the pole in his hands, raises it high, rocks on his heels and runs.
The run is what lets him fly. By the last five meters of his approach, Lavillenie is at full sprint, generating energy. When he set the world record, in 2015, he was clocked at about 19 miles per hour — around the top speed of a roadrunner. It is not enough just to run hard, of course. Lavillenie is fast, but so are others. A pole vaulter has to have perfect timing to know when to let the pole fall toward the box, so that he can carry it with less stress. He has to know what length to stride, so that his final step lands just below his top hand when the pole slides into the box and abruptly stops. Too far in, and his arm would yank; too far out, and he’d have to jump on the pole. Lavillenie knows exactly where to put his feet.
Lavillenie, a 29-year-old from France, is the best in the world, in history; in 2015, he vaulted 6.16 meters to break a world record that had stood for 21 years. At 5 feet 9 inches, he is much shorter than most elite vaulters — but he makes up for it with his speed, consistency and technique. Peter McGinnis, a SUNY Cortland professor of kinesiology who consults with the U.S. Track and Field team, has studied a few of his vaults and noticed something interesting: Most pole vaulters have a takeoff angle around 18 degrees. Lavillenie’s is lower. At the instant he leaves the ground, he has a higher velocity than everyone else. He also has an even step rate over his last two steps, and he almost runs straight off the ground. Then, Lavillenie manages to stay behind the pole for longer. “That means he has more kinetic energy at take off than everyone else, and he uses it better,” McGinnis explains.
A pole is simply a tube that is made of fiberglass or fiberglass and carbon weave. The brand that Lavillenie uses is fiberglass; it is slightly thicker at the middle, at the point of maximum stress when the pole bends. The poles elite vaulters use are long and stiff. But Lavillenie — despite his small size — manages to produce more bend in the pole than the other vaulters. After the pole plants, he exerts force on the pole with his bottom hand. As he lifts off the ground, he swings from his top hand. The pole is compressed like a spring.
As it straightens, Lavillenie is pulled up by the force of the pole. He swings himself upside down. Milliseconds after his feet clear the bar, he starts to arch his body. Even though his torso goes over the bar, the average position of his center of mass may actually be below the bar — which means that, using this technique, he only needs to propel himself near the bar, not necessarily above it. (High jumpers use a similar technique.) Once he releases the pole, he twists his hips so that he can spot the bar and then quickly opens his legs to stop the rotation, stabilizing his body.
At the moment his center of gravity crosses the bar, he stops rising and his body falls back toward bar — more than 20 feet off the ground when he is at his best. He clears the bar, controlling his body so that it does not brush it.
Then he falls through the air toward the pit. 20 feet is a long way. He has time to pump his fist before he lands. The final step when Lavillenie vaults is often the same: He smiles.