“I think I’ve jumped 14-10 a million times,” April Steiner-Bennett tells you.
But not lately.
And not at Friday’s opening session of the fifth annual Vertical Adventures Beach Vault on the north sands of the Seaside Heights, N.J. beach.
Tricky winds limited the former University of Arkansas athlete to a best of 14-5 3/4 (4.41 meters) but it sufficed to win the six-vaulter competition and the $1,000 check that went with capturing the opening event of the three-day vaultfest.
As Vertical Adventures director Mike Pascuzzo put it late Friday afternoon: “We have 304 vaulters already entered and with the good weather predicted we expect a bunch more late entries Saturday and Sunday; this event is getting pretty big, it’s really catching on.”
Of course, Seaside Heights and much of the Jersey Shore were brutalized by Superstorm Sandy last October and the iconic Seaside beachfront bore some of the worst of the destruction. But they’re resilient folks around here and “We’re Stronger Than The Storm” has been the message that Governor Christie and so many other Garden Staters have been telling the world for months.
The Beach Pole Vault is part of all that effort and the crowds lining the boardwalk for Friday’s opening session are expected to be multiplied many times over Saturday and Sunday, with jumping in an array of divisions.
Pascuzzo and his Vertical Adventures team have set up a three-board runway layout and there will be times the next two days that these tri-pits will resemble an exercise in non-stop synchronized high-flying.
With such boardwalk establishments as the Three Brothers From Italy pizza place, the Hershey’s Ice Cream Shake Shoppe and the Henna Tattoo Parlor for backdrops, and rock music blaring, the vaulters, representing five states, went right at it.
There was no shock to Steiner-Bennett’s win — she’s been a big-time vaulter for much of the 21st century, has been nationally ranked every year since 2004 and owns such credits as a 2008 Olympic appearance (placing eighth at Beijing after taking second in the USA Trials), fifths (2004 and 2012 in her other Trials appearances), and a career best of 15-2 1/4 (4.63 meters) dating back to 2008.
The 33-year-old resident of Mesa, Ariz., came in at 13-11 3/4 (4.26 meters), cleared easily on second attempt, clicked on her first crack at 14-5 3/4, then missed all three at the would-be meet record height of 14-11 1/2 (4.56 meters).
The real shock was Mary Saxer’s inability to clear a bar. The 2005 graduate of Lancaster, N.Y. High School and 2009 Notre Dame alumna, who has garnered placings of 3-5-4-4 in the past four National Outdoor Championships, and is just back from a stint on the Diamond League-studded European circuit, came in at 14-5 3/4 (4.11) missed all three (none of them close) and was out of it, just as soon, it seemed, as she was getting into it.
So her performance was recorded as NH (No Height) as second place went to ex-Southern Cal star Brysun Stately at 13-5 3/4 and third to Arkansas alumna Janice Keppler at 13 feet 9 (3.96).
Saxer wasn’t alone in the “NH club.”
Failing to clear their opening bars, too, were Katie Nageotte, the 2013 Nationals sixth-placer, and Michelle Favre, Ramapo College’s NCAA Division III champion.
Soon as she shrugged off her disappointment, Saxer said “this is an awesome event, it’s such a great way to promote our sport.
“I’ve seen pictures of all the destruction this town went through. Mike (Pascuzzo) has done a great job promoting this event, helping Seaside Heights get back. I’m glad to be part of it and I’ll always want to come back.”
For Steiner-Bennett, this win was a form of personal redemption.
“I kind of got ill over a month ago,” she said. “So this was the first time I’ve really competed in five weeks.
“Nationals (at Drake University) was terrible for me. I think I tied for eighth. I didn’t compete very well. So it felt really good to be back on a runway again here in New Jersey, in front of a crowd.
“We’re still not really sure yet what I had. I couldn’t even stand up straight. First they thought it was parasites. Then we got the reports back and they were negative. Then they thought I had a fungus in my bloodstream. It was all just weird.
“But finally I think I’m back where I should be, to a point where I can train and compete.
“You forget how much you miss it when it’s gone. It sure is nice to be back.”
Not all the way, but almost.
“Those last three attempts,” she analyzed, “I just thought my teeter-totter (sense of timing and balance) was still off.
“I came in specially for this meet from Arizona. This was tons of fun. You couldn’t ask for better atmosphere. I loved it.”
Clearly, Duncan Littlefield shared that sentiment. At 46, the Shore AC representative continues at the top of his game. With a 13-0 (3.96-meter) clearance, Littlefield won Friday night’s secondary attraction, the men’s Masters vault.
He’s been vaulting competitively since his days at Vermont’s Middlebury High School, where he was a state champion, and then at hometown Middlebury College, where he was a three-time NCAA Division III All-American.
Now a resident of Millstone Township, N.J., he’s kept in top form for over three decades, owns a career-best of 15-7, and tells you the secret is “just staying in shape; never letting yourself get so far out of shape that you can’t get back.”
A software development manager for the Commvault Co. of Oceanport, N.J., Littlefield has been a New Jersey state open and Masters champion through the eras of three separate governing bodies of his sport – AAU, TAC and USATF.
And he’s still looking onward and upward.
Littlefield’s next big goal: “Fifteen feet at age 50.”
Forever young, too, were his top rivals Friday night — 2-3 placers Will Nesbitt of the Hudson Valley (N.Y.) Flying Circus team, and Chris Watson, of Newark, Del. Both 40-up, they each went 12 feet (3.66 meters).
Among the many cheering them on from the sidelines was forever-young-at-heart vaulter and New Providence, N.J. High School coach Gary Roberts. Once a 15-foot vaulter at Rutgers, he’s an 11-foot leaper at age 49.
His outlook on the vaulting life: “The only way they’ll get vaulters, guys like me, out of the sport will be when they put us in the ground.”