The Falcons of the United States Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, must certainly prove what they are made of to be a part of the vigorous educational and athletic programs offered there.  The USAFA is very unique from standard colleges or universities in many ways and only the most dedicated are admitted and make it through.

The USAFA Pole Vault Coach, Scott Steffan says, “There are a myriad of differences between attending a Service Academy and any other university.  In addition to training and competing, like any other NCAA Division I intercollegiate vaulter, they carry 19-22 academic units each semester, and have additional military training responsibilities.  They have dozens of traditions and customs unique to Service Academies.  They wear a uniform to class every day and, as a freshman, they have intense military training and few breaks or breathers besides coming down to practice and compete in track & field.  With each passing year they get more and more ‘freedom’ so that by the time they’re seniors, besides wearing a uniform to class, you wouldn’t see much difference in their daily routine from what other college seniors around the Country have.”

“It takes a good deal of diligence in the admissions process to get an appointment to the Air Force Academy,” Coach Steffan continues.  “The NCAA allows Service Academies to begin contacting prospects during their junior year of high school.  Our standards for recruiting are generally 15’7” for a male and 11’6” for a female.  This year around 17,000 people will apply and only 1,000 will be accepted.  Academically a candidate needs to be in the top 20% of their class, have a GPA over 3.50 with several AP classes, and have an ACT composite score of 25- including at least 25 in math, or SAT scores of 580 verbal and 560 math.  Every candidate needs to receive a “nomination” from their congressman or senator, but that’s not as intimidating as it sounds.”

The dedication doesn’t stop there for USAFA graduates.  They are looking at a bright future after putting in the work to get through the program.  Coach Steffan tells us, “After graduating from the Air Force Academy in 4 years (never 5!), they serve their Country for 5 years, usually in the career field of their choice and often at the Air Force installation of their choice, depending on their job.  The day they graduate, they’re guaranteed a salary of around $50K with incredible benefits.  Many continue their Air Force careers well beyond minimum 5 years because of the excellent job opportunities and extra benefits.”

While in the program, Air Force Academy vaulters have a wonderful staff to work with and great facilities.  Coach Steffan brings much experience to the table.  “This is my 6th year as an assistant coach at the Air Force Academy,” he says.  “Previously, I spent 6 years as an assistant at the University of Virginia, 3 at Wichita State and 6 at the University of New Mexico.”

“We have the NCAA limit of 6 full-time coaches plus 7 volunteer coaches,” Coach Steffan continues.  “I am a full-time pole vault coach, i.e., the pole vault is the only event that I coach.  Our head coach, Ralph Lindeman, recognizes the impact success in the pole vault has on our program and empowers me to devote all my time and energy with that event, as well as assisting with the decathletes.  Coach Lindeman knows and understands the vault as well and serves as a valuable sounding board for me to bounce ideas about training and technique and coaching philosophy.  Greg Hull is also on staff as our NCAA-allowed special volunteer assistant for the vault, and occasionally attends practices and competitions serving as a sort of consultant.  The great thing about coaching the pole vault at the Academy is I have all the resources and support needed to develop a great pole vault team.”

According to Coach Steffan, here is how the USAFA pole vault team shapes up:  “We usually have 5-6 male vaulters and a similar number of female pole vaulters.  We always have a few decathletes who are exceptional vaulters as well,” he says.

When it comes to team leaders Steffan tells us, “Our team leader is Cale Simmons—he’s one of our team captains and has a PR of 5.53 as well as being a 2-time All-American and 2-time Mountain West Conference Champion.  His twin brother, Rob Simmons, jumped 5.40m last indoor season.   Joey Uhle jumped 5.35 as a freshman last spring, earning All-MWC honors and placing 7th in the NCAA Preliminary Rounds at Austin, TX.   Senior Chase Cooper has vaulted 5.30; Juniors Cort Rogers 5.11 and Elliott Beski 5.05.   Senior decathlete Michael Tibbs has vaulted 5.01, and new freshman Dylan Bell jumped 5.25 last year in high school.”

As for the women’s side:  “Our women’s group is a young crew– sophomore Wren Bonner has jumped 3.95 and senior Bizzy Mellado has a PR of 3.90m,” says Coach Steffan.  “Junior Paige Shirley has jumped 3.70m, and two new newcomers, freshmen Riley Vann and Morgan Horn, both have jumped 3.60m in high school last year.”

These talented Falcons have had many athletes go before them to help pave their route to athletic and educational success as well.  Coach Steffan has this to say about some of the USAFA alumni:

“Kimber Shealy, 2012 grad and 4.11 vaulter, is working on her Master’s Degree at Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government; 18-footer Nick Frawley (2010) just completed 2 years in the Air Force’s  World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), where he was a full-time professional vaulter—he’s now stationed in a business career field at Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque.  Women’s school record-holder, Melissa Beerse (2010) who vaulted 4.13, is married and has a baby son and is working in a business career field at Eglin AFB in Florida.  Paul Gensic (2005) spent 4 years in USAF’s WCAP program, capped by placing 6th at the 2008 US Olympic Team Trials, and after a recent deployment to Afghanistan, is stationed at Langley AFB in Virginia.  Ana- Maria Ortega (2001), our 1st female 12-foot vaulter, is a command pilot of an AC-130 gunship and has been deployed to Southwest Asia numerous times.   Dave Pike (1995), our 1st-ever 18-foot male vaulter, is a Lieutenant Colonel and pilot stationed at Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina.”

The Falcons are also fortunate enough to have some elite athletes come to help at their facility.  Coach Steffan says, “Several times a year Pat Manson comes down from his home near Boulder to jump with us in either practice or competition.  Rory Quiller also trained here much of last year.   The Olympic Training Center group of vaulters has visited here to both train and compete—last year Brad Walker, Becky Holiday and Melinda Owens all worked out here at the Air Force Academy.  Several of Greg Hull’s professional vaulters, Kylie Hutson, Kelsey Hendry and Tori Pena, train and compete here frequently.”

The athletes of the Air Force Academy train the majority of the year too.  They get started early in the season and keep going.  “We generally start practice the first day of classes around August 10th with 4 weeks of ‘Captains’ Practices’ before starting ‘on-season’ practice right after Labor Day,” says Coach Steffan.

They are not done when the season ends either.  Coach Steffan tells us, “During the summer our Cadets have some really exciting programs.  They only get three weeks off (‘leave’) for the summer, but the rest of the time they will be working at the Academy in programs like Survival Training, Soaring, Powered Flight,  Jump (skydiving) or participating in some international immersion program or an internship program at another Air Force Base, possibly overseas!”

Competition is not scarce for the Falcons either.  We asked Coach Steffan about the division and competition at USAFA and he told us this:  “Our Conference is the Mountain West.  Over the years it’s been one of the best Conferences in NCAA Division I for the pole vault, with New Mexico men and women, San Diego State on the women’s side and, until last year, BYU’s men and women.   Major meets we annually attend include Texas Relays, Mt Sac Relays, Drake Relays and the UCS National Pole Vault Summit, along with meets in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Nebraska.   Every 3rd year we compete in the All-Service Academy Championships, which will be this coming March at the Ansin Sports Complex in South Florida.”

So there is much to look forward too, but 2012 has been an interesting year for the Air Force Academy vaulters.  Coach Steffan wanted us to know some of the events that have happened this past year for the Falcons.  He says, “At the 2012 Mountain West Conference indoor championship meet the Air Force Academy took 12 of the 16 places in the combined Men’s and Women’s pole vault competitions.”

Coach Steffan also tells us, “2012 found us practicing and competing on our newly-renovated outdoor facility, which features 6 box positions in 3 different directions to take advantage of the wind.  With an indoor facility which has arguably the fastest runway in the country, we have a popular place to vault for both collegians and professionals.”

Even though the USAFA athletes are very hard working and dedicated, don’t mistake them for all work and no play.  Coach Steffan tells us they make sure to have fun too.  “If you are not having fun then why Pole Vault- then why do it?” he asks.  “We are very lucky to have a fun-loving and adventurous group of athletes.  They go rock-climbing at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs as well as frequent sky-diving on the Air Force Academy campus.  They have family dinners which the Academy refers to as ‘dining outs’ in the Colorado Springs and Denver-area.  This Thanksgiving break about half our pole vault crew went surfing in Southern California.  Every now and then they do sneak off and go snowboarding, although I’m really not a big fan of hitting the slopes– always worry about somebody taking a jump they shouldn’t.”

If all can stay healthy, we can hope to see some good competition from this extraordinary team.  What an amazing look at such a hard-working group of men and women.  Good luck United States Air Force Academy.  Keep up the good work!

By:  Michelle Walthall – Vaulter Magazine LLC

Air Force Pole Vaulting
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