Sky’s the limit for pole vault sensation Duffy
NORTH ANDOVER — There is nothing quite like the unbridled optimism of youth.
You can become president, Olympic champion, the first person on Mars or the next Bruno Mars.
As the years pass, most look back and just shake their heads over those giddy dreams.
But for some, like Erick Duffy, the impossible seems possible.
The North Andover High junior is making a name for himself in the pole vault. He set the state indoor record of 15-9.25 this winter and believes he can (and will) go higher. Much, much higher.
“I want to vault my age, 17 feet, by the end of the season,” said Duffy.
Is that realistic?
“Yes,” he said without hesitation. “I definitely think I can. I have no doubt I will get it.”
He’s not alone. Brenner Abbott is Duffy’s coach with the highly-regarded New England Pole Vault Club.
Abbott positively raves about 6-1, 167-pound Duffy.
“In his event, talentwise I’d put him up against anyone in the nation,” said Abbott. “Athletes like him come along once every 10 years or so and he’s the one.
“A lot have talent, drive, work ethic. When push comes to shove, there’s a lot of adrenaline. He can turn that into energy over fear. Ten times out of 10, I’ll take the mental toughness.”
Not that Duffy is lacking physically. Far from it.
“He’s on the taller size for a vaulter. Height is a huge advantage,” said Abbott, who also has been coaching at the Division 1 college level for the last 16 years.
“The problem is the taller ones don’t have the body awareness he has. He has the height and the gymnastics ability.”
As for the 17-foot vault, Abbott said, “I have faith that he’ll get over 17 feet by his senior year. How soon he gets it is up to him. He’s put in the work and then some. He’s a workhorse.”
Of course, in athletics, success is contingent upon good health. Duffy had a scare on Monday. He twisted his right ankle during a workout and it swelled badly.
“I originally thought the worst,” he said.
Duffy, though, received good news. He’d need crutches for probably five days but said he should be back by late this week or early next week.
The Scarlet Knights have a fine track program but coach Steve Nugent is realistic why they won the Division 2 State Relays this winter.
“He’s the reason. He helped win three events,” said Nugent.
The coach is in his 15th year as the boys spring track coach. That’s long enough to have a pretty good appreciation of an athlete like Duffy.
“He’s a special guy, like I’ve never coached before and might never again,” said Nugent. “I’m trying to enjoy it. Who knows if I’ll ever get another one.”
An insane pursuit
The pole vault isn’t for everyone. If you don’t have that daredevil mentality, it’s best to stay away from the vaulting pits.
“It takes a certain level of insanity,” Duffy said with a laugh. “You have to trust your athleticism. A lot of people are struck with fear. The biggest advice I can give is trust yourself. You can’t think too much.”
Duffy is being recruited by Harvard, Yale, Penn, Cornell and Dartmouth from the Ivy League and other academic heavyweights like Duke, Notre Dame and Michigan.
That intellect serves the National Honor Society student well in the classroom and mastering the nuances of his craft. But when it’s go time, he takes off the thinking cap.
“If you think about anything, the vault is over,” he said. “I don’t breathe down the runway. I don’t breathe at all. I count my steps, from seven. If you start to think and it’s not muscle memory, nothing good is going to happen.”
His lucky socks
An unlucky vaulter can miss those soft landing pads that look more suited for an amusement park and suffer a frightening injury. Not that it’s a frequent occurrence, but danger is in the air.
On May 20, 1997, then-Pentucket senior Eric Boles missed the mat in a dual meet. He was Med-flighted to Boston. There was grave concern his injuries might be fatal. Thankfully, after two major surgeries, he made a near miraculous recovery.
Vaulters sometimes seek a higher power. In Duffy’s case, it’s his lucky socks.
“It’s a pair of socks I always wear since the 2015 outdoor nationals,” said Duffy, the Eagle-Tribune boys MVP for indoor track. “They are pink and black. They’ve worked out pretty well for me.”
That would be an understatement.
This winter he beat the Mass. high school state indoor mark (15-6 by Andover’s Mark Vetere in 2010) and the all-time area mark. That was set by future UConn star Jake Radzevich, who as a senior at Pinkerton cleared 15-8 in the spring of 2002 to win the New England title.
Duffy did 15-9 at BU in early February then 15-9.25 at New Balance Nationals on March 11 at the New York Armory.
Placing eighth at Nationals is a feat in itself. But Nugent said there is more to the story.
“He’s risen to the occasion,” said Nugent. “He just vaults 1-2 times a week (during the winter). Some of these guys vault every day. He was clean (no misses) through the state record. He had every reason not to make those heights.”
Focused on records
When asked if he was aware of the records, Duffy replied, “One hundred percent yes. Going into every season I have a bunch of goals. I have a list on my phone of all the records I want. If I don’t get them, I’ll work harder.”
It won’t be easy but two records he’d love to beat would be the state high school record of 16-0 by Brendan Sullivan of Westford Academy in 2012 and the impressive New England high school record of 16-9 set in 2008 by David Slovenski of Brunswick, Maine.
Slovenski went on to win the Nike Outdoor Nationals that year.
Duffy is far from a one-trick pony. He’s a captain-elect in soccer and was the All-State runner-up in the 55-meter hurdles this winter. His best time was 7.78. Also this winter, he placed fourth in the state pentathlon and ran on the Knights’ 4×200-meter relay team which placed fourth at Division 2 States.
He also was a champion youth gymnast.
“I won the New England Regionals (as a 10-year-old). I won five of six events,” he said.
As a seventh-grade gymnast, he broke one foot, then soon after broke the other. Then soon after that he landed on his neck, suffering a concussion and a strained neck.
He said, “It added up to, ‘Maybe this isn’t for me.’”
That considerable athletic ability led to early vaulting success.
His sister, Alexa Duffy, was a track captain and Nugent was wise enough to see Erick was a natural athlete. He got him involved in the youth track program.
Freshman year he tried pole vault and in his first meet won with a 10-6 vault.
“It didn’t come super naturally but I put in the work,” said Duffy, who now uses a 16-foot pole. “I thought of it in gymnastics terms.”
Duffy’s Big 3
Duffy said he’s been fortunate in the coaching department. He noted Nugent and North Andover’s vaulting coach Dan Wrigley have been instrumental in his success.
For the last year or so he’s trained once a week with Abbott of the New England pole vault club.
“They’ve done so much for me. I can’t put into words,” said Duffy, who has a ways to go for the national high school record of 18-3.5 set by Texan Shawn Barber in 2012.
The Big 3 helped him go from promising to record-breaking last spring when he exploded en route to winning the All-State title and placing third at New Englands. His personal best went from 12-0 to 15-3 in a mere five-week span.
A key part of his preparation occurs the night before the meet.
“The night before I go on YouTube and watch the greats. I ingrain that in my head. It’s the equivalent of cramming for a test except it’s for the pole vault.”
His favorite is Sergey Bubka, the Michael Jordan of vaulting. The Ukrainian set 35 world records between 1984-94.