As a lanky freshman wide receiver at Allegheny College,Jeremy Scott took advice from a teammate about how to get out of dreaded 5 a.m. football workouts:
Spend afternoons practicing with the college’s track and fieldteam instead.
That suggestion 12 years ago was the dawn of an All-American career in the pole vault for Scott, whose ascendance in the sport nearly matched his inch-a-year college growth spurt.
Scott, 31, now stands 6 feet 93/4 inches, earning him the nickname ”El Grande.” And he also stands this week as one of three men who will represent the United States in the pole vault at the Olympic Games in London.
The preliminaries are Wednesday at 5 a.m. If he is one of the 12 athletes who make it to the finals, he’ll compete for a medal Friday at 2 p.m.
The tallest world-class pole vaulter ever has been to England before, as the only collegiate member of the U.S. team in the 2003 Indoor World Championships in Birmingham. The native of Norfolk, Neb., put off medical school to persevere in his specialty, and nine years later is across the pond once again for the biggest competition of his life.
“I have experience in big meets, but it’s still hard to believe that I am an Olympian,” Scott said after securing the second of the United States’ three spots in the Games during trials June 28 in Eugene, Ore.
Receiver changes his route
Scott was set to attend the University of South Dakota after a stellar high school athletic career in which he played football and basketball and won the Nebraska state pole vault championship as a senior. He displayed a natural talent for track, but Scott’s first love was football.
Blair Hrovat, a former Edinboro University of Pennsylvania star quarterback, was the offensive coordinator at South Dakota at the time. When Hrovat accepted the head coaching position with the Gators in 1998, Scott followed him to Meadville after he graduated in 1999. Scott, who was 6 feet 5 inches tall as a freshman, caught a pass for a touchdown and earned a letter in his first season.
And so if it weren’t for a broken right foot, and teammate Shane Ream’s suggestion to avoid those 4 a.m. wake-up calls, Scott might not have steered away from football.
“I wasn’t an early-morning person, so then I could sleep in and then do my studies and work out at a reasonable time,” Scott said during a phone interview.
Scott was a big target as a receiver at Allegheny, which had won the Division III national championship in 1990. A Green Bay Packers fan, he patterned himself after Packers star receiver Sterling Sharpe. But the broken right foot inhibited his ability to run routes and make hard cuts on the football field.
“I couldn’t play wide receiver anymore, so they put me in on special teams to block field goals and extra points,” Scott said. “I think I got my hand on a couple. It was tough for me to decide to give up football, but I still love the game. I can’t wait for my beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers to start the season.”
Touchdowns in padded pit
Scott turned to the pole vault during his sophomore year, becoming a three-time All-American and winner of both the indoor and outdoor Division III national championships in 2002. After earning his degree in neuroscience, he enrolled at the University of Arkansas graduate school in 2003 to study exercise science and complete his final year of athletic eligibility, this time at an NCAA Division I program.
Former Allegheny track and field coach Bill Ross, now the school’s associate athletic director, said Scott’s athletic ability and dedication set him apart in a specialty that demands speed, power and gymnastic talent.
“Jeremy was a special kid and was a team player,” Ross said. “He’s a gifted athlete and could do the hurdles and the high jump. If I needed him to do another event, he would.”
High hurdles in track and field are 42 inches tall. Premier pole vaulters soar over crossbars 19 feet high or more.
Scott dashes down the runway on his approach, a 17-foot pole cocked in both hands. As he nears the box, he lowers the pole and plants it to set up his takeoff, swing, extension, turn, flyaway and pit landing.
“When you hit the target and go up, you can tell when it’s right,” he said.
The process differs for Scott because of his height.
“Coming off the ground, it’s a huge advantage with angles for me compared to shorter vaulters,” Scott said. “It helps to get my arm to the highest point while hanging on to the pole when it’s in a vertical position and when you let go of it. The disadvantages are going down, when I take a longer time to extend than most people to avoid the bar. It’s like gymnastics, and you don’t see a lot of tall gymnasts.”
His height, in fact, might have been his real break in the sport.
“He was so tall that some techniques did not apply to him,” Ross said. “We contacted Earl Bell to teach him and sent him to camps during breaks at Allegheny. Earl saw something in him and became his private coach.”
Coach Bell dials up answers
Scott’s recorded voice answers when the phone rings at Bell Athletics in Jonesboro, Ark., where Scott relocated in 2006. But Bell directs everything at his private indoor facility for vaulters. The National Track and Field Hall of Famer is a three-time Olympian and former world record-holder in the event.
“Earl is not the coach for everyone, but he’s the best in my mind in the world,” said Scott, who first met Bell in 2001. “He is so good at the technical command and effect. But what Earl does is simplify it.”
Bell, 56, who won the bronze medal in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, said Scott’s versatility enhances his world-class ability. It’s Scott’s achy knee that is of concern; he spent three weeks after the trials in San Diego getting treatment including acupuncture.
“The best vaulters all run well, and Jeremy has the balance and timing and is a good athlete who is really good at everything,” Bell said. “He has a knee problem that could affect his running, and the pole vault is really all about running. It’s amazing that he qualified when he was not at full strength.”
Though Scott has reached his physical peak at nearly 6 feet 10 inches and a lithe 200 pounds, he continues to grow in his sport with Bell’s help.
“I know I’ve become much better technically, and balance is important and I’m much better with that,” Scott said. “I am also more aware of what I’m doing when I’m upside-down. But I am getting tendinitis in my knee, which has hindered my progress in the past.”
Weather could set the bar
Bell, whose company manufactures the sport’s fiberglass, carbon-layered composite poles, believes that a vault of 19 feet 4 inches could win the gold in a field without a clear-cut favorite.
“That’s with the right conditions, but if the weather is iffy, then maybe about 19 feet,” Bell said.
“The weather is huge. If the wind is against you, it slows your speed to approach. A headwind makes it better,” he said. “If it rains — and we know it rains in England — then that could be a nasty deal. You could slip on the approach, and it cuts down on your aggressiveness and you could really get hurt, and the pole is harder to hold on to. Finally, landing on the cushion is like landing on a wet sponge, with cold water all over you.”
Scott also believes that a 19-4 vault can win, if the conditions are right. Scott’s personal best is 19-11/4 in 2009.
“I’ve hit 19-1 before, and I believe I’m capable of going higher, especially if I am at full strength,” said Scott, a silver medalist at the Pan-American Games in 2011. “It all depends on the weather, and how the other vaulters fare.”
The event is not exactly high profile on the Olympic track scale, especially in the United States.
“Track and field is still very big in Europe, and they get huge crowds at big meets, and in the U.S., the fans in Eugene, Ore., are very enthusiastic and knowledgeable,” Ross said. “Television coverage is very hard to find. When Jeremy competed in the World Championships, I searched the Internet and found a broadcast on a Norwegian website. I could see what was going on, but I had no idea what they were talking about.”
Allegheny ever after
When Scott qualified for the Olympics along with trials champ Brad Walker and Derek Miles, he immediately called Ross. During Scott’s undergraduate days, Ross had helped coach the Gators’ vaulters with volunteer coach Dave Keck, of Fairview.
“Jeremy has always stayed in touch with me, and he’s one of the most thoughtful people I have known,” Ross said.
Scott said his experience at Allegheny meant more to him after his graduation.
“When I was there, I didn’t appreciate it as much as when I left,” he said. “You had to put your nose to the grindstone. It was a very good school, and it’s my fault that I was busy with other things. When I went to grad school at Arkansas, I got a sense of how much Allegheny directed me to be a better person. You were there to learn. A lot of schools are just a degree factory. They were there to serve you.”
Since earning his master’s degree, Scott has elected not to become an orthopedic surgeon. “I would like to get into nonsurgical orthopedics,” he said.
Scott skipped the opening ceremony to get in more training and arrived in London Thursday. Sarah Scott, his wife of five years, and their 21-month-old son, Cameron, will not attend the Games. “Security is so tight that I really can’t be with my family,” Scott said. His parents and Bell are expected to attend, thanks in part to funds raised by the congregation at First United Methodist Church Jonesboro.
Sarah Scott, an Arkansas State University instructor, has been raising funds through donations and the sales of “El Grande” T-shirts and wristbands on her blog, sarahceliac.blogspot.com. Jeremy Scott said she has made his Olympics appearance possible.
“She’s a sorority girl from North Carolina who I met at Arkansas, and she has picked up the slack and been very supportive so I could do this,” Scott said.
There might be a little support coming from the Allegheny corner this week, too.
by: Bob Jarzomski