The day before the Class AA girls pole vault competition, Rochester Century’s Andrianna Jacobs‘ coach Ray Ashworth grabbed a small buisness card off the counter at a Starbuck’s near Klas Field and made his plan. He wrote down a series of numbers, not for the lottery, but the corresponding numbers to the ten poles they brought to the competition, the last number on the card was 140.
The plan was simple in concept, but complex and difficult in execution. The goal, Ashworth said, was to get Jacobs comfortable and able to handle her largest pole, the “big bopper,” the “rocket launcher,” the 140. As the height of the bar each competitor must clear increases, the chances of clearing it improves with the longer and stiffer the pole one can use.
A seemingly simple task, grab your pole, tilt it up in the air, aim it like a jousting lance, and sprint down the runway. “Plant” the pole in the “box,” drive it into that box with sufficient force to generate the power so the pole bends as the vaulter leaves the ground and begin the gymnastic-like journey into the air, up toward the bar. But the different variables in play to successfully get over the bar have to be calculated prior to the jump.
What pole to use. How high up on the pole to grip. How far forward or back to set the standards, the two large metal poles on which the crossbar rests. If the setting is too far forward or back, the attempt to clear the bar can be doomed before the vaulter leaves the ground. Instead of the vaulters feet, legs, and body riding in front of and over the crossbar, a miscalculation on the settings for the standards, a bad “plant” of the pole in the “box,” sends the vaulter’s feet into the bar, knocking it off before the rest of the body gets a chance to jackknife over the crossbar.
The midair ballet of “riding” the pole as it bends and springs back happens in milliseconds. The vaulter is launched skyward, up, up, and away until the hips clear the crossbar and the decent begins. From a position where Jacobs’ back is facing the crossbar, she must rotate 180 degrees so that she is now facing the bar as she jacknifes on top and over the bar, then descends into the pit. Each movement executed to avoid “brushing” or dislodging the crossbar that is delicately balanced on top of the two skyscraper standards that hold it in place.
In the seconds it takes for this to happen, Jacobs’ “onboard computer,” the brain encased in the black skateboard helmet the vaulters wear, must successfully calculate when to twist, when to push, when to bend, and when to let go and float into space over the crossbar and begin the final drop to earth. Executing this process successfully is not only necessary to successfully complete each vault, there is also significant risk. Dr. Bill Roberts, the medical director for the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon, who has for years volunteered to work in the medical tent of the MSHSL meet, watches the events, takes pictures with the camera he brings with him, and hopes that his job doesn’t involve having to deal with the trauma of a vault gone wrong. “The pole vault scares me the most,” says Roberts.
Landing in the medal box, not the soft pit. Missing the pit altogether. A broken pole mid flight that leaves the vaulter hanging in the air, frantically seeking a safe place to land. Ashworth, himself a 14 foot vaulter in his day, got a scare when his own son, a vaulter, one of the 20 Ashworth gathers together each day at practice in Rochester, was adjusting to a longer pole and narrowly avoided injury because the transition to the longer, stiffer implement proved too difficult for him to handle. It made Ashworth leery of putting Jacobs on the bigger implement, and meticulously cautious in getting her used to the new pole.
He had her carry it around during practice. Getting used to the weight, the feel. The critical juncture, Ashworth knew, was how Jacobs would handle the bend. The time when the pole returns the force applied to it in the run up to the pit, after the pole pant in the box, and as the athlete leaves the ground and begins the journey skyward. Then the bent pole begins to spring back into its original shape and, in so doing, launches the body into the sky.
The successful vaulters learn the “feel of the bend,” said Ashworth. When to begin the rotation of the body to allow the successful clearance over the bar. Each vault, each pole has a different feel for each attempt. Jacobs does from 20 to 30 vaults a day in practice, Ashworth says. This not only builds the endurance to be able to handle the multi-jump competitions, but forms the “muscle memory,” the data storage for the onboard computer that Jacobs has to have.
“We talked about ‘owning the bend,'” said Ashworth. “You have to feel what’s happening. Feel that bend.”
In the two weeks leading up to the State Meet, Ashworth had set up the bungie cord that they use instead of a crossbar at 13′. The aim being to get Jacobs familiar with the physical parameters of jumping that high, getting her hips up over the “bar” at a height she had never cleared in competition. This exercise allowed her to become comfortable in case the opportunity presented itself to go that high during Saturday’s competition. Ashworth tossed in a “motivational tool” in the form of a slogan for the competition: “Go big or go home.”
The plan for Saturday, said Ashworth was for Jacobs to match or better what each vaulter did on the early jumps until there was nobody left in the competition, nothing left to beat except a new height. Then, said Ashworth: “We get more aggressive.” More aggressive meant bringing out “Big Bertha,” the 140 pound, 14 foot pole that they had never before used in competition, and feeling the bend. As a former gymnast and diver, Jacobs learned how to handle her body while airborne.
As a vaulter she had modified those lessons to propel her body upward with her arms, not her feet. When the moment of truth came, Jacobs calmly lifted Big Bertha skyward, sprinted down the runway, planted the pole in the box, and launched herself over the bar with room to spare as the crowd, alerted to the record attempt, roared approval at what they had witnessed. Jacobs’ smile extended from ear to ear. Ashworth celebrated. But the day was not over.
Now was the time to go bigger. Ashworth and Jacobs huddled with the officials to decide where to set the bar next. Mission accomplished at 13′, Ashworth suddenly realized he didn’t have a plan B. 13’4″ was suggested, and Ashworth decided to go with the recommendation from the “guys in blue.” After two attempts with “crappy plants,” Jacobs asked Ashworth if she could alter her hand position on the pole. Grip it a little lower. “If that’s what feels better for you,” he replied. Going by “feel,” Jacobs gave it a try. She didn’t make it, but it was a “good attempt,” said Ashworth, that showed both Jacobs and Ashworth that 13’4″ was possible. Maybe next time.