CHEYENNE – “Sam’s up, Jayci’s on deck, Lexi’s in the hole!” said Pine Bluffs track and field coach Dustin Lee, working the pole vault at the Southeast Wyoming Athletic Conference championships.
He looked up from his clipboard and gave a nod to the athlete at the head of the runway.
Pine Bluffs senior Sam Hanson stood several yards from the plant. With Lee wearing Hanson’s cross necklace around his neck for safekeeping, Hanson adjusted her grip, said a little prayer, cleared her head and started her approach.
In the next few seconds, Hanson had to consider her speed, her footsteps on the runway, the actual plant of the pole, her hand position, the amount and direction of force applied to the pole, the timing of her jump, the position of her body relative to the bar and the proper moment to release the pole with her body in midair.
“That’s a lot to think about,” she said understatedly.
Cheyenne East pole vault coach Phil Raybuck quotes former national-class vaulter Pat Manson as saying that a pole vaulter must ponder 75 things about the next attempt. And if the vaulter does 50 of them right, he or she will have the best vault ever.
Every moment has a thousand smaller moments leading up to it. Given all of the elements at play in the pole vault, another several thousand moments might lead to each attempt at a height.
A pole vaulter is a sprinter, hurdler, jumper, gymnast, physiologist, physicist and psychologist rolled into one. That makes the pole vault easily the most complex event on a track and field schedule. That’s why the best athletes on a team generally do the pole vault – unless they don’t want to. Not everyone likes the idea of flinging their bodies over a bar with a fiberglass stick, notwithstanding the soft landing.
“There are not many people who can do it,” Burns junior Rowan Fichtner said. “It’s very technical. I like being one of the select few who can do it.”
But this group of athletes thrives on everything about the event. They love the speed, the flexibility, the height, the fall – and the soft landing on a mat several feet below.
“It’s really exhilarating – a fun, unique experience,” Central junior Adam Rexius said. “There’s no other sport where you get to go upside down at 13 feet in the air. You’re running down the runway with a big pole in your hands, bending the pole and flinging yourself over the bar. You feel how much power you have.”
It starts with athleticism.
Many vaulters did gymnastics, like East senior Kayla Johnson and Cheyenne South junior Gabe Beliaj. Hanson ran cross-country and played basketball for the Lady Hornets. Originally a hurdler, Lee took up the pole vault to compete in the decathlon at Wayne State University in Nebraska.
Others saw fellow athletes sailing through the air and knew what they wanted to do. East senior Ryan Mehalick was mesmerized the first time he saw the event at a track meet. Cheyenne Central junior Sam Erickson said she and her friends signed up for the pole vault in the seventh grade “to be different,” though Erickson said she also played volleyball and basketball. Fichtner followed his older brother into the sport.
All have a wide-ranging athletic skill set.
“There’s a concession among people in the sport that the pole vault is the most difficult event to master,” Raybuck said. “There are so many things you have to do to be proficient.
“You must be an all-around athlete. You need sprint speed and jumping ability, but foremost is kinesthetic awareness, knowing where you are in the air. And you need more than a little bit of daredevil.”
Once an athlete determines the pole vault is the place to be, though, there’s something even more important than any muscle.
“Track’s a sport where it’s you against you. The brain is the first thing you have to overcome,” Lee said.
For all of the physical aspects of the event, the brain might be the most important body part a vaulter must develop. Manson’s list of 75 things a vaulter must think about is just that – things to think about. Not the least of which is what might go wrong.
Raybuck reiterated the extreme mentality a vaulter must develop.
“I’ve coached kids that have everything else, but if they don’t have that daredevil in them, they’ll chicken out,” he said.
And it’s not just the athlete that must develop confidence.
“You have kids who have ability and fight their brains,” Lee said. “Going up 13 feet in an upside-down position is a tough deal. You have a whole safety piece worked in with it. You have to be aware of every little thing because there’s no room for error. If you can convey confidence and share their successes, you’ll be a good coach.
“They have to have confidence in you.”
“The pole vault is really a mental sport,” said Cheyenne South pole vault coach Robyn Ramirez. “Not only can a kid not be afraid, but the kid has to trust you (as a coach), especially in a sport this dangerous. As a coach, if you don’t trust me, you should do a different event.”
As the bar goes higher, the coach can only do so much. Once all the coaching is done, the athlete must execute.
“It’s a fear of getting it,” Beliaj said. “It’s intimidating – especially not getting it before. It’s the fear of a new height.”
The bridge between
Ask a vaulter to walk you through an attempt, and the brow furrows and the head goes back, seemingly seeking the answer to the query.
“Let me think about this,” comes the reply.
Indeed, when the vaulter stands at the end of the runway, they speak of clear minds and engaged muscles. Thus one vaulter even stood up to go through a pre-vault routine, steps and all, while describing an attempt. It’s all muscle memory under the bright lights of competition.
“Once I get back to the runway, I do a couple of plant drills, and I picture myself clearing, doing everything perfectly,” Erickson said. “I found that if I’m thinking about anything, it’s not going to go well. So even though it’s tough, I try to clear my head.”
Raybuck is known for counting down from five as his vaulters power down the runway toward the mat. Some vaulters said that helps, while others compete in a vacuum and don’t hear anything. Johnson said the last thing she hears before engaging the pole is “Punch, jump!”
“The whole time I look at the box (the plant),” she said. “I watch the pole plant, I watch my trail leg come along the pole, and I pretty much toss the pole backward. I see my feet, then my hands and then the bar. Sometimes I’ll see the bar, and sometimes I won’t. Other times I don’t look. I just go over. I usually see it going over it; I’ll sneak a peek as I go over.
“When I’m on the runway, it all comes naturally. But when I have to explain it, I really have to think about it. I’m trying to do everything I can to make sure I don’t die.”
“I back up seven steps, and I count down: 5-4-3-2-1, punch, jump,” said Mehalick, who will vault at Black Hills State in South Dakota. “The countdown starts at the first stride of my left foot. ‘Punch’ means to start to plant (the pole) because the feet are perfect. ‘Jump’ means to take off with my left foot.”
Indeed, that’s a lot to think about.
Smiles appeared when vaulters recalled their first – or most recent – clearances.
The consensus is that sailing over the bar cleanly is the best feeling in the world. Erickson cleared a personal-record 9 feet, 8 inches, third-best in Class 4A.
“When I cleared my PR, I was clapping before I even hit the mat,” Erickson said.
Johnson recalled her first clearance of any height, mere weeks after she took up the sport in the summer before her freshman year of high school.
“Looking back, it was a train wreck,” she said. “I had no technique. But it was exhilarating. It made me want to work more and learn more. It made me want to strive for better outcomes and higher heights.”
As for Hanson? She made her attempt at eight feet to win the pole vault at the SEWAC meet on her home field. All the pieces came together.
Then the bar went up six inches, and she started the process all over again.