Paul Babits learned to pole vault the old-fashioned way – from his father, with a bamboo pole, over fences on his family’s farm in Michigan.
“When we cleared all the fences, he made a makeshift bar with two-by-fours in cement buckets and then put hay down for a pit,” he says. “We kept raising the bar till it got to be like 10 feet 4 inches and it hurt when you went down.”
Nonetheless, pole vaulting became Babits’ passion, one that earned him a Michigan high school state championship, a scholarship to college and two trips to the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Now the 51-year-old Fort Wayne man owns a world record in pole vaulting’s master’s division – and one of a handful of private facilities in the nation devoted to teaching the skills of a largely unheralded sport.
As pole vaulting enters the spotlight during this year’s Summer Olympics in London, Babits expects a new crop of young potential vaulters.
“Why wouldn’t they want to pole vault? It’s a riot,” he said last week between shouting directions to nine male and female students at his Vault High Athletics training facility tucked into the woods by his home along Pion Road.
“It’s like flying. There’s no other feeling like it,” he says. “When you go up in the air, you fly. No other sport lets you do that.”
Vault High’s quarters, in a cavernous pole barn, feature 6,400 square feet of floor space and a 35-foot-high ceiling. Athletes use two 140-foot runways with pit areas and other equipment to hone their skills.
Last week, Tyler Fraker, 15, of Delta, Ohio, began his approach to the bar backgrounded by a huge American flag hung from the rafters. His feet pounded faster and faster until he planted the pole in what vaulters call the box in front of the bar.
He sprang into the air, hung nearly upside down for a fraction of a second and turned face up, arching his back while easily clearing an elastic cord stretched at 11 feet 2 inches off the ground.
“All right, Tyler! But you’ve got to lock your legs while you swing,” Babits tells him.
Later, explaining his mistake, Fraker says he’s been working on the maneuver a long time.
“It’s something that doesn’t come quite naturally. You kind of have to force yourself to do it,” says the soon-to-be sophomore at Pike-Delta-York High School.
“When you’re pole vaulting, you have about two seconds after you plant to know what to do. It’s so hard to think of all the things you have to do and do them at the same time.”
Another trainee, Jeslyn Zimmerly of Shipshewana, who placed second this year in the state championship in her high school’s division, was practicing her swing, the point at which vaulters kick their legs off the ground as the pole lifts them.
“He (Babits) really stresses the swing. He says that’s the most important part of the vault, so we’re working on that,” says the 18-year-old, headed to compete for Indiana Tech on a full-tuition scholarship she received for her vaulting. She plans to become an elementary school teacher.
Babits’ wife, Brenda, 52, also a pole vaulter, says young people in the sport, especially young women, are valued by colleges because they’re few and far between.
She didn’t start vaulting until she was in her mid-40s, “encouraged” by her husband and “tired of sitting on the sidelines at meets with a video camera,” she says. Now she has a women’s title in the world master’s division and was ranked sixth in the world in her age group in 2011.
“I just can’t imagine I’d be ranked sixth in the world in anything,” she says. “I thought if I do 6 feet at a meet, then I’ll be done. But I did it, and I wasn’t done. You want to keep getting better, just like the kids.”
Babits says he hasn’t produced an Olympian yet, but he’s confident it’s in the cards.
He already has worked with more than 30 vaulters who have gotten scholarships for higher education, as well as several high school and collegiate champions and high-ranking decathletes, who pole vault as part of their competitions. His oldest student was a 72-year-old man.
Babits, who for the last eight years has organized a street vaulting contest at the Fort Wayne Newspapers Three Rivers Festival, holds a master’s world record for men ages 45 to 49 of 16 feet 10 1/4 inches that he accomplished when he was 47. He’s now working to set a world record for men ages 50 to 54.
His personal best, from decades ago, is 18 feet 5 1/4 inches. The current American men’s record is 19 feet, 9 3/4 inches and is held by Brad Walker, competing for the United States in London.
Babits urges fans to keep their Olympic eyes on Walker and the top-ranked American woman, Jennifer Suhr, a previous silver medalist, who holds his facility’s record jump for women at 14 feet 7 inches and, he says, has “an excellent chance” at winning a medal again.
But, he says, you never know where the next Olympic champion will come from.
“That’s the thing about pole vaulting,” his wife adds. “He’ll have kids at his day camps who have never done it before, and I’ll come out here and see them in the morning, and I’ll think there is no hope for these kids. And by the end of the afternoon, they’ll be jumping higher than me.
“With these kids, who knows what their peak is?”
by: Rosa Salter Rodriguez