Not many students can say they’ve competed for their country going into their senior year of college.
Tennessee pole vaulter can.
He spent this past summer in Toronto, Canada with team USA competing in the Pan American games where he won a bronze medal. He then went to Beijing, China to participate in the IAAF World Championships. He didn’t make it to the final but learned some valuable lessons.
“Pan-Am was fun, but I think most of my experience came from the World Championships,” Blankenship said. “I was with the best of the best guys, I mean Justin Gatlin, Aries Merritt and Wallace Spearmon, all those guys. Those guys have made six, seven, eight, nine world or Olympic teams so they have so much experience, and they’re so mature. When you sit there and talk to those guys you learn so much.
“How to keep your composure and stay relaxed and go into the meet with a different mindset. Not necessarily being scared or intimidated by the world record holder or the guy who has the heat record or the Olympic record stuff like that. You go in and do your own thing and think about your own self.”
Blankenship started pole vaulting because of his grandfather, Bob Banhagel, and his uncle, Rob Banhagel. He was in his grandfather’s garage and saw some old steel vaulting poles and asked what they were. His grandfather got them out and dug a hole in the ground and showed him how to vault.
“He got really serious, he was like, ‘I’m gonna pole vault again,’” Blankenship said. “He started pole vaulting again and had a mark on the side of his house and was like I’m gonna jump this, this is the world record, all that stuff.”
Blankenship joined his cousin and grandfather in pole vaulting and stared traveling with them to meets in middle school. He stopped because he didn’t find much enjoyment in it. He preferred snowboarding.
His mom, however, seeing his potential, bribed him to take it back up again. She offered Blankenship a new snowboard.
He began vaulting again and found enjoyment and love. He loved being surrounded by the team and going to meets.
Today, Blankenship has given himself a self-imposed ban on snowboarding so he won’t get injured and can focus on pole vaulting.
Part of that focus is on making it to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
After making the team this past summer, Blankenship feels that the mental barrier and daunting task of trying to make the team for the first time won’t be there.
“You become more mature, you become more experienced,” Blankenship said. “At that point you handle things differently, and I think that’s where I’ll benefit from. I don’t think I’ll be as nervous or uptight.”
In January, going into the indoor track and field season, Blankenship and the Tennessee coaching staff started making some changes to help him progress. The changes helped him during the indoor and outdoor season, but he believes those changes will really pay off in the long run.
Some of the tweaks were moving his run back and using bigger poles. During the indoor season, he stuck to the basics and found consistency in his vaults which lead to a second place finish at the NCAA indoor championships and a personal best jump of 19 feet 0.25 inches.
His indoor season led to the outdoor season where he started to see the rewards of the changes he made. He won the SEC championships with a vault of 18 feet 3 inches, finished sixth at the NCAA championships and earned first team All-American honors for the second straight year.
Director of Track and Field and Cross Country, Beth Alford-Sullivan thinks the two best descriptors for Blankenship are passion and discipline. She sees the passion he has for pole vaulting and how he puts everything he has into it.
“I’ve met some athletes that have the competitiveness and they have the drive,” Alford-Sullivan said. “But when you put the passion into it, it really changes the game and that’s Jake.”
She also said he is a student of the event and sport and continues to grow in that aspect of the competition.
Alford-Sullivan said that as a team captain and leader Blankenship is the first guy in and the last guy out. He brings discipline for the younger teammates and shows the right attitude when it comes to growing the team and doing the right things for Tennessee. Alford-Sullivan said he is a natural leader and that is easily identifiable in him.
Looking toward Tennessee’s indoor and outdoor season, Alford-Sullivan said Blankenship will be the team’s No. 1 ranked vaulter and will be the only athlete with a 19 foot vault.
“He told me after Beijing that he didn’t plan to lose again this year,” Alford-Sullivan said. “I think that’s the kind of attitude he’s got to bring into (the upcoming season).”
He has the aspiration to not only dominate the conference but also the NCAA. She said he has to bring home his point total for the season, and that is his and the coaching staffs expectation for the year.
“He has already made one US team,” Alford-Sullivan said of his Olympic aspirations. “And the perspective that he gained and the experience that he gained from going through the USA’s this year and all the way through to the World Championships and so on is irreplaceable. He’ll be in a great spot to make the Rio team.”