BLOOMINGTON — Even though his brother, Steven, is away at college, Zach Bradford feels closer than ever to his older sibling.
Both credit the pole vault for cementing their relationship even though it once was a source of friction.
A Bloomington High School sophomore who won last month’s Illinois Top Times Indoor Class 3A title with a state-leading vault of 16 feet, Zach has always benefited from Steven’s trailblazing.
When Steven joined the Normal-based Flying Dragons Pole Vault Club, his fifth-grade brother did, too. After Steven set a slew of junior high and high school records, Zach came along and broke them.
The ascent was startling as Zach made 5-6 in fifth grade, 10-9 in sixth, 11-6 in seventh, 12-6 in eighth and 14-9 as a freshman.
“At first he was kind of against me beating his records,” Zach says, “but now since he’s in college, he’s kind of motivated me to beat them.”
A North Central College sophomore, Steven says, “We definitely have times where we disagree on things, but I think vaulting has actually brought us a lot closer together to be honest. Nowadays we definitely have a great relationship.”
Steven still holds the BHS outdoor record of 15-3 that he set in 2014 when he was the Class 3A state runner-up.
Zach upped his outdoor career best to 15-0 at Springfield on Saturday, but figures to break Steven’s record as soon as the weather cooperates.
“Records are meant to be broken,” Steven said. “I definitely won’t be mad, just glad.”
Steven appreciates Zach’s running form and attitude.
“He doesn’t play the mental games that a lot of pole vaulters do … like I did,” admits Steven, who applauds Zach’s bravery when moving up to longer, stiffer poles that can cause a vaulter to crash if not careful.
The 5-foot-10, 135-pound Zach, who grew six inches last summer, thinks of Steven as the superior athlete.
“He’s always had the speed and strength on me so I had to work on form a lot more,” Zach said.
In the eyes of Bloomington coach John Szabo, Zach is faster.
“He’s not blessed with a ton of speed, but he’s got good timing,” Szabo says. “He’s got good strength. He’s got good agility. The mental aspect of it, he’s just strong.”
During BHS practices, Zach trains with the acclaimed Purple Raider sprinters under assistant coach Rich Baldwin. This indoor season, Zach managed a 56-second split in the 1,600 relay.
He can bend poles meant for 160-pounders. His top hand hold is at 15-3, which means he can launch his body off the top almost a foot higher.
Zach credits his father, Jason, for developing his technique. Jason is a former Normal Community vaulter who was the Pantagraph area co-leader in 1989 at 13-0.
“Without him, I probably wouldn’t be half the vaulter I am now,” said Zach, whose mother, Joy, videos his vaults so father and son can analyze them. “She’s always cheering me on.”
Last fall, she cheered Zach through his first season of cross country. He progressed all the way into the team’s top seven.
“Freshman year I did football, but this year I wanted to stay in shape, but not risk getting an injury for pole vault so I did cross country,” said Zach, who especially enjoyed the cross country team’s camaraderie.
Zach has found the same social benefits as a member of the Flying Dragons, who view the crossbar as the enemy instead of each other.
“Pole vault is not like any other sport,” said Zach, whose friends include fellow state title contenders Ryan Ashenbremer and Hunter Whitwood of Normal West.
When they were youth football teammates, Zach encouraged Ashenbremer to try the pole vault. Ashenbremer later recruited Whitwood to the sport.
Ashenbremer beat Zach on Saturday by clearing 15-6, a height only seven others have surpassed in Pantagraph area history. Whitwood took third in the Illinois Top Times Meet at 15-0.
Steven thinks Zach can make 16-6 this year and a state record 17-6 by the time he graduates. Szabo hates to guess.
“I learned at the end of last year and then into this year that you can’t put any limits on Zach,” Szabo said.