CN Girls Track Preview: Pingry vaulters lead the way

For Julia Dannenbaum, pole vaulting is kind of like the gymnastics of track and field: You’re flying through the air, twisting your body, using arm strength. But the former gymnast found a big difference when it came to staying healthy between the two sports.

“I’m higher up,” she said, “but it’s softer landing. It’s nice. …The falling on the mat puts no stress on my body, where in gymnastics, I was constantly pounding and landing.”

The Pingry School junior has remained injury-free and excelled in a short period. She enters the outdoor season after placing second in the indoor Meet of Champions with an 11-6. Her hope is to consistently reach 12 feet this spring.

Dannenbaum and senior teammate Sophia Cortazzo form perhaps the best pole vaulting duo in New Jersey. Cortazzo, who intends to compete for Johns Hopkins next year, took sixth in the indoor MOC with an 11-0. Add in high jumpers Libby Parsons and Sophia Weldon, and the Big Blue look to be scoring points through the air once the season starts on April 1.

“Those are definitely our two strengths this year,” longtime Pingry coach Tim Grant said. “The two high jumpers are also pretty good triple jumpers. So we were saying to the team at the beginning of the year that if we’re going to be led to victory this year, it will be by our jumpers. And one of the kids pointed out, ‘Well it is a leap year, you know.’ ”

For Pingry, so was last season. The school finished second in NJSIAA Non-Public Group B behind Oak Knoll. Parsons won the high jump in 5-4, and Weldon placed third with a 5-0. In the pole vault, Dannenbaum took first (11-0) and Cortazzo third (10-6).

As a freshman, Dannenbaum knew nothing about pole vaulting when a friend urged her to try it. But Dannenbaum did know she liked defying gravity. She was a competitive gymnast since early in elementary school and trained 20 hours a week. But in middle school, she sustained several broken bones — two fingers, a wrist and an ankle.

Once she discovered pole vaulting, her gymnastics career was over. One might wonder why Dannenbaum didn’t try something safer with all the injuries she had. Perhaps golf? Maybe tennis?

“Not at all,” she said. “It was kind of like second nature to me. I never really even thought about like that it was scary, flying through the air upside down and landing on my back or anything. I never just understood that that could even be scary, because with gymnastics I was so used to it.”

Just because the pole vault fall is higher, it doesn’t mean it’s more dangerous. As Dannenbaum explains it, the mats in gymnastics are about 12 inches high. And “the mat in pole vault is like 3 feet high, and it’s big and foamy and really soft. So I don’t think it’s dangerous.”

Of course, pole vault is a technical sport, and Dannenbaum said it was “kind of frustrating” at first because she wasn’t seeing much improvement.

“Then once I started getting into more of the technical stuff with the strength and body movements that I had already from gymnastics, it just took off, and I was able to improve very quickly,” she said. “Like a lot very quickly. So that was definitely an advantage for me. … I think I can just make split-second decisions during my jump that I don’t know that other people can, just because I’m so used to making those decisions in gymnastics and being able to control my body in different ways.”

The 5-foot-5 Dannenbaum and Cortazzo both have qualified for the prestigious Penn Relays at Franklin Field in Philadelphia on April 28-30. Dannenbaum is glad to have Cortazzo as a training partner, and she’s just happy to have found a replacement for gymnastics.

“I don’t think I could have stopped doing gymnastics and then done nothing,” Dannenbaum said. “I had to be doing something. So pole vault is perfect. I get to compete. And I get to train and fly through the air and all that stuff. It was perfect.”






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