Eastern Illinois University, located in Charleston, Illinois, is moving up the ranks in pole vaulting.  Their success is impressive considering we learned that until recently the Charleston area has not embraced pole vaulting as much as other places.  The one and only EIU pole vault coach, Kyle Ellis, says, “Unlike some of the other schools you have done features on, we haven’t had a great tradition of pole vaulting until recently.  I was the former men’s school record holder and now I coach for the same school.  The women’s former school record holder, Mary Wood, is coaching at Gardner Webb and doing great things down there.”

“Each year it’s getting harder and harder to make the team,” brags Coach Ellis with pride.  “As we get better as a vault program, more and more kids are looking to come here.  Each year I have to raise the standard a bit.  I remember my first year I offered a 10’6” girl a small scholarship and she turned me down.  Now I couldn’t even take that same girl as a walk-on.  It’s crazy.  Right now to walk on I am looking at guys that jump 15’ plus and girls that go 11’ plus.  It’s really hard to say that since I was only a 14’6” kid in high school and my second best girl vaulter, Abbie, was only a 9’ girl in high school.  I’d really like to give a kid a shot if they are raw in ability and very passionate.”

When asked who is on the pole vaulting staff, Coach Ellis tells us, “Just me!  Unfortunately I haven’t really had any helpers.  Next year one of my former athletes, Abbie Schmitz, will be helping me coach some of my vaulters.”

At the moment Coach Ellis has no elite vaulters to help him out either, but he is confident he will in the near future.  He tells us, “I think Jade and Mick have what it takes to vault pro/elite.  So if I am still working with them after they graduate, I am sure I can get them to help me out at practice.  I think they will both make it to the USA Championships this year.”  The team rundown we got from Coach Ellis below will show you why he believes these two won’t be too long in joining the elite vaulters out there.

Coach Ellis has a background with EIU as an alumnus vaulter.  He says, “I was a former pole vaulter at EIU; I used to hold the school record at 5.21 and the conference record at 5.18.  I served a year as a volunteer pole vault coach before our jumps coach left to train for the Olympics as a long jumper.  After that I stepped in as the jumps coach at EIU.  This is my 5th year coaching at EIU.”  Coach Ellis also adds:  “I have coached 6 of the guys on our top 10 list and 6 of the girls.”

“This year we had 4 guy pole vaulters and 5 girl vaulters,” says Coach Ellis.  The list he gave us is as follows:  Mick Viken (JR) PR- 5.45, Eric Gordan (FR) PR- 5.10, Dan Chalus (SO) PR- 4.90, Ethan Valesquez (FR) PR- 4.25, Jade Riebold (JR) PR- 4.45, Abbie Scmitz (SR) PR- 3.95, Annemarie Reid (FR) PR-3.80, Kirstie Wieber (FR) PR- 3.60, and Sadie Lovett (FR) PR- 3.50.

We also got a rundown of the team leaders and standouts.  Coach Ellis tells us, “On the men’s side Mick Viken is our team leader; he is tough as nails and a great technical vaulter.  He has really stepped up his work ethic in the last year and he is a great role model for my younger guys to see practice every day.  On the ladies side our two elders, Abbie and Jade, are our team leaders.  Jade is one of the best vaulters in the USA, college or pro.  Jade’s one of the hardest working and most dedicated athletes I have ever met.  Abbie is also a team leader because she helped the program get started.  She went from 9’ to 12’4” in two years, and at one time held our school record and was a two-time conference champ.  Without her and her hard work this team wouldn’t be where it is now.  She also knows the ins and outs, so her and Jade provide great leadership for our younger lady vaulters.”  Coach Ellis also adds:  “Eric Gordon set our true freshman record this year with 16’9”, and Annemarie set our women’s freshman record with 12’5.5”.”

Competition for the Panther vaulters was exciting this year, as usual.  Coach Ellis tells us, “We are a division 1 school.  So when we travel and compete we see a lot of big 10 schools, big East schools.  We are always excited to compete against other schools with great vault programs like University of Illinois and Indiana.  We are in the Ohio Valley Conference, and on the men’s squad it’s basically an inter-squad meet and another meet to use as a qualifier.  We sweep the medals just about every year.  On the lady’s side it is much more competitive; our biggest competition is Southeast Missouri.  Basically to be in the top 8 this year you had to be jumping 12’.  Of the top 9 girls 5 were from EIU and 4 from SEMO, but we also are competitive on the Nationals scene.  Mick and Jade both earned first team All-American status indoor this year with Jade finishing 2nd and Mick finishing 8th.”

The fact that this team doesn’t stop working also contributes to their increasing success.  “We usually start the week after school starts- usually in September,” says Coach Ellis.  “I send out workouts over the summer and I also try to give all my kids individual tasks or drills to work on over the summer.  Usually we try to attack their weaknesses in the off-season.  Our motto is if you’re not good at something, you need to work twice as hard at it!”

Of course being “all work and no play” is no fun, so the vaulters of EIU spend time having fun.  In addition to training, and the summer workouts and drills Coach Ellis gives them, the team enjoys other sports for fun.  Coach Ellis says, “We like to do other sports.  Sometimes in the off-season we will play ultimate football, we will also have a round robin basketball tournament.  We have also played volleyball, Frisbee golf, and some of my athletes who make it to Regionals; we will go play a round of golf to give our minds a rest from track for a day.”

Investment in the youth in the Charleston area is another way pole vaulting’s popularity has grown there and contributed to the upward movement of the heights of EIU’s vaulters.  “I also run a club for local high school and junior high kids to come and learn the fundamentals of pole vaulting,” says Coach Ellis.  “This is the first year doing it.  Some of the parents help me at practice putting the bar or bungee up or catching steps for me.  In my first year doing it there have been several school records broken this season.”

The Panther vaulters have an amazing contact for equipment as well.  We learned this from Coach Ellis:  “Since Gill is right up the street (an hour from us) we use Gill poles:  Carbon FX, Pacer FX, and Mystics.  I have developed a good relationship with the folks at Gill and they are very consistent with the poles they build for us.”

The pride Coach Ellis has in his team is inspiring and moving.  He even left us with a few more interesting facts about his team and program because he has so many good things to say.

“I think an interesting thing is how our program has sprung up so quickly,” Coach Ellis says.   “When I took over I had 1 girl vaulter, a 9’ walk-on named Abbie Schmitz.  Our school record was 12’.  Now our indoor school record is 14’7.5” and our outdoor record is 14’3.5”.  Jade, Abbie and Annemarie are ranked 1-3 on our school top 10 list.  And all 5 girls on the team this year are on the school top 10 list, if that tells you how far our women’s program has come.”

Coach Ellis also adds:  “I would say something unique we do is that we do a lot of straight pole vaulting and competitions.  We do straight pole vaulting at least once a week, always from 2, 4, or 6 total steps (3 lefts).  When we have our competitions we either jump for grip height or over a bar from 6 steps (3 lefts).  Our record holder for the guys is Mick clearing 12’8”, and for grip height 13’2”. Girls for height:  Abbie has gone 10’6”, and for grip height Annemarie at 11’9”.”

“We do lots of fundamental drills,” Coach Ellis continues.  “We at least do some sort of drill every single day.  Jade’s first year she was eager to learn, so we did two-a-days working on pole carry, pole drop, and planting mechanics.”

He also says, “In 2012 Mick and Jade both won at the Drake relays; I thought that was pretty cool.”

“Mick and Jade are both shorter vaulters; Mick is around 5’10”-5’11”, and Jade is 5’4”-5’5”,” Coach Ellis adds as another fun fact.  “I am pretty sure Mick was the only guy at Nationals on 15’6” poles and Jade was on a 13’6” pole when she cleared 14’7.5” (gripping 13’3”).  Mick cleared his PR of 17’10.5”, so we pride ourselves on efficiency and our push-off capabilities.”

Things continue to look up for Eastern Illinois University and Coach Ellis is optimistic as always.  “Next year we have a really talented group of freshman and a couple of transfers coming in,” he says.  “Next year we should be a force to be reckoned with.”  So if your team will be competing with the EIU Panthers, look out.

By:  Michelle Walthall – Vaulter Magazine LLC

Jade Riebold
Jade Riebold

Leave A Comment