CANTON — Until five years ago Kurt Wheeler didn’t know much about pole vaulting. However, he has since become one of the top coaches in the state.
As an assistant track and field coach at Sequoyah, Wheeler works almost exclusively with those interested in pole vaulting.
The relationship began when head coach Lorri Little asked Wheeler to fill a void on the staff. There were no pole vaulters in the program, leaving Sequoyah unable to score any points in the event. During Wheeler’s first season, there were two pole vaulters, and now there are more than a dozen.
“Now, it’s my thing,” Wheeler said. “It’s what I do.”
Wheeler admits that he pole vaulted for a year while he was in high school at Cherokee with Little, but said he was never a student of the craft.
“I’ve gone through the USTF level-one training,” Wheeler said. “I’ve gone to clinics on pole vault. I’ve talked to people that have been successful, read books, watched YouTube. Taken classes online. Really, just learning all I can then boiling it down.”
Kennedy Williams was one of the first girls to join the program under Wheeler. The recent graduate said that was the summer following seventh grade.
“He was new and I was new, so we kind of have grown in it together,” Williams said. “It was just the most athletic thing I could do, so I wanted to try it.”
The following spring, Alexa Johnson, an eighth-grader like Williams, joined the program. The pair formed a potent duo for the Lady Chiefs as Johnson and Williams took first and second, respectively, at the state meet as seniors.
While that in and of itself is not only impressive and unprecedented, Wheeler hints it could have been even better.
“We were only allowed to take the top two to region,” said Wheeler, the 2015 Cherokee Tribune Girls Track and Field Coach of the Year. “If they would have let us take four, we would have taken the top four spots at region.”
From there, Wheeler is confident that he would have been able to get at least three to state.
This year, Sequoyah took the top two spots at the county meet and the top two places in the Region 7AAAAA and state meets. At the junior varsity county meet, Sequoyah took the top three places with a sophomore, freshman and eighth-grader.
Vaulting behind Williams and Johnson were juniors Elizabeth LaSelva and Summer Freeman and freshman Payton Carroll. Freeman and Carroll spent their time with the junior varsity program.
“I felt bad for (LaSelva) all year,” Wheeler said. “She would have been the No. 1 vaulter on any other team, but who is ahead of her but No. 1 and No. 2 in the state.”
He estimates LaSelva could have placed as high as fifth in the state had she been able to compete.
Wheeler believes the future is bright for Sequoyah’s pole vaulters. He’s invited eighth-graders to practice, to see what the sport is about without any pressure to commit. Several, including Alexa Johnson’s younger sister, rising eighth-grader Alayna, has taken him up on the offer.
“I’ll invite them over and show them what it’s about,” said Wheeler, who teaches social studies at the adjacent Dean Rusk Middle School. “There isn’t the pressure to get it right like there is when they are freshmen in high school.”
Wheeler said the only thing he looks for in a pole vaulter is dedication.
“It’s really weird,” he said. “Kennedy is crazy strong, crazy fast and crazy athletic. So is Alexa. But sometimes, the boys that are the best vaulters are tall and skinny and kind of gangly. Sometimes, you will find boys that are gymnasts, short and pretty built. There really isn’t a stereotypical pole vaulter. You just have to have a little bit of crazy. You have to be a risk-taker. If you fall running the 100 (dash), you get scraped. If you fall from 12 feet, you get paralyzed. It’s a dangerous thing.”