Benton senior Alex Martin checks his mark, a small orange cone on the Tigers’ red track, and takes a deep breath.
Then he bolts, his steps measured out perfectly, lowers his pole into the vault plant box and launches himself into the air. Then, for a moment, stillness.
“When I’m up in the air, it’s like the world stops for a second,” said Martin, who was fourth at last year’s Class 4A state meet. “When you are up there, and you feel that you haven’t hit the bar, nothing can compare to it. Maybe scoring a game-winning touchdown. Last season, I won a jump off at regionals with my personal best jump, and that was the best feeling I’ve had in my life.”
It’s fearlessness, mixed with natural ability, that makes a great pole vaulter. When Benton coach Scott Carroway evaluates new vaulters, he looks for a daredevil mentality.
“It has to be someone with decent speed and certain amount of athletic ability,” said Carroway, who has created a culture of quality pole vaulters in his 20 years coaching in Benton. “We’ve had quite a few try the pole vault, and they are just not suited for it. They see people doing it and thing, ‘I’d like to hang upside down 13 feet in the air.’ But it’s a lot easier said than done. It takes a unique person to do this.”
Martin is Benton’s top pole vaulter with a 12-foot, 9-inch personal best. He leads a solid group of Tigers; five members of Benton’s boys track and field team can top a 10-foot, 6-inch bar. Three can clear 11 feet.
“This is the first time we’ve had this many kids jumping that high,” Carroway said. “We are getting some good athletes out here, kids who want to put the time into pole vaulting.
“It’s almost like, in the past 10 or 12 years, pole vaulting has become a right of passage here in Benton. When kids graduate, the younger ones want to take their place and have the same success.”
Junior Hannah Craig, one of Benton’s top vaulters on the girls team, started out as a sprinter. When Carroway heard Craig had a cheerleading background, he convinced her to try pole vaulting.
“(Carroway) said, ‘Hey, you are used to flipping up in the air, right? I want you to try this,’” Craig said. “We went over all the motions for a whole week. I picked up pretty quickly. It’s just about sticking with it. It’s a whole lot of fun when you know what you are doing, and you are doing it well.”
At the same time, when something is off, pole vaulting can be torture. If a jumper stalls at top of a jump, he or she can easily return to the hard track. Earlier this season, Benton’s No. 2 vaulter on the boys team suffered a fractured elbow after falling back to the track and rolling awkwardly.
But the rush of success is worth the risk.
“It’s a thrill for me, so much fun when you get it right,” Craig said. “When the pole bends and shoots you up in the air, it’s like a roller coaster. I have so much fun.”
Martin has taken first in every meet for Benton so far this season, but his focus is on daily improvement.
“Since I first saw people pole vaulting, I said, ‘I want to do that. I want to go 13 feet up into the air,’” said Martin, Benton’s lone senior vaulter. “I have always wanted to go sky high over the bar.”
Craig, who was a Class 4A regional champion last year with a 9-foot jump, is also working hard to improve.
“There are so many things you have to think about for every jump,” said Craig, who leads the Lady Tigers pole vaulters along with sophomore Shelby Leninger. “You have to make sure your steps are right, check the standards (bar height), make sure you are mentally ready for the jump, check your hand grips, go through the three steps of the jump. It’s so much. It becomes muscle memory the more you do it.”
Both Martin and Craig are continuing Benton’s proud pole-vaulting tradition.
“It started with Chris Romano (1998), who still has our school record at 14 feet and 9 inches,” Carroway said. “He sparked the interest, and we’ve had multiple 13-foot-plus pole vaulters come through here since. Alex reminds me of all of those others. We’ve tweaked the way we teach things through the years, but for the most part, everything is the same. It’s a power vault, the way we teach it. It’s just about drill and accuracy.”
Martin is happy to play a part in extending his school’s pole-vaulting dominance in northwest Louisiana.
“It’s a passion for me,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for four years, since I was a freshman, and I take it very seriously.”
Benton, which was off last week during spring break, will participate in Friday’s meet at Natchitoches Central.