LONDON – Jenn and Rick Suhr have been to countless pole vault competitions since she took up the sport eight years ago. But on Monday afternoon, when Jenn Suhr boarded the shuttle alone for the Olympic Stadium, her coach/husband told her something he had never said before a meet.
“You’re going to win this,” Rick Suhr said.
Suhr, the pride of Fredonia, smiled. She felt the same way. She talks about pole vaulting as a game of survival, and she had survived a lot to reach her second Olympic final. Celiac disease. A torn quadriceps a month before the Olympic trials. All those grueling workouts in the frigid Quonset hut outside their home in Churchville. The swirling winds here in London.
She felt it was her time. Sure, she had to beat her rival, Yelena Isinbayeva, the two-time Olympic gold medalist. After Isinbayeva beat her in Beijing, Suhr said it was a matter of experience. Four years later, seasoned, healthy and confident, she felt ready to win that gold medal.
And she did it. It wasn’t easy. In the end, it did feel like surviving. Suhr won the gold medal with a vault of 4.75 meters (15-7), which was less than she cleared when she won silver in China. It was nearly a foot lower than Isinbayeva’s winning jump in ’08.
Suhr didn’t even have the single best vault. Yarisley Silva, a 25-year-old Cuban, also made 4.75, but Suhr had fewer misses. Having missed her third attempt at 4.80 meters, she had to wait out one last vault by Silva, who could have won gold if she had cleared 4.80 on her final jump. For one agonizing minute, the world stood still.
“I looked at it as I’d had a chance to make [4.80], too,” Suhr said. “It would have been emotional if she’d made it. It was emotional when she missed it, too.”
Emotional? As soon as Silva missed her final attempt, Suhr cupped her hands to her face and the tears began flowing. She ran over to the stands, where Rick was sitting with their family. Rick climbed over a few seats and they fell into each other’s arms, sobbing. He had an American flag in his hands, and he draped it over her shoulders.
Suhr turned to wave to the crowd. She ran around with the American flag, then went over and embraced Silva. Isinbayeva, who strutted when she won gold in China, seemed content, almost relieved, to have won bronze. The three posed together for photos.
“It’s very emotional,” Suhr said, “something you worked so hard for four years. There was heartbreak and joy, then some more heartbreak. You know, whenever I dreamt about how it would feel to win gold, I started crying. So I knew this would be emotional. Then I thought about how it would feel if I took fourth, and I cried over that, too.
“I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything so bad.”
At times, actually, the Suhrs played down the Olympics. They pointed out how it was just another meet on a grueling international schedule, that it was the public that made the Olympics such a big deal. But they wanted it badly. They knew, fair or not, that an Olympic championship was the defining moment in a track-and-field athlete’s career.
Suhr had her 11 national championships, her Olympic silver in 2008. But if she had never won Olympic gold, there would have been a big hole in her record. So when she finally won, it all came pouring out of them. This was the triumph they’ve worked for all this time.
The conditions were tough, the pressure enormous. But Suhr had the mental toughness. Rick had the right strategy. She came in at 4.55 meters and made it on her first try. From that point on, Suhr had the lead with fewer misses. Isinbayeva missed her first jump at 4.55 and spent the rest of the night chasing. Suhr made her second vault at 4.75.
Isinbayeva missed twice, then put the bar at 4.80 in an attempt to put the pressure on Suhr. She missed and, suddenly, the diva was done. Suhr and Silva then traded misses. It was hairy, but Suhr won by being the more resilient, resourceful jumper at the start.
“Jenn was a rock out there,” Rick Suhr said. “She didn’t break concentration ever. Again, I think the weather here in London was a factor. When you grow up in Buffalo, you learn to jump in everything, and I think that helped us out.”
This time, Buffalo didn’t come in second. And despite living and training in suburban Rochester, the Suhrs see this as a Buffalo victory. Rick Suhr takes great pride in the fact that three former Section 6 women who got their start with him — Suhr, Mary Saxer and Janice Keppler — went to the U.S. Olympic trials. Now it really does feel like the cradle of U.S. women’s pole vaulting.
When she began vaulting, Suhr made a list of all the women in the United States and their best heights. She checked them off as she beat them. The only one left on the list was Isinbayeva, the greatest woman the sport has ever seen. Check off one last name.
“When Yelena is in the field, you know the bar is risen, literally and figuratively,” Suhr said, “because you know she’s a great competitor. You have to compete and execute. Going in, I knew anything was possible with her in there. So I really had to keep going. I look at beating her as an honor. There’s a lot of respect there.”
“Thank you,” said Isinbayeva, sitting next to Suhr at the news conference.
Theirs has not been a cozy relationship. Suhr talked of “kicking some Russian butt” before the Beijing Games. Isinbayeva didn’t take kindly to it. She took some shots at Suhr (then Jenn Stuczynski) afterwards. But it was the gamesmanship of a master competitor.
Isinbayeva said the bronze felt like gold, because she had fought injuries and had little time to prepare herself physically for London. She said it was difficult to motivate herself to come back to another Olympics.
“I’m not, how can I say it, a fairy tale,” she said.
Well, it’s not as if Suhr had an easy road. After tearing her quadriceps in May, she wondered if she would be able to compete in the trials. Keep in mind that the American system demands that its track stars qualify, no matter their achievements. Isinbayeva had no such worries.
But when the Olympics came, Suhr was ready. When the Suhrs part ways at a big meet, the ones where he has to sit separate from her, Rick usually says, “I’ll see you at the beach.”
“That’s his saying, because he knows what a battle it is,” she said. “He doesn’t come to the warm-up track with me. At the big meets, you need a pass. It’s hard, because you’re by yourself. You have a lot of time with your thoughts. But when he told me I would win, I thought, ‘All right, you can do this.’
“I think he felt the momentum I felt coming into this competition. It was rolling and I felt it. We both felt it. I was in a state of peace with it, too. I just wanted it over. It’s been a long time.”
By: Jerry Sullivan