At today’s Frederick County track and field championships (weather permitting), one of the most successful coaches in the state of Maryland will man a familiar post.
Like a watchman, he’ll be positioned at the end of the pole vault runway, just off to the side of the launch pit, for nearly the entire meet, waiting, watching and instructing.
His presence there alone is a great source of comfort and confidence for the vaulters he coaches. If the vault is good, bad or indifferent, they always know where to turn for support.
“He definitely got me to love the sport,” said Oakdale senior Emma King, who, with four state titles and a personal-record vault of 13 feet, 3 inches, is the most accomplished high school girls pole vaulter in the history of the state.
“I might have liked it. But just the fact that he is so passionate about it definitely carried over to me.”
Chris Heinze was a vaulter himself. But, only a few weeks after walking onto the track and field team at Virginia Tech, he was bounding down a grassy hill on campus and accidentally stepped in what he believed was a groundhog’s or rabbit’s hole. He “tore up” his left ankle in the process and never vaulted for the Hokies again.
Heinze eventually found his calling in coaching the event he loves, something he now does at both Oakdale and Thomas Johnson High. During the season, he alternates his appearances between the schools. One day, he is working at Oakdale. The next, he is at TJ.
Similarly, during meets, he will switch the golf-style coaching shirts that he wears. If he is working with Oakdale athletes, he will wear a black shirt, representative of the school’s colors. If he is working with TJ athletes, he dons the Patriots’ red. Though, one of his athletes gave him a shirt with the names of both of the schools on it to avoid the hassle of changing during meets when both schools are competing.
Heinze’s record as a pole vault coach compares favorably to the very best in any sport.
Since 2008, Frederick County athletes have claimed close to 40 percent (34 of 88) of the state pole vaulting titles awarded during the indoor and outdoor seasons. Heinze has either coached or given a passing word of advice to the vast majority of them.
In addition to King, Heinze coaches sophomore Jackie McNulty at Oakdale. McNulty, a good athlete with long legs, had never vaulted prior to the start of the indoor season last November. But she got the hang of it quickly and, in February, placed third in Class 2A, behind King and Middletown’s Erin Smith, at the state meet with the height of 10-6. Already this outdoor season, McNulty cleared 12 feet at the Don Boyer Invitational on April 13.
“With Jackie, I basically had to hold her back a little bit,” Heinze said. “She got up there so fast that I was worried she hadn’t learned how to handle a bad jump yet. I was worried about her safety. Now, she has been doing it long enough that I am completely comfortable with what she is doing.”
At TJ, Heinze coaches Sam Shipley, last year’s county champion (14-7), who has twice been the state indoor (3A) runner-up. Prior to that, he coached four-time state champion Erick Artusio, the state indoor record holder for all classifications (15-1 1/2) and the outdoor record holder for Class 4A (15-2), as well as two-time state champ Lewis Shirima and 2009 outdoor champ indoor champ (4A) Megan Cahill.
King is the state indoor record holder for all classifications (12-6) and the outdoor record holder for 2A (11-8). Since her personal-best vault of 13-3 occurred April 17 at a home dual meet and not in the state meet, it is not officially recognized as the state record.
If it weren’t for Heinze, King doesn’t think any of her accomplishments would be possible. She credits Heinze’s dedication and abilty to relate to his athletes for her success. She also said he has an innate ability to teach complex vaulting concepts in an easily understandable way, which she said is rare. It’s not uncommon for King to wake up to a text message from Heinze discussing something he had seen while watching vaulting videos online during a late-night session.
“I have thought about it a lot,” she said. “I would never be vaulting if it weren’t for Coach Heinze. If for some reason I was vaulting, I would never be as good.”
Heinze wonders how good his vaulting career might have been if he actually had a coach, someone standing in that familiar spot nearby to greet him when he landed.
Growing up in the Long Island town of Riverhead, N.Y. (pop. 33,506), Heinze was a good natural athlete at an early age. He said he was the only person at his grade school to earn a perfect score on a Marine Corps fitness test.
Heinze participated in gymnastics, which always came easily and naturally for him, and he was a good wrestler. He also gave soccer and cross country a try.
As a seventh grader, he was on his junior high school’s track team and the pole vault became a curiosity. Except none of the coaches at the school could teach him how to do it properly. So, Heinze took it upon himself to learn.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “You didn’t have the Internet back then to teach you.”
Heinze found a book written in the 1970’s by the late author Dr. Richard Ganslen, who, among other feats, won the national indoor championship in 1938. The book was called “Mechanics of the Pole Vault.” Heinze still has it.
As he meticulously combed through the book, which he pointed out was filled with lots of pictures, Heinze refined his technique and eventually became a respectable vaulter. During his senior year of high school, he cleared 14 feet. But that was as high as he got.
Still, for someone with no formal training, who wound up breaking his right wrist (the result of an awkward landing) on one of his early attempts, it was an accomplishment to be proud of. It’s also why he appreciates his job so much now. He’s providing a service to athletes that he never enjoyed and he’s helping them reach greater heights than he ever did.
“Chris has a feel for coaching pole vault,” said longtime Middletown coach Don Boyer, who has a rich history in the event himself. He was responsible for the girls pole vault becoming a state event and was instrumental in bringing the pole vault back after Maryland dropped it as an official high school event.
“He understands the process and progression that (the athletes) need to take,” Boyer said. “He can watch a kid and immediately know what has to be done. There are very few coaches like that, very few of them. You can count on one hand that number of people across the state who have a true feel for the pole vault. Chris is one of them.”
In the meantime, Heinze’s life is a complex balancing act. He shuttles between schools to accommodate all of his vaulters. He has to keep up with three kids (a 5-year old, 3-year old and 1-year old) at home with his wife, Kerry. And he also works full-time as a technology coordinator and trainer for Frederick County Public Schools.
He finds it all worthwhile, however, when he sees joy on the faces of the people he cares about.
“I am there for them,” Heinze said. “But the opposite holds true, too. I don’t want them to let me down either.”