COLUMBIA — A handful of the vaulters on Rock Bridge’s girls track and field team are trying to clear 6 feet, 6 inches at Saturday’s Rock Bridge Invitational.
They certainly are not the best vaulters on their team. Occasionally they knock down the bar or crash hard onto the landing pit. But they are participating in a sport that was not sanctioned by the Missouri State High School Activities Association when some of them were born.
Girls pole vaulting was added to Missouri state track and field competition in 1999. Boys pole vaulting has been around since 1928. Rock Bridge had nine girls competing in the pole vault competition Saturday.
Many vaulters, including four of the five girls at Hickman’s practice Monday, have participated in gymnastics. Others at Hickman and Rock Bridge simply got interested because they wanted to participate in track and field but wanted to do something unusual.
In general, though, most athletes are drawn to pole vaulting because of the thrill involved in running down a runway and flinging themselves into the air. Pole vaulters are daredevils.
“This is the X Games of track and field,” said Hickman assistant coach Doug Gordon, who works with the Kewpies vaulters.
Usually, for girls, the hollow fiberglass or carbon poles range from about 10 feet, 8 inches to about 12 feet, 9 inches in length and cost about $200 to $300. They are rated to hold athletes of different weights. However, they do occasionally break during a vault. Gordon said this sounds like a shotgun blast.
Pole vaulting is part sprint, part gymnastics and part aerial acrobatics.
The event begins with the approach. The best athletes take seven steps down the runway. As vaulters run, they slowly lower the pole, which is nearly vertical when they start. At about 7 to 9 feet from the block, the vaulters stick the pole into the block and jump onto it off their left foot.
This is where gymnastics helps girls out in particular. They must get the pole as straight as they can so it bends and then use it to fling themselves safely over the crossbar. To do this, vaulters swing their bottom hand over the top of their body. They then swing their hips over their shoulders so they land on their backs.
Hickman’s Dakotah Meierotto ran down the runway and jumped onto the pole from nearly 9 feet in front of the steel block. She catapulted about 8 feet into the air, but she came straight down and nearly landed on the steel block. Luckily, she landed on padding surrounding the block.
Katie Pasley, a sophomore at Rock Bridge, started vaulting in eighth grade at Jefferson Junior High School for the thrill factor and because she thinks running is too boring.
“It seemed way cooler than just running down a track,” Pasley said. “You’re kind of crazy for doing it. Running down the runway, on a pole, falling 10 feet in the air on a mat that you could possibly miss.”
Eilish Mathews, a Kewpies sophomore, said she likes to be challenged. Matthews’ parents first encouraged her to participate in track and field. However, pole vault was her choice.
“My parents wanted me to do track in eighth grade, and I don’t like to run,” Matthews said.
Meierotto also used to participate in gymnastics. She took up pole vaulting last year and said her friends and family often ask her if it’s dangerous.
“It was very scary because I had never done it before,” Meierotto said. “But Gordon was a good coach, so I learned quickly how to do it. Then it wasn’t as scary.”
The sport has come a long way in a short time.
As Melissa Lowary attempted to clear 10 feet Saturday, Gordon watched, commenting that when he started coaching at Hickman in 2005, the school record was 9 feet, 6 inches. That is now a tough, but a doable height for girls. Galit Rudelson set Hickman’s record of 11 feet in 2011.
Pasley and Beck will represent the Bruins at their district meet Saturday in Camdenton. Pasley’s personal best is 9 feet, 3 inches. Although she was eliminated Saturday when she failed to clear 9 feet on three attempts. Beck’s personal record is 9 feet, 6 inches.
Meierotto and Lowary will compete for the Kewpies on Saturday. Lowary’s best vault is 10 feet, and Meierotto is 9 feet, 6 inches.