NEW ROCHELLE – By 6:30 Monday night, the ropes are dangling, the plastic hurdles are out, the vaulting mat is in place and the in-ground box in the Iona Prep gym floor is open.
Maddy Luksha, last year’s top female pole vaulter in Section 1, is part of the assembly crew that includes four other Ursuline girls and four Iona Prep boys.
The job foreman is their no-nonsense coach, Jerry Cahill, who 10 minutes later drops a fifth boy from the top workout group for arriving late.
In the course of the next two-and-a-half hours, though, that kid and the others go through the same workout — one that would probably make the average football or basketball player quickly find another sport.
Multiple gym-length handstand walks are the most eye-catching drill, but gymnastics ring inversions, rope climbs (sometimes involving swinging to hang upside down every few seconds) and sprints that begin with quick rises from prone, killer ab work and then from push-ups, also fall under the category of less than easy.
Explaining the need for everything, Cahill notes pole vaulting requires speed, strength, flexibility and gymnastics ability, including the ability to know where you are in the air.
“Young people want a quick fix. They don’t realize it’s drills, drills, drills,” he said.
“You learn through pole vaulting that you really have to work on your weaknesses,” Luksha said.
The Irvington resident began vaulting in eighth grade and is now a junior. In that time, she has persuaded exactly one friend to take up the sport.
“Most people say it’s too hard, or they’re scared, or they have no upper-body strength or they try it for one day and say, ‘OK, I’ll do something else.’ The training is not a walk in the park,” she said.
Luksha and one of the Prep boys wear T-shirts whose front reads, “You cannot fail.” On the back is, “You are the hero of your own story.”
But Cahill is clearly also her hero. The quote is the title of a book he authored. The 20-year coach, who vaulted in high school, then for UConn and the New York Athletic Club (clearing 16 feet, 3 inches), suffers from cystic fibrosis. When diagnosed, he wasn’t expected to live past his teens. Now he’s 59 and in 2012 received a double lung transplant.
Noting his condition, Luksha, who calls him “inspiring,” said, “Time is a very important thing to him and I think it’s why he doesn’t tolerate people not putting in hard work.”
This night, Cahill isn’t happy because Luksha has done just the opposite. Luksha, who spent the summer training before trading varsity soccer for cross country to improve her pole vault, ran too many stadium steps Saturday and her legs are dead.
There’s a small lecture but Cahill clearly admires the dedication.
Luksha, who also played basketball and earned a black belt in tae kwon do before concentrating on pole vault, had never heard of the sport before joining track as a sprinter in seventh grade.
At her first meet, Luksha failed to clear the minimum 5-foot height. That came during her second meet.
Her best vault indoor and outdoor is now 10-3 but, remembering that first 5-foot clear, she said, “That was probably as great a feeling as clearing 10-3.”
Luksha has grown an inch and a half since last spring, to 5-foot-6, and, at Cahill’s urging, has added muscle weight by lifting weights, doing more gymnastics and eating more.
“Last year, she was a little frail. Last year, she’d kind of get worn out quickly,” Cahill said.
He doesn’t expect that this year. In fact, he predicts she’ll clear 12 feet this winter, an enormous increase that would place her second on the all-time Section 1 girls list behind Lakeland-Panas’ Carissa Leonardi (12-7 in 2011).
Luksha wants to eventually clear a lot more before vaulting in college. Her love of the sport — “I kind of fell in love with the grind, working hard and seeing results” — also has a philosophical side to it. “I think the ultimate goal is just to enjoy the journey and the different experiences brought about through the sport,” she said.
Still, the vaulting itself, as frustrating as it can be with multiple things that can go wrong, can provide its own reward.
“I really like coming here (to practice) because of the thrill I get vaulting,” Luksha said. “When I’m clearing a personal best, that split second in the air, when I’m seeing the bar up there, is the moment I’m training for.”
And Luksha expects lots more big clears because of the work she’s putting in and the trust she has in a coach who trusts her.
“His mantra is, ‘You cannot fail,’ “ she reminds.