Last Chance Pole Vault Festival attracts Olympic hopefuls, up-and-comers to Women’s Park

Olympic aspirations and those of setting new personal records propelled boys and girls, men and women alike into the air on Saturday at the Last Chance Pole Vault Festival.

Pole vaulters with their poles look like medieval knights waiting to joust before they lower their poles and begin their practice runs.

Dan Smith, 15, is among those with pole in hand and said he’s hoping to set a personal best. He’s been clearing the bar at 9-foot-6-inches and wants to reach the 10-foot mark when it’s his turn to compete.

Sure he’d be disappointed if he didn’t reach that height, he said, but he wants to clear the bar at the 12-foot level in about a year from now.

His 13-foot pole at his side, the Helena High School sophomore said he’s been jumping, which is how vaulters refer to their sport, since seventh grade. His brother started when he began his freshman year of high school. Smith tagged along for those summer practice sessions.

There’s lots to consider once it’s time for a jump, he said. He concentrates on the run toward the bar and focuses on not falling or rolling an ankle. And then there’s planting the end of the pole in the “box,” before momentum and the bending pole lift him into the air.

Tendra Palin, a Billings West High School sophomore, waited her turn too but she was relaxed, which comes from having a father who’s a coach and having vaulted for six years now.

She still has her “baby pole,” a 10-foot-8-inch pole rated for 90 pounds, but she’s long outgrown it.

Three poles have replaced it. Each is 12 foot but each is rated for heavier progressive loads. The pole rated for 130 pound is for her warm-up jumps. After that, Palin graduates to the others that carry heavier loads.

She demonstrates how to grasp the pole to carry it down the runway and be prepared for planting it and lifting herself skyward. Just as a professional golfer holds a club just so, she too grips her pole to get the most out of her sport.

Right hand high on the pole. Left hand a distance below it she describes as “an elbow and two fists.” She demonstrates the spacing by placing her right forearm along the pole and leaving space — enough for two fists — before grasping the pole with her left hand.

“So it’s a process. There’s a lot of mechanics to it,” Palin said.

She is jumping 10 feet now and wants to add 10 inches to that height by the end of the summer. A note taped to her bathroom mirror reminds her of this goal and what she needs to do to attain it.

But on this day she won’t be hoping for the 10-foot-10-inch mark. Clearing the bar at 10-foot-4-inches would please her.

“Whatever happens, happens. We’re here to have fun,” she said.

And that’s a big part of the festival for Helena High School coach Bill Hurford, who instructs students there on the art of pole vaulting.

“I want the kids to have the experience of performing before a lot of people and having fun,” he said after walking along the runway and exchanging high fives with more than a dozen teenagers who stood with fiberglass poles in hand waiting for their turns.

This is the first time the festival has been held in Women’s Park, he added, noting that it’s usually held in the Great Northern Town Center.

“We’re trying to make it an annual thing,” Hurford said.

Prior to the festival, pole vaulters had an opportunity at a workshop he sponsored to learn from one of the sport’s premier coaches: Australian Alan Launder.

He was giving a workshop in Oregon and was going to fly to Minneapolis for another before Hurford asked him to stop in Helena.

Launder, 80, was the coach of the Australian track and field team at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. His achievements in coaching are many. So are his praises for Hurford.

“He’s doing a fantastic job of helping young people enjoy this sport,” Launder said, adding that Hurford has all of the equipment needed to become an Olympic vaulter.

A lot of coaching is aimed toward medals and winning, Launder said. Not so with Hurford.

What true coaches do and what Hurford does is change people’s lives, Launder explained.

“Pole vaulting does it, as it’s an individual sport so they have to take responsibility for their individual performance,” Launder said. “You have to take responsibility. Nobody can do it for you. And you have to learn to handle success and failure.”

“The only thing that matters is you do it your best, you give it a go,” he added.

Keisa Monterola, 26, is on a trajectory for success. She’s also known failure.

A recent graduate of Eastern Washington University, in Cheney, Washington, she came to the festival to compete in hopes of eventually qualifying to represent her country, Venezuela, in the Olympics.

She’s tried out previously for her nation’s Olympic team but missed the mark in 2012, she said, by 3 centimeters, which is a little more than an inch.

But before trying out again for the Venezuelan Olympic team, she’s seeking to qualify for the 2014 Central American and Caribbean Games later this year in Veracruz, Mexico.

To qualify she will have to jump between 14-1 and 14-5, she said. In warm-ups she’s cleared the bar at 15 feet.

“I’m just hoping that it comes out at the right time, during competition,” she said. “The jumps are there, just waiting for the right time.”

“When I started pole vaulting, it was a very uncommon sport for girls,” she said. “I like doing things not a lot of people do.”

Nick Stearns, 21, also attends Eastern Washington University and wants to see how he would do at the U.S. Olympic trials — he’s jumping nearly 16-9 — although he has plans beyond pole vaulting and wants to go into medicine.

The festival here offers him a chance to push himself a little further, a little farther.

“If I can bust through that 17-foot barrier, I’d be awesome,” he said.



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