NEW BRAUNFELS — If Superman can do it, so can I.
At least that’s what I’m telling myself as I stand, muscles quivering, halfway down a track that leads to what looks vaguely like a stadium goalpost in a barn outside of New Braunfels.
Happily, a fluffy pad the size of my living room is ready to receive me when I soar over the crossbars. If I somehow overshoot the pad, which I doubt is even possible, a cozy looking cornfield, all tender green husks and cushy stalks, lies beyond.
I squeeze my eyes shut for a nanosecond, rock back on my right foot and blast down the runway, pushing a 10-foot pole along the rubber-coated pathway in front of me. As it slips into a metal-lined box in the ground, I rock hard against it and — sproing! — catapult myself into the air and over the bar.
It feels like I’ve flown to the clouds and back, but I’ve only cleared 5 feet 6 inches. Considering the adrenaline rush it gives me, I can’t imagine how legendary Ukrainian vaulter Sergei Bubka felt when he pole-vaulted 20 feet 2 inches in 1985, a record that still stands.
Pole vaulting got its start from farmers and ranchers looking for a quick way to cross canals or irrigation ditches without getting wet. In 1896 it became part of the Olympic Games, and with the London Olympics looming, I’ve caught the pole-vaulting bug, too.
Here at Lone Star Pole Vaulting, beginners share space with elite athletes ages 8 to 88, under the tutelage of head coach and owner Kris Allison. I asked Allison if he could teach me to leap tall buildings. He didn’t promise that, but he all but guaranteed I’d be hopping at least a few feet before the day was done.
I started that morning by watching some of the local experts.
Meredith Driskell, 17, a former gymnast who just landed a pole-vaulting scholarship to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, began vaulting six years ago, sailing 6 feet by the end of her first lesson. “I turned to my mom right then and said, ‘I have to do this every day,’ ” she told me. She says vaulting feels like being fired from a slingshot.
Meagan Gray, 14, ranks as the No. 2 freshman in the United States. She, too, comes from a gymnastics background, and she’s dreaming of competing in the 2016 Olympics. Her personal record after only three years of training is 12 feet 9 inches. “It feels awesome,” she said.
After they wrapped up practice, Allison and I sat down to watch some videos showing people popping over bars like they’ve got jet packs on their feet.
The key, he said, is the run. You’ve got to sprint down the runway without hesitation, knees pumping high.
“The one physical ability that trumps all others is speed,” Allison said. “The more speed you can generate on the runway, the more energy you can load onto the pole and the more energy it returns on recoil.”
Right away, a few things about pole vaulting surprised me.
Poles used to be made of wood or bamboo or even steel; today they’re all fiberglass or graphite. And that pole? You push it away; don’t pull yourself up on it.
Most vaulters are tall and lean. Many come from a gymnastics background. Having no fear helps. Pole-vaulters who know what they’re doing flip completely upside down during a jump.
“Don’t worry, we won’t get there today,” Allison said.
More than 200 poles of varying lengths, weights, stiffness and thicknesses lean on racks against the walls of this gym. Which one to use depends on the athlete’s height, weight and experience. “You wouldn’t use the same line for a trout as a marlin,” Allison said.
I started with Pole 1, a minuscule-by-comparison 10-footer. By the end of my lesson I’ll be using Pole 4. Poles cost from $300 to $700, and occasionally, they snap. We paused so I could watch video of a pole cracking like a Chick-o-Stick during a recent competition.
That’s a reminder of the dangers of pole vaulting. Accidents are rare, but occasionally vaulters bounce off the safety mats or hit their heads on the pole plant box. A Penn State vaulter died that way in 2002; another from Grinnell College in Iowa died in 2010.
That hasn’t dissuaded many would-be athletes. The sport is growing in popularity. The River Vault competition in San Marcos last month drew about 200 competitors from Central Texas and beyond.
After the videos, we headed to the sand pit, where Allison walked me through some simple drills to get me used to using the pole to move.
After an hour, I got pretty comfortable planting the pole and riding it as it tipped forward. I worked up a good sweat in the unair-conditioned building, and felt triumphant when I launched myself over a bungee cord stretched a foot above the ground.
Then we moved to the real vaulting area, where it was time to raise the bar.
That’s where I am now. I’ve got a lot to consider with each attempt: Where to grip the pole, how far apart to hold my hands, where to start running, when to initiate the jump and more.
“In any one jump, you can make 10 to 15 adjustments,” Allison says as he adjusts my position for the umpteenth time.
“If you try to think of it all, it’s paralysis by analysis. It’s all about rehearsal and letting instinct take over,” he says.
He has me step off a couple of shoe lengths’ from the end of the runway and mark the spot. If I start jumping too soon or too late, I might be ripped or sucked from the pole, he says. That doesn’t sound fun, so I pay close attention.
We add a few more steps, then a few more. Finally, I’m dashing from eight fast strides away.
I make it over the bar a few times; other times I knock it off. It doesn’t hurt a bit, and the rush I get from making it keeps me trotting back for another try.
It’s a little scary. I can feel myself hesitate a tad, even though I know that if I’d totally commit, it would be easier to spring over my visual goalpost.
It doesn’t matter.
That 5 feet, 6 inch jump is going down in my record book. I think Superman would be proud.