Sean Clarke was meant to be a pole vaulter. That was obvious from the minute he broke his leg running up a wall.
He was about to enter the 7th grade and had mastered the “wall flip,” where you get a running start, take two or three steps up a wall, flip head under heels and land on your feet.
“I forgot to check the landing area,” Clarke said.
He landed awkwardly, and there went the soccer season. Clarke was also interested in pole vaulting, so when his leg healed and track season rolled around, he found a new passion.
A lot of flipping, flying and landing later, the senior at Lyman vaulted to a state-leading 16-feet, 3-inches a few weeks ago. Now he is poised to win his third straight state championship at today’s Class 4A meet in Bradenton. It would put the finishing touch on one stylish legacy.
“As soon as he walks out there, everybody knows who he is,” Lyman coach Fred Finke said.
It’s not just how high Clarke goes, it’s how he does it sporting a yellow Lyman singlet, blue knee socks and long sandy blonde hair flowing in his wake.
The finishing touch used to be mirrored sunglasses. It wasn’t to look cool or intimidating. Clarke wore them to maintain a poker face.
“When I’m stressed, my eyes show it,” he said.
The shades were retired this season. There have been a few stressful moments, but Clarke has continued his evolution in an event he was genetically designed for.
His mother is Kathy Johnson Clarke, who captained the 1984 U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team. His father, Brian Clarke, was a record-setting kicker at Yale who became an actor on TV soap operas and shows like Eight is Enough and Baywatch.
That might account for Clarke’s body control, speed, athleticism, showmanship and Ivy-League smarts. But all the intrinsic skills in the world won’t matter if the recipient lacks the will to use them.
How driven is Clarke?
He won a meet last year but didn’t hit the 15-6 goal he’d set that day. So he packed up his seven poles, drove to an indoor vaulting facility in Apopka and took 40 more jumps.
“It was pure insanity,” Clarke said.
He might still be there if his parents hadn’t dragged him away. The story would elicit knowing nods from anyone who’s spent much time around pole vaulters.
Call them eccentric or daredevilish or fashionably offbeat, they are as likely to run up a wall as they are to lean against it.
“I hate to stereotype, but he’s a vaulter,” Finke said of Clarke. “”They’re their own little beasts.”
There is strategy in track’s running events, but competitors are essentially just putting one foot in front of the other. Field events require thought, and when done right, pole vaulting looks like something you’d see at a Cirque du Soleil performance.
Clarke is perpetually intrigued by the science behind the art. How mass and velocity are channeled into a fiberglass pole and the 1,000 or so variables that can alter the final result.
It’s the perfect athletic pursuit for an honors student at Lyman’s Institute for Engineering. Even if it means his parents sometime have to drag him away from it.
“It’s a perfection sport,” Clarke said. “You’re constantly trying to perfect it.”
When the run-up is right and the pole hits the takeoff box just as the takeoff foot leaves the ground and the pole bends and the kinetic energy thrusts him into the wild blue yonder and over the bar, “you can’t imagine doing any other sport,” Clarke said.
Spoken like an aeronautical engineer, which is what he plans to be. Clarke is going to be vaulting for Penn next year. He said he liked the school because the students he met on his recruiting visit weren’t pretentious.
They’d joke with him, “yet you can switch to a conversation about the latest aeronautical engineering development,” Clarke said.
For now, his main aeronautical concern is what happens today when he shows up in Bradenton. Everybody knows who Sean Clarke is, so he wants to go up, over, and out in style.