Ohio State freshman pole vaulter Emily Schwartz clears her mind with a few breaths before taking off for launch.
“(I) shake out, walk up to my line, take a deep inhale, then exhale and think of absolutely nothing,” Schwartz said.
Such tranquility, though, is short-lived. Moments later, Schwartz will find herself furiously sprinting down the runway and staring up at the vault, with the hope of clearing it before making a safe landing.
Track and field athletes like OSU’s Jesse Owens or Jamaican sprinter and Olympic gold-medalist Usain Bolt seem to be household names when it comes to achieving in some of the sport’s most popular events, but some pole vaulters on OSU’s men’s and women’s track and field teams said their sport remains an enigma.
“We are the stepchild of the sport,” said Robert Banhagel, a volunteer coach for the men’s track and field team who works directly with the vaulters. “But I personally believe that it is the most complicated event in track and field because a pole vaulter needs to be as fast as a sprinter, as agile as a gymnast and as strong as a shot putter, so it’s a combination of all of them.”
Pole vaulting is an event in which athletes use a long, flexible pole made of fiberglass or carbon fiber to scale the crossbar dozens of feet over their heads. The initial and successive heights are determined by the sport’s officials, but the athletes can choose the desired height for the crossbar to be placed. They get three attempts to clear the bar, and if successful, they can proceed to a higher jump.
“You basically have to run down the runway, jump off the ground with a pole and get over the bar, and if the bar stays up, you’re pretty much good to go,” said OSU junior vaulter Tyler Borton.
Pole vaulting can be an expensive trade, too.
“Each vaulter has between four and six poles that they would use in competition, depending on the circumstances, and they range anywhere from $1,000 to a couple thousand dollars,” Banhagel said.
Schwartz said the pole vault is often compared to gymnastics, due to the flexibility necessary to clear the crossbar without grazing it.
“I was a gymnast for 12 years,” Schwartz said. “It is generally recommended to have the training of a gymnast when doing pole vault.”
Banhagel said the key to a successful attempt is all about the athlete’s technique. A deficiency in that realm, he said, could be cause for alarm.
“What makes me nervous as a coach is when I see other coaches who do not step in when they see their athlete doing something wrong, and they don’t correct it,” Benhagel said. “When you have an athlete who’s not that fast and they are holding really high on the pole and they keep coming down and can’t land in the pit, that’s when injuries occur.”
Benhagel, who is a new addition to the OSU men’s team’s coaching staff, said he has high hopes for the squad’s success this season.
“I want us to get to the point where we are getting attention and make people want to come here,” he said. “I always wondered why Ohio State track was not a powerhouse that it should be … I think coach (Ed) Beathea is getting it right. He is recruiting the right people and I think he’s putting OSU back on the map.”
The men’s and women’s teams are scheduled to compete this weekend at the Gladstein Invitational in Bloomington, Ind.