The skinny teenager from California showed up at the University of South Dakota more than 20 years ago wanting to be a pole vaulter. Though his coaches admired the youngster’s spirit, they did not see an Olympic competition in his future, let alone three of them.

Moving ahead two decades, a 39-year-old Derek Miles sat for a few moments on the landing pit at the London Olympics after his third miss at his first height last week. It was not so much a goodbye-to-pole-vaulting moment as much as it was straight-up disappointment.

It has always been about the competition, and the competition was over with a startling and wildly uncharacteristic quickness for one of the world’s steadiest veterans of the craft.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘I can’t believe that just happened,’ ” Miles said Tuesday from France, where the Tea resident is preparing for what is likely the last pole vaulting competition of his life.

“Those three jumps seemed like an out-of-body experience. I really wondered if it was a dream and I was going to wake up and it would be the day of the prelims and I’d go out and compete. The day was a foggy mess of things that don’t usually happen.”

Miles, an assistant track coach at USD who has combined careers as a coach and an academic counselor with world-class pole vaulting since graduating as the NCAA Division II national runner-up in 1996, has fueled and sustained a long stay on the world pole vault stage with what those close to him would describe as a boundless core of positive thoughts.

He has also been refreshingly candid, however — so when it ended in London last week, he made no attempt to cover up a personal disappointment.

“I don’t think I’ll ever feel good about the way it ended,” Miles said. “But that’s pole vaulting. My Achilles hurt, but nothing like it did at the Olympic Trials. Because I felt a little better I never got my steps down, I never felt like I was on the right pole — it all felt really difficult. I mean, I could do 17 feet most days left-handed. Because my warmup hadn’t gone well, I thought I’d start at a lower height, work through a few gears, and figure things out. It was a strange day.”

Women’s track coach Lucky Huber, who has continued to help coach Miles since the latter arrived on campus, was there in London with his wife and daughters, staying in the same house with the Miles contingent.

As one who has been by his friend’s side many times for big meets, Miles’ impending retirement will mark the end of an era for him as well.

“This disappointment wasn’t as tough as Derek finishing fourth in Beijing in 2008 – that was gut-wrenching,” Huber said. “This time he did everything he could to be ready to go, but it didn’t work out. My wife asked me the same thing – what it all means, with it being over, and I’m not sure. I don’t think for me it has really sunk in yet.”

Huber’s thoughts on Miles’ ability to get past the Olympic disappointment are much better developed, however.

“What being a part of this has taught me, seeing up close what an athlete like Derek has done over the years, is to enjoy the journey,” Huber said.

“The Olympics may not go the way you want. If that’s all Derek was about – competing at the Olympics – it would be pretty tough. But I think Derek has enjoyed the journey and he has taken advantage of being one of the best in his transition to becoming a great coach. He has been generous with his time and talents, and not just with his pole vaulters. So this wasn’t like the end of the world for him. It hurts, but now we can move on. You do the right things along the way and you’ll do OK when it’s time to leave.”

You could figure a 39-year-old wouldn’t get too worked up about walking away from the sport after being in three Olympics, but if there was not a unique passion involved he likely would have bailed out long before London.

While 2012 became a study in bad timing, Miles was the U.S. outdoor champion just last year, at age 38.

“Even if I got healthy and went another year, the odds are I’d be at the same crossroads a year from now,” he said. “The thing I’m going to miss the most is being in the mix – staying in the top 10 for 10 years. That was a driving force for me, that I managed to stay consistent and stay near the top.”

It’s not completely over. Miles is competing in France this week with several other Olympic vaulters. He is optimistic – as always – about being able to do better than he did last week.

“It’s a good thing I have another meet,” he said. “Last week went all wrong – I had all kinds of problems and to end it all that way would have been disappointing. I’m going to have fun and try to make a few bars and compete. I just don’t want to leave this with things going the way they did in London.”

And then?

“All the energy I’ve channeled in the pole vault I’m going to channel into other things,” Miles said. “At USD we have some great pole vaulters and we have more great ones coming in. I look forward to celebrating their accomplishments over the years as if they were my own.”

by: Mick Garry


Derek Miles
Derek Miles

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