CHURCHVILLE – Rick Suhr was marveling at his wife’s list of achievements Wednesday when he referred to pole vaulting’s renowned coach-athlete tandem as being “in the twilight of our career.”
Twilight? Jenn, you’ve been ranked first in the world the last two years. You won the world indoors in March and set a world record. Twilight? She laughed and looked her husband’s way.
“I was wondering that, too,” Jenn Suhr said at a media day in the quonset hut that serves as the Suhrs’ training facility behind their Churchville home. “I do feel pretty good. I definitely feel like it’s more daylight. Not morning, but it’s more like afternoon time.”
A little more sunlight would have brightened a gray, overcast day out on Jenkins Road. The weather seemed suitable for the drab old vaulting hut where Rick has trained so many champions, most notably Jenn, the defending women’s Olympic gold medalist.
After all these years covering Suhr’s career, I had never visited the hut. It was as I’d imagined it, a dark and spartan retreat. A long, narrow runway extends from the back into an open front space, where the high bar and landing pit are situated in front of the opposite wall.
The place seems stuck in time, with old cushions and wooden crates stacked along the walls. Rick Suhr has old newspaper clippings on the wall, most of them a decade old or more. There’s an American flag on the wall.
There’s a functional, utilitarian quality to the place. Rick talked about the mice who inhabit the hut. Jenn reminded him that the resident snake, Stella, takes care of the rodents. But most of all, that building is a breeding ground for champions.
“It is,” Jenn said, looking up at the ceiling. “This is home. This is where it takes place and everything is set up for success. I mean, it could use some upgrades. The runway has a hole right behind you that I don’t like. It could use some color.”
There was a touch of gold. Hanging from the center of the pole vault bar was Jenn’s gold medal from the London Olympics. The bar was set at 5.03 meters (16 feet, 6 inches), her world indoor record height.
“That’s the highest any woman has ever jumped with a roof over her head,” Rick said. “That and the gold medal are symbolic of the achievements and how hard it is to do both.”
Suhr, 34, is the best female pole vaulter in U.S. history. She has 16 national titles, the most of any active U.S. track and field athlete. That’s remarkable when you consider that many track stars compete in multiple events.
She won silver at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, gold in London four years ago. Now she’s two months from defending her Olympic title in Rio de Janeiro – assuming that she qualifies at the U.S. Trials on July 8-10.
Nothing ever seems to come easy for Suhr, who has suffered a variety of injuries over the years, plus a battle with Celiac disease. Now she’s injured again, having hurt her calf and Achilles during qualifying for the world indoors, which she won, in March.
Pole vaulting is a brutal sport. The body takes a pounding. Suhr said she’s much better at managing her recovery these days. She said she hasn’t lost much of her training base and figures she’s around 80 percent recovered.
“Each day, it’s getting better,” she said. “My calf is getting stronger and the pain in my Achilles is less and less.”
If Suhr is at 80 percent, the rest of the women vaulters should be worried. A few days ago, she took her first outdoor jump of the season at her alma mater, Roberts Wesleyan, and cleared 4.85 meters (15-11), the highest vault in the world in the young outdoor season.
“Heading into the Trials, I actually feel I’m in a real good place,” she said. “I’ve had such a good indoor season. I’ve built such a strong core from my takeoff to the actual jump, I’m confident I don’t have to fix anything. I’ve just got to execute a little better.”
Rick is optimistic, but wary as ever. He began Wednesday’s media session with two of his favorite resentments: the lack of a single U.S. sponsor and the fact that all American tracks stars have to qualify for the Olympics.
“Think of all the sponsorships out there,” he said. “Not one American company sponsors the defending Olympic gold medalist, Jenn Suhr. A lot of people ask why. I don’t know.”
The Suhrs announced an actual endorsement from a company called The Perfect Granola. Michelle Liddle, who owns the Victor-based startup, sat at the interview table with Jenn and 14-year-old protege Erica Ellis, who broke the Section V girls pole vault record last month.
Rick Suhr’s disdain for the Trials is understandable. Many nations don’t conduct Trials. They send their best athletes and let them rest. The Americans have to qualify. An injury or a bad day and it can be over. The women’s pole vault begins in Eugene, Ore., on July 8, one month from Wednesday.
That makes it doubly difficult for the U.S. track Olympians to win medals.
“In America, you have to peak twice,” Rick Suhr said. “We lobbied to have the distance farther apart between the two. But the governing body decided to move them even closer. It affects us tremendously, because peaking twice is really hard. That’s why other countries don’t do it.”
Jenn said the lack of sponsors bothers her, though she tries not to be bitter. She said there’s no point in dwelling on things beyond her control. That includes the Zika virus, which she isn’t worried about in the least.
She has enough to be concerned about as she prepares for next month’s Trials and, presumably, the Olympics in August. But she sees plenty of daylight ahead. She has the confidence of a champion, a seasoned survivor.
“In 2008, I was so new to the event,” she said. “I wasn’t able to adjust to anything. My training had to be perfect. In 2012, I was injured going into it, but I was a better pole vaulter. So I was able to overcome that injury and adjust.
“I definitely feel I have evolved as an athlete, a vaulter and a person. I’m an experienced vaulter, but I still feel young and strong and able to run. You’d think you would start to see my speed starting to slow down, but it’s not there at all. Until that day … ”
Jenn will continue to soar, reaching for new heights. She’s tanned and fit and looking to defend gold. If this is the twilight, she remains pole vaulting’s bright, shining star.