Trying to pick an outdoor track and field event in the spring of 2012, Hereford’s Kaity Lynch eventually settled on the pole vault.
At first, Lynch occasionally wondered about that decision. Racing down a runway with an 11- or 12-foot pole felt awkward, and there were a few shaky moments.
“It was definitely scary the first couple of times,” Lynch said. “But you kind of learn to trust yourself and that you know what you’re doing. Once you really got used to doing it, you know you weren’t going to hurt yourself.”
Lynch slowly made progress. Competing on junior varsity that spring, she finally cleared the bar at the Baltimore County championship meet and kept improving. Last winter, Lynch took fourth place in the county and tied for fourth in the Class 3A Central Region meet. She also tied for eighth at the state meet, which Hereford won.
The senior is delighted she decided to try pole vaulting, joining a crowd of local high school students with similar stories as the event’s popularity has surged in recent years.
“I haven’t seen anything remotely come close to the bounce-back in participation in the pole vault,” said Michael Sye, Baltimore County’s coordinator of athletics. “I just think it’s a combination of more kids wanting the opportunity to try and more coaches having the ability to teach it. For a long time, I just kind of think pole vaulting was just kind of a taboo thing. But now it’s being embraced as a way to put a team over the top.”
About 10 years ago, the National Federation of State High School Associations made rule changes regarding landing pits that left many in the state illegal. Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association executive director Ned Sparks said that after those changes, many public schools stopped coaching the event and participation fell off.
Shortly after the rule change, team points stopped being awarded for the pole vault at the state meet, though individual champions were still crowned.
However, things slowly began to change. Girls started competing in the pole vault, and when some found success, others followed. Coaches noticed that this was a place to gain points for both boys and girls. Eventually, the sport that had been left for dead began to revive itself.
Sye, who won a state title in high school and coached track at Woodlawn from 1995-2000, said there’s no question that now, pole vaulting is part of a championship team.
The numbers tell the story. According to athletic.net, a website that tracks individual results for coaches, parents and participants in track and field and cross country events, 45 girls and 67 boys in Maryland cleared the bar at least once in 2007. In 2013, those numbers jumped to 103 for girls and 155 for boys.
“I’ve been happy to see the evolution of it, to return to a time when it’s become a prominent event in track and field,” Sparks said. “There’s more opportunity for kids.”
A big reason for the greater opportunity is that schools finally took an interest in the sport in different ways. Like regulation landing pits, poles aren’t cheap, but schools are making the necessary investments. Hereford coach Brad Duvall said his school has 30 to 50 poles, which cost $300 to $500 each.
But the biggest change might be that coaches are taking the time to learn how to coach pole vaulting, which wasn’t happening in years past.
“Coaches are more comfortable trying to coach it,” Maryland coach Andrew Valmon said. “Ultimately, that’s what’s going to generate more interest in the event, when you have more people wanting to coach it.”
Gerard Filosa coaches Pikesville’s jumpers and vaulters, and often worked with Sasha Smallwood, a six-time state champion indoors and outdoors. When Pikesville lost by two points to Hereford in the 2005 outdoor region meet, the Bulls scored 24 points in pole vaulting alone, which Filosa noticed. Pikesville got a new track in 2006, and Filosa pushed pole vaulting to be part of his lineup, which he still does today.
North Harford now has two experienced coaches — Jimmy Cachola and John Butler — specifically working with pole vaulters. Head coach Eric Benjamin’s team gets kids learning the event and then helps them improve so they can earn the Hawks points in big meets.
At Hereford, Duvall said coaches began teaching the basics of pole vaulting about eight years ago — the right grip, basic mechanics of the takeoff and a three-step approach. They don’t start working with vaulters on flight until the takeoff is mastered.
If they show interest and aptitude — like Lynch — the coaching continues.
“It’s a lot of fun, and I made a lot of good friends,” Lynch said. “Being successful with them as a team has really made track like an important part of my experience in high school.”