LONDON – Four years later, the Olympic exchange between Jenn Suhr and her coach was completely different.
Tears of joy. Celebratory hugs. There will be no Internet controversy following this one.
On a blustery, treacherous night for pole vaulting, Suhr endured the swirling wind conditions and prevailed over Russian legend Yelena Isinbayeva – an upset of epic proportion, in the estimation of Suhr’s coach and husband, Rick.
“Isinbayeva is the most dominant athlete in any sport, in my opinion,” Rick Suhr said of the two-time Olympic champion. “She’s that good.”
Said Jenn Suhr: “When Yelena is in the field, you know the bar is risen, literally and figuratively.”
Amid conditions Isinbayeva described as “terrible,” she was only good enough for bronze. Cuban upstart Yarisley Silva won silver. And Suhr, who was Jenn Stuczynski while winning a silver medal in Beijing in 2008, enjoyed the golden moment she missed then.
Back then, NBC cameras and microphones captured a seemingly harsh exchange between Rick Suhr and Stuczynski after her runner-up finish to Isinbayeva. Suhr was critical of her vaults and her takeoff speed, among other things. His closing comment wasn’t exactly glowing, either.
“Hey,” he said. “It’s a silver medal. Not bad for someone who’s been jumping for four years.”
That prompted a torrent of criticism of Suhr from viewers who were watching at home. He was bombarded with angry emails, and Stuczynski was urged by complete strangers to fire her coach.
Stuczynski said at the time that the exchange was taken completely out of context. She said she had asked Suhr what she did wrong, and he was merely telling her. She said she wasn’t angry with her coach at all. In fact, she up and married the guy less than 18 months later.
After surviving that firestorm, Rick Suhr sounded like a coach/husband who felt vindicated Monday night.
“I took a big hit in ’08,” he said. “I took it hard. I took a beating all the way to my personal family and friends. I think today I can say I coach the way I coach and we jump the way we jump, and it turns out pretty good.
“We are completely dependent on each other for our success. … I believe in Jenn completely and Jenn believes in me completely. I think after tonight, a lot more people will believe that.”
From quarreling coach and athlete to hugging husband and wife, it’s been an eventful four years for the Suhr.
It is, at the very least, a unique relationship. Jenn Suhr said they had to learn to leave pole vaulting behind when training hours were over, and to be husband and wife away from the job.
“When pole vaulting is done for the day,” she said, “we leave it there.”
The place they leave it is a facility on their property in western New York – a steel Quonset hut that Jenn Suhr calls, “Rocky’s meat locker.” She described it as a “cold, gray, worn-out” building, with an uphill runway and an uneven box for landing the pole in.
“There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears I’ve put in there,” Jenn Suhr said. “I wouldn’t trade it. It’s not perfect conditions, but it’s home.”
Training in less-than-perfect conditions turned out to be the perfect preparation for this London competition.
The vaulters got a dose of British Open conditions – winds rising and falling, coming from different directions. That can leave a golfer guessing about which club to use on every swing, and it can leave a pole vaulter guessing which pole to use – and which take-off mark – on every attempt.
“That was the hardest stadium I ever saw,” Rick Suhr said.
The end result was a winning height of 4.8 meters that was nearly a foot lower than Isinbayeva cleared in Beijing. And it came down to who would have the fewest misses. Isinbayeva had an early miss at 4.55 meters that ultimately was the difference.
“It was an absolute strategy battle,” Rick Suhr said. “I got ahead of [Isinbayeva’s coach] and I stayed ahead of him.”
Rick Suhr also provided his wife with a key motivational boost Monday before the competition began. He told her five words he has never said prior to a meet:
“You’re going to win this.”
Why say it now?
“I think he felt the momentum I felt coming into this competition,” Jenn said. “I was training so well.”
Rick concurred. He said he nearly cried on the flight to London, thinking that his oft-injured wife’s health had held up and led to improved training and runway speed.
That confidence, combined with Isinbayeva’s own injury-shortened preparation, meant that the opportunity was never better to break through and beat the world’s best for gold. But those heightened expectations, combined with the difficult weather conditions, led to a spike in anxiety Monday night.
“It was kind of like being on a boat,” Rick said. “Whether we hit water or land, I just wanted to be off the boat. There was so much pressure.”
After Isinbayeva went out, it came down to a final jump by Silva to decide the gold medal. When she missed, the victory was Suhr’s.
“I’ve felt so much pressure relieved,” Jenn said. “And so much excitement and joy, all at once.”
And Jenn Suhr got to share that joy afterward with her husband. A very different Olympic moment between the two than America saw four years ago.