Track and field has never had the highest priority in football-hungry West Texas, but there are a few oases for fans of the sport.
One such oasis is the home of pole vaulting coach Willie Ruiz, who has coached local athletes to district, regional and even a state championship right in his own backyard.
“I have an old pole-vault kit that I bought for my son back in 1999,” Ruiz said. “I built a track and welded some standards (which hold the bar up). When my son started vaulting higher, I had to do something, so I went out and bought some factory-made standards.”
Ruiz began pole vaulting in high school in Andrews, but his interest in the sport goes back further than that.
“When I was a kid, I used to visit my grandma. And with my cousins, we would traverse some mountain creeks, and we would be carrying 15-foot bamboo sticks, and they were for jumping over springs in the creeks,” Ruiz said. “Later on in junior high, I found out they actually had a sport for it, and I have been vaulting ever since.”
Though Ruiz was a solid vaulter in high school, injuries prevented him from advancing to state.
“I did not even make it to regionals,” Ruiz said. “The competition back then was rough, and I had been hurt, and I got third at my district meet my senior year.”
It would be another 22 years before Ruiz would vault again.
“I started vaulting again with my daughter (Michelle) to show her how to vault,” Ruiz said.
The father-daughter duo competed in different “daddy-daughter meets” — the start of her outstanding high school pole vaulting career.
Michelle was a four-time district champion and twice advanced to state; her brother, Michael, also won a district championship.
Ruiz also coached each of his younger brothers, including Leo Ruiz, who qualified for state and went on to vault in 1982 and ’83 at Odessa College, where he vaulted as high as 17 feet.
This year, Water Valley’s Celsey Randolph won gold at the Class 1A state meet. She is the first state champion Ruiz has coached.
“This year I was at a standstill at 9 feet, and he helped get me out of my standstill by helping me with my run,” Randolph said. “He improved me by a foot and a half in the last year.”
Randolph says that Ruiz is “calm and patient” and motivates his vaulters without yelling at them.
Former Central standout Dinha Callejas, who recently signed with the University of Texas-San Antonio, also credited Ruiz with much of her success.
Ruiz welcomes people of any age or skill set to come and learn from him. No matter who he works with, he stresses one important thing.
“I am safety-minded first,” Ruiz said. “I teach them to vault correctly, especially the seventh-graders, because it is dangerous, and they can get hurt.”
How to hold the pole, a correct approach and a correct run are just a few of the basics that Ruiz covers.
“There are nearly 40 to 50 variables that come into play, and once the safety is taught first, I progress from there,” Ruiz said.
by: Dillon Brollier