There were 20 of them. Then 17. Now only 10 people stand at the far end of field with abnormally long poles, waiting in line for their shot at the sport of pole vaulting. The track and field team always start the season off with a large number of participants whose numbers seem to diminish as season starts.
Freshman Sarah Stuetz said there were easily 20 to 25 on the first day, and fewer and fewer since then.
“I think that people often choose this event because it’s different, and unique. Pole vaulting is a bit of an oddball sport, and those who do it are kind in their own little clique,” Stuetz said. “It is very communal, and I feel that that attracts a lot of independent thinkers who wish to be unique,”
The large volume of athletes that want to try this sport will go through a trial phase and it may work or it may not, coach Chris Smith said.
“We have 14 events in track and field and a lot of people try this and discover that it isn’t for them so they find another event and discover they have more aptitude for that other event and that’s the one they do,” Smith said.
The sport takes some natural ability as well as athleticism.
“It’s difficult for some people to grasp and it doesn’t mean they’re a bad athlete,” Smith said. “All it means is that this is not their event.”
Stuetz said that Smith is not afraid to let athletes know whether or not this sport is for them, but he also made it clear that they were not bad athletes.
“He allows people to stay with it, even if they have really no chance of ever competing, just for the fun of it, but he is not shy about telling you if he thinks you should go find another event, and completely understands when people choose the leave,” Stuetz said. “He never makes any one feel bad about it.”
Smith understands how difficult vaulting can be for beginning athletes. He has a lot of experience in this field because he has competed in this event at the master level.
“I started pole vaulting when I was about 12 years old,” Smith said. “I am a US track and field vertical jumps official, I am also a US track and field level one vertical jumps coach, and I was invited by the US Olympic committee and given a scholarship to participate in a week long elite coaches developmental clinic at the Olympic training center in 2008.”
Coach Smith speaks to the skill and ability it takes to compete in the pole vault.
“The kind of athlete that does well on the pole vault is very fast, you don’t necessarily need to be big, but you do need to have a high strength-to-weight ratio.
In addition, the necessary skills of the ideal athlete include power instead of strength.
“You also have to be a very powerful athlete, not particularly strong, but a powerful athlete,” Smith said. “Strength is the amount of energy needed to move an object from point A to point B, while power is how fast you can move that object.”
No matter how athletic a person is they still need one more element to be a truly successful vaulter.
“You need to have a gymnastics-based kinesthetic sense about you, you know the whole gymnastics type of athletic ability to be able to put together the mechanics of the pole vault and make it work smoothly,” Smith said.
“Then you need to be fairly aggressive in terms of your whole approach to the sport because it is counter-intuitive to everything a rational mind says that your body should be doing,” Smith said.
“Lastly, you just have to be a little off the hook and have kind of a crazy edge to you because it is that type of event,” Smith said.
Smith said, you need to overcome all of those things in order to be successful and that’s what makes a good pole-vaulter. Also, people do well when they just plug away at it and accept the coaching and work on all the different phases of the jump and take it seriously.
Varsity pole vaulter senior Natalie Kucirek said a vaulter will go through times of rapid improvement followed by periods of little to no improvement.
“A good pole vaulter is someone who can mentally accept that a lot of the time, they are going to be frustrated and won’t be jumping the way they want to,” Kucirek said. “They realize that there will be ups and downs, and that hard work will eventually pay off, even if it’s not immediately.”
Athletes also have some time to decide if they want to stick with the event or not because they have a month (as of March 1) between when the season starts and the first dual meet competition.
“Usually by the time we get into the competitive phase of our season everybody has figure out what events they are going to do,” Smith said. “In most cases it’s a period of two to three weeks that the events all sort themselves out.
There are times where the sport seems difficult but athletes keep trying because of its rewarding feeling upon completion.
“For the people who do it, they really enjoy it, it’s like a thrill ride at the amusement park or the rope swing into the lake,” Smith said.
Kucirek accepts the challenge and sees that the sport takes a lot of work to be good at it but thinks about the positives rather than negatives.
“You are basically flying, and when you finally get a jump you are happy with, it feels amazing,” Kucirek said.
In terms of competition, it all comes down to whether the bar stays still.
“It [the event] is very honest, there’s no subjectivity at all, either the crossbar stays on the peg or it doesn’t,” Smith said.
The sport is truly a competition against oneself where there are no outside influences which result in success or failure.
“Neither your team members nor you coaches have any influence on that, it’s about you and your approach to the jump and how you execute the jump determines whether or not you’re successful,” Smith said.