In the world of high school track & field, one of the most fascinating of the 16 events that take place in an average dual meet is the pole vault.

At first glance, it appears all one needs is strong arms to get a person up in the air. In reality, it requires running with a heavy pole in one’s hands, precision as far as where to plant the pole, strength in hoisting one’s body up and over the bar and a whole lot of mental preparation.

“Yes, upper body strength is important,” Lawrence High’s Karaj Pettis said. “But for me it’s more about speed and technique and remembering to use my fundamentals.”

No one has done this better than Robbinsville’s Craig Hunter, who won the NJSIAA Meet of Champions indoor title this year and outdoor title last year. Hunter is headed for the University of Connecticut on a track scholarship, a lot of it based on his abilities in the pole vault.

But as easy as Hunter makes it look, there is a world of work that goes into it.

“Pole vaulting is such a challenge because it takes a couple of simple movements and forces you to do them so quickly that they become hard,” he said. “In reality, pole vault is a sprint, a jump, a swing, and a fall.

“Of course there are technical terms for these, plus some transitional phases in between, but the core of pole vaulting is really not that cryptic. This contradiction is mentally difficult as well, as I know I’m not jumping well on any given day if my mind is not 100 percent positive and motivational. Other sports, you can get away with being negative, pole vault is not one of those sports.”

Basically, there’s a lot to do and a lot to think about. It’s not easy, it can be scary, and it makes one wonder why anyone would want to do it. For Steinert senior Sean Munkacsy, it was because he didn’t want to do what track is mostly known for—running.

“I went out the first day my freshman year and running around the track didn’t really do it for me, pole vault just sounded more exciting,” Munkacsy said. “I went over to go try it. A lot of the kids quit but I thought it was pretty good and I kept doing it.”

It was exciting, but also a little confusing.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Munkacsy said. “Eventually my coach, Mr. (Ed) Connor showed me everything. I got the hang of it within one to two weeks and started realizing what I needed to do.”

For Hunter, it was love at first vault. He actually attended a vaulting camp that was run by his long-time high jump coach, Mike Pascuzzo, and “thought that pole vaulting looked like fun.” From there, fun became a passion.

“My parents believed that I would be good,” Hunter said. “So they had no problem sending me all over the place to learn.”

And Hunter has learned his lessons so well, he has the potential to be an outstanding coach when his career is over. He has the ability to break each facet of the vault down to a science, and in watching him, he is as smooth as it gets.

But like most pole vaulters, his initial attempts were nothing Hunter would want on YouTube.

“I’ve had a few first ‘real’ jumps,” he said. “The first time I left the ground was embarrassing, because I had no clue how to do it. The first time I jumped in a meet was exciting, because I cleared nine feet my first time ever. As you learn to do new things in the air, like going upside-down, bending the pole, it feels like a whole new jump and is treated as such.”

Munkacsy admitted that his first attempt was not much different than one’s first try at, say, sky diving. Once in the air, the athlete comes to realize that, “Hey, I’m in the air.”

“It’s pretty scary,” Munkacsy said. “I probably did a lot of flailing in the air because I didn’t really know what I was doing. Eventually you get used to it.”

Munkacsy actually had a little apprehension before he even let go of the pole.

“It’s kind of the same thing the first time you bend it,” he said. “It scares the heck out of you, but you just learn to deal with it. You feel like it’s gonna snap, it’s a different feeling, like something you’ve never felt before and then you realize how high you are up in the air and it freaks you out a little bit.”

Once a vaulter gets over the fear and apprehension, the task to do his job well is long and tedious. The craft of vaulting can be broken down into five main categories: choosing the pole you want to use, gripping the pole, the running approach toward the bar, planting the pole for launch and maneuvering while in the air. It’s a lot to learn, and Pettis has learned it to the point where it becomes instinct.

“I try not to focus on the mental aspect,” he said. “I’m a student of my sport so I study hard, and when I get out there I take what I’ve learned and put it to work.

“Before I run I clear my head of all distractions and I get focused. When I clear a new height I get really excited, but I control that and use it to motivate me to clear the next height—taking it one step at a time.”

Munkacsy agrees with that approach. He tries not to overwhelm himself with thinking about everything at once.

“You start out and you don’t really know what you’re doing, and you slowly learn to improve one thing at a time,” he said. “You’re not really thinking about everything at once, you’re thinking about one thing, make everything fluid and then change one little thing, and make all that fluid again. Then you change another little thing and make that more fluid.”

The practice time that goes into vaulting is extensive and varies. Hunter said his physical practices range from four to seven days per week in-season, including two sprint workouts, two jump sessions and one to two meets.

“I try to limit myself to two vault practices a week because there is such a thing as over-jumping,” he said. “But the mental portion never stops. I probably do run-throughs and picture what I need to do for an average of two to three hours per day.”

Munkacsy says he vaults every other day, and on days he doesn’t jump he will do abdomen workouts or run with the sprinters.

“We do the sprints and practice pole runs to get our steps consistent so that we are not messing up every time,” he said. “On days we go down the runway, I’ll probably do it like 20 times or so. You definitely get tired, your arm gets tired if you’re bending the pole because you have to initiate the bend with one arm, so that starts to get tired.”

One thing that Hunter never gets tired of is talking about pole vaulting and what makes it so challenging and exhilarating. He is constantly asked about it, and if the listener really wants to know, they should pull up a chair and settle in.

“Anywhere I go, people ask me how I do what I do,” he said. “It’s a very unique sport unlike any other, so people tend to have difficulty comprehending how the mechanics and basic body movements come into play. To someone who’s never been around the sport, it seems to almost defy physics. I usually answer with a smile and show them some basic things such as how we swing up or plant the pole. Off of those, more questions tend to come, and I’m more than happy to answer all of them.”

It makes for fascinating listening. And it’s even more fascinating to watch.


Pettis Vaulter Magazine
Pettis Vaulter Magazine

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