Pole vaulters take to the heights in unlikely local site

Downtown Winston-Salem’s main drag has played host to a myriad of events, from concerts and plays to festivals and street fairs.

But on Saturday at 10 a.m., if you who happen to be around West 4th Street between Cherry and Marshall streets, you will be treated to a first: a pole-vaulting competition.

“I’ve seen a lot of events downtown, but this one really piqued my interest,” said Jason Theil of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership and a former shot putter and discus thrower. “Normally, the middle of the street downtown isn’t the typical location for such an event, but we’ve done so many things on the streets that nothing surprises me much anymore. … I think the idea of seeing people going higher and higher is going to be very exciting, and to see it in contrast to the environment, which makes it especially interesting. People dining outdoors that day will have a show along with their meal.”

Employees at nearby businesses are excited, too.

“At first I was a little worried about people flying through the middle of buildings, but we’re excited about it, like we are any event that brings people downtown,” said Elise Wallace of Camino Bakery. “It’ll be fun — something we’ve never seen before.”

The Winston-Salem Street Vault was organized by Tim Sullivan, the Wake Forest University pole-vaulting coach, and Explosion Athletics, a nonprofit organization designed to educate coaches and athletes about techniques, training and safety for pole vaulting.

“Street vaults are really big in Europe and in some other U.S. cities. I’ve heard of ‘beach vaults’ and there’s even a ‘cave vault’ in Missouri,” Sullivan, 30, said, adding that the quirky venue choice reflects pole vaulting’s “distinctive culture in track and field.”

People may not have heard a lot about the sport because it’s so “different and specific,” said Sullivan, who has also coached at the University of Oklahoma and West Virginia University.

Pole vaulting was probably at its prime in the late ’80s and early ’90s when Russian Sergei Bubka was setting numerous world records. Bubka was charismatic and drew large crowds to track meets.

Pole vaulting is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity, he said.

“The number of athletes performing at close to world-record status has risen through the past few years. There’s a lot of young talent aspiring to be world class.”

According to Sullivan, he looks for athletes who have speed and body control.

“By the law of physics, taller athletes often have an advantage as long as they also have body control. But on the other hand, I’ve coached athletes who were shorter and slower and have done better in competitions,” he said.

The local competition will be organized according to ability, Sullivan said.

“Since this is our first year and we don’t know how many athletes we’ll bring in, we’ll divide into groups based on ability. The beginners will start in the morning and we’ll build up in the afternoon for the more elite vaulters. That’s important, because there is a dramatic difference between the beginner and the elite athlete. Pole vaulting is so developmental; we grow up throwing footballs and playing basketball and running — but we don’t grow up vaulting.”

As of late June, one of Sullivan’s Wake Forest athletes and a couple of semi-professional vaulters had registered for the competition, he said.

He’s encouraging locals to take advantage of the free show.

“For spectators, vaulting is such an exciting event. It’s entertaining no matter how high the athletes go,” he said. “The cool element of it is going to be people sitting eating pizza at Mellow Mushroom and all of a sudden, they see pole vaulting.”



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