LARGO – Pole-vaulters Bobbi LaBrant, 17, and Jennifer Kistemaker, 16, of Largo both placed at the Florida High School Athletic Association Track & Field Championship May 2-3 in Jacksonville.
LaBrant, competing for Indian Rocks Christian School in division 1A, took first with a 10-foot jump. Kistemaker, competing for Osceola High School the next day in division 3A, took second with a jump of 11 feet 6 inches.
The teenagers were both homeschooled and now are working on their associate’s degrees at St. Petersburg College. Their families became friends at Indian Rocks Christian, where Bobbi’s father coaches track and the four Kistemaker children all trained at one point. Bobbi and Jennifer picked up pole vaulting – in seventh and sixth grade, respectively – from Jennifer’s older siblings. Jonathan Kistemaker, five years Jennifer’s senior, was the first to express an interest in learning to vault, when he attended Keswick Christian School seven years ago.
“The coach there said, ‘I don’t do pole vault,’” his mother Joyce Kistemaker explained. “And so the result was I said, ‘I’ll teach him.’”
Joyce had never pole vaulted herself, but she was determined to learn. She came alongside “really good coaches,” which included assisting David Mason of the 727 Youth Track and Field Club.
“I’ve learned by watching and asking,” she said. “And my kids have taught me along the way, as we struggled to figure how to do certain things, (and) we’ve been able to implement them.”
Bobby LaBrant, who has coached track at Indian Rocks for 17 years, won’t touch vaulting with a 10-foot, or any size, pole. So when Jennifer began training with the team at Osceola High, he was in a bit of a predicament. He begged Joyce to stay, he said; having her as a vault coach has been a good fit. He personally cannot handle the stress of watching his own daughter fly 10 feet into the air.
“I had to remove myself from the field,” he said. “A month ago, (I said), ‘I’m leaving. I don’t want to be here. It’s all you, and I’m just a parent way far away.’”
Joyce said she can understand.
“It’s extremely a technical sport with dangerous elements anywhere in the process. As a parent looking in, there’s that fear,” she said.
She and Bobbi have built a trusting relationship that allows Joyce to push her to try a bigger pole or a different technique with “no hesitation.” But she is pleased to leave Jennifer’s training to Mason, recognizing that it’s healthy for parents to step back.
“I have never had trouble coaching Jen except for now when she’s injured. That to me was the most difficult thing,” she said.
Jennifer tore her ACL practicing her second-best track event, hurdles. She was medically cleared to compete the day before districts, but hadn’t practiced for two weeks and wasn’t sure if she could vault, much less how she would do.
“That was a whole new aspect of it. I was ranked to win states by a foot. Just going through all the motions of districts, regionals and then finally getting the states, I didn’t know how I would do. I just trusted the Lord to be able to do my best,” she said.
Her personal best was a height of 12 feet. At districts, she jumped 9 feet 6 inches with a “really short approach and a little pole,” she said. She won regionals with an 11-foot jump. She didn’t make her best at states, but was content with second place, she said.
“In the end, she did amazing with the injury,” Joyce said.
Bobbi went into states in the top three, with a personal best of 10 feet 6 inches. It was rainy and wet at the University of North Florida campus, dismal conditions for anyone to do well. Bobbi said she didn’t think she could take first.
“I was prepared to do my best, but when the other girls didn’t perform like they were supposed to, I don’t know, it gave me a lot of confidence after that,” she said.
“Bobbi had a clear head (and) determination. She was very focused,” Joyce added.
Vaulting doesn’t make her too nervous, Bobbi said, but she was glad to have the event finished in order to focus on the 800-meter run, where she placed sixth, and the 4×400-meter relay. Indian Rocks Christian has the fastest time for that relay of any division in the county, Bobby said. The team placed sixth at states.
Though her height of 5 feet 2 inches is a disadvantage at pole vault, Bobbi is the faster of the two girls.
“One of the key elements of vaulting is your run. You have to be fast. The faster you are, the better you are at vaulting. And she brings a lot of speed to the table,” Joyce said.
Bobbi also runs cross-country and plays soccer. Though she loves vaulting, she said she can’t focus on one thing. She only vaults during the two months of track season.
Jennifer has pursued vaulting more ardently. She plays volleyball, but makes sure she can train at pole vault during the summer track club season.
“I love it. It’s taught me so much, physically, mentally and emotionally,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine my life without it. It’s going to be tough these next couple of months without it, after surgery.”
Surgery on her ACL was May 12. Jennifer said she’s hoping to be recovered by the start of the new school year, her last year competing at the high-school level. She hopes to be able to vault in college.
“That’s the dream,” she said.
Bobbi said she knew she wanted to run in college, but hadn’t considered vaulting until she took first at state. Her personal best is tied for the Indian Rocks Christian School record with Jennifer’s older sister, Rachel. Joyce said she doesn’t doubt Bobbi will jump higher. Besides, Bobbi’s up-and-coming competition is her younger brother, who is just learning to vault.
“You just need to get the bar up as high as you can before you leave,” Joyce cautioned her. “What’s exciting is we have two potential state champions this year again. That’s really fun.”
Another Indian Rocks Christian competitor also has potential at vault. Joyce has been working with sophomore Joshua Sackett for the last two years. He came in eighth at state with a jump of 11 feet 6 inches.
The friendship between the two girls, soon to be seniors, helps push them forward. Jennifer attends Bobbi’s meets and sometimes comes to her practice.
“They’re both just great girls,” Bobby said. “We have one more year with them.”
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