In the first of our Give it a Go series, reporter Chris Hyde takes on the most challenging track and field event of them all – pole vaulting.
I’m in midair when I realise something has gone horribly wrong.
The expensive European-made carbon fibre pole that I’ve been attempting to use to leverage myself over a 2-metre high bar is falling to the left, away from the bar, away from the safety of the mat.
And I’m falling with it.
All the YouTube videos of people messing themselves up that I foolishly watched before coming to the Manawatu Community Athletics Track come to life.
It feels like an eternity in the air. I hit the ground, half the body on the mat, my head on the turf. There’s a mini egg on the top of my head but I’m allright.
“You know people have died doing this?” fellow pole vaulting newbie Ashleigh Sando says as I make my way back to the start of my mark.
Yes, I do.
It began as a challenge to myself. I don’t eat track at all but I’ve at least tried every other athletics event, bar the hammer throw. In high school pole vaulting always seemed like a novelty sport.
I wanted to feel the way professionals must feel when they launch themselves, abandoning safety, their feet pushing the clouds higher into the sky. That technique is a thing of beauty.
I get to the Palmerston North Athletics Club training day in the middle of a scorcher and am greeted by George Mcconachy and his son Callum.
Two women sit in the shade, and they laugh when they realise I’m actually going to do this.
Callum gives me a pole to practise technique.
“I’m left-handed,” I say. “You just had to make it complicated,” he says with a laugh.
First up, as with almost every sport, are the hands. Strong hand on top, balancing hand below, about half a metre apart to start with. Top pole vaulters have their strong hand at the very top of the pole for maximum leverage. When you are a beginner, you start low and work your way up.
I practise running with the pole, then planting the pole in the grass to pull myself off the ground while the decathletes have a contest on the real thing.
Once the mat is free, the newbies line up to plant the pole in the box – cue the quiet sniggers.
The first pole vaulters were long jumpers – Europeans using poles to vault over canals without getting wet. That’s the first thing I’m asked to focus on. Plant the pole and pretend you are long jumping.
Once the run-up is refined and the basic technique ironed out the bar goes up. At a metre high I could jump it but I’m still nervous.
First go I sprint – slowly, as usual – and everything goes as I had hoped. I sky over it just as I realise I still have the pole in my hand.
I try desperately to push it away but it careens into the bar and knocks it down. Second time, same thing. Third time and I learn to twist my body as I go over and the push back is suddenly easy. I’ve cleared the height.
The height slowly increases and I slowly get better. Then it gets to 2 metres. I can’t clear it. I’m not pushing through with my legs, I’m told. That’s when things start going wrong.
Next time the pole bends, but I have no momentum. I push the legs through and I lose control of everything. Crash. Egg. Lesson learned.
Pole vaulting is a sport I would have loved to have done as a kid. It’s not popular in New Zealand because no-one makes poles and practically no-one can afford to have one shipped halfway around the world. But it’s my kind of sport. Take every other athletic event and add another ingredient – fear.
The final obstacle is 2 metres high. None of the other newbies have cleared it. My top arm stays straight, my legs launch through.
I close my eyes waiting to feel contact with the bar. There is none. Two or three people clap. It sounds like 80,000 in my mind.
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