There used to be days, two and three years ago, when Catherine Panasenkov would see exactly one teammate at track practice.
Two or three days a week after school, depending on the practice schedule, she and Laura Chitty would make the six-mile commute from Quince Orchard High School over to Gaithersburg High for pole vault practice.
It might not seem like a great inconvenience to most, given that the trip takes somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes, but it’s enough that Panasenkov has become a rare breed in Montgomery County: a pole vaulter.
“When people go to school they’ll see a track and know that there’s a track team there,” said Panasenkov, a senior and the defending county champion in the pole vault. “But with pole vault, there isn’t anything for people to see. I think it’s just that it’s not a very visible sport. It makes it harder to introduce it to people.”
Pole vaulting is a strange enough sport to take up even if each school were to have the proper equipment. Kids generally kick around a soccer ball or find a basketball to play with before picking up a pole and catapulting themselves over a bar.
“It’s definitely a very awkward sport to learn at first,” admitted Panasenkov, who first began vaulting her freshman year. “The way you’re running, the way you hold the pole and you have to count your steps which, coming from cross country and track, I never thought to do.”
Adding to the difficulty in garnering numbers, Montgomery County has 25 public high schools, all with tracks, yet just one has a pole vault facility, which, lucky enough for Panasenkov, was recently moved from Gaithersburg to Quince Orchard.
“Montgomery County doesn’t offer pole vaulting areas like Frederick County does,” Damascus coach Jason Bozicevich said. “All the pole vaulters have to go to these specified locations and a lot of kids don’t want to do it.”
It’s not only the will to get to the location but it’s also having the resources to physically get there. There is no after-school transportation provided to athletes not wearing a Cougar uniform to get to Quince Orchard for pole vault practice and many, the underclassmen without a driver’s license in particular, have no way of getting there.
“Who’s going to go to school all day, find a ride to a specified site, and not practice with their team?” Bozicevich said.
Panasenkov was fortunate enough to have Chitty there with her for her younger years to drive her over to Gaithersburg and she has since made her ascent to the pinnacle of Montgomery pole vaulting. She has already surpassed Chitty’s personal record (8 feet, 6 inches) by more than a foot — Panasenkov’s highest clearance in competition is 10 feet — and has been a gold mine for points come championship season.
She accumulated more than half of Quince Orchard’s points in last year’s outdoor state meet with a third-place finish and picked up 10 essentially free points in the regional and county championships that preceded it.
“It’s part of the game, trying to score points out there,” Quince Orchard coach Seann Pelkey said. “She’s a good athlete and she could probably score a few points in other events but that’s a big 10 in the pole vault.”
Bozicevich and Damascus are one of the scant few to not only field a vaulter, but one who can give Panasenkov a real taste of competition. He currently oversees a duo in promising sophomore Mia DelBorello and senior Robert Carroll.
DelBorello took second this past 3A indoor state meet with a clearance of 8 feet, 6 inches, losing only to Linganore’s Tess Johnson, who hails from Frederick County, one of the top pole vaulting areas in the state. Carroll, whom Bozicevich expects to break the Damascus school record (12-6) this season, finished fourth.
“We won the state meet because of [pole vault] last time,” Bozicevich said. “The 2011 indoor state meet. It’s a big help especially for us because we’re generally pretty strong in the middle and longer distance events but we don’t field that many great sprinters.”
Erin Parker was the vaulter Bozicevich was referencing in Damascus’ 2011 indoor state title run. She finished third, picking up six points, while runner-up Mount Hebron didn’t field a vaulter and fell 1.5 points short.
Panasenkov admits to getting her best workouts with a club team in the district called D.C. Vault, which Chitty introduced her to back as a freshman, and that she still looks forward to meets outside the county most where competition is at its highest.
“Especially with schools in Virginia,” she said. “Those schools are very, very good.”
But she also says that the number of vaulters is slowly increasing, up to about 15 or 20 now.
“When she started, girls pole vault was still relatively new,” Pelkey said. “In a lot of ways, she’s setting the stage for girls to follow her.”