Renaud Lavillenie stares down the runway and up at the bar. His eyes seem to bulge, his eyebrows bounce, his head jerks to the left. He could be cracking his neck; it’s more likely the Frenchman is thinking, Putain de merde qui est élevé, or, in English, “Holy shit, that’s high.”
He is about to attempt a 6.16 meter pole vault leap—that’s more than 20 feet.
At about mid-jump, the crowd in Donetsk, Ukraine ceases applauding and seemingly stops breathing. Lavillenie catapults off the pole, kicks toward the rafters, gymnastically swings his hips and body over the bar, and falls back to Earth. His arms are outstretched in celebration before he even hits the mat. The crowd, including Ukrainian pole vault legend Sergey Bubka, erupts.
In a 2005 USA Today article, pole vaulting was ranked the third hardest thing to do in sports. Proof that sometimes the beauty of sports is the recognition that the graceful, effortless things we sometimes take for granted are actually excruciatingly difficult.
It’s also extremely dangerous. To watch the pole vault, especially at such extreme heights, is an exercise in perversity. There is so much that can go wrong. At 20 feet, a pole vault accident is like someone falling off the roof of their house, while running as fast at they can with a thick pole in their hands.
Such is the life of a world-class pole vaulter: literally centimeters separate them from both the name above them in the record books and life-threatening catastrophe. All athletes at the highest levels of their sport are driven, sometimes maniacally so, but there may be something different in those who aim skyward. Vaulting is not lucrative at all, for a sport as physically demanding and difficult as it is, and very few outsiders pay attention to it.
The risks, in other words, seem to outweigh the rewards.
“[Vaulters are] all risk takers, usually with something to prove to themselves,” said Brad Walker, who holds the American record at 6.04 meters. “It’s funny. As you are in the event longer, you actually start to see people’s personalities come out into their vault. Who plays it safe, who takes risks. But you won’t find a vaulter jumping high who doesn’t have at least one screw loose.”
If you had it like Brad Walker, you would stunt like Brad Walker. — Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The YouTube search for “pole vault accidents” returns 21,600 results. There are professionals and amateurs, all alike in their vulnerability. Some clips are innocuous, others are funny. Some clips are terrifying, showing serious injuries.
Fiberglass poles shatter with the echo of a gunshot. Jumpers miss the landing pads. They jam themselves in the box, tear muscles, or slip backward and hit their heads. Young jumpers pull the pole close to their bodies in mid-air out of fear, negating all forward energy.
Even world-class jumpers aren’t immune.
London Olympics gold medalist Jenn Suhr was injured in training last summer when her pole snapped during a practice session. A video of the accident was posted on YouTube and tweeted the next day, not by trolls looking to mock her, but by Suhr’s husband on her official Twitter account.
Once, while attempting a jump at 19’6, Walker took off awkwardly, shot straight up in the air, and landed on a patch of grass in front of the pit. He had major bruising and tore several tissues. He was taken off the track in an ambulance. The doctor told Walker that he was lucky he didn’t shatter his pelvis, though Walker attributes a ruptured disc surgery the following year to that fall.
Psychological wounds heal slower than physical ones. Many vaulters, if not all, believe that returning from major injuries and falls is more mental than physical. The “haunting memory of a jump is harder to erase than the injury,” said 2011 NCAA Champion Melissa Gergel.
“When someone has been vaulting for long enough, you can pretty much guarantee that they’ve had some sort of scary moment, a vault gone wrong. However, good vaulters are able to conquer those fears, and, most of the time, come charging down the runway without giving it a second thought.”
Melissa Gergel, who uses a fiberglass pole to fling herself into the air. — Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Why vault? Maybe because when things go right, the sport is a symphony of spectacular kinetic coordination, a combination of many challenging steps equalling one fluid motion into the air. A masters class in kinesiology.
Or maybe vaulters are just hard-headed.
“Pole vault can be so incredibly frustrating,” Gergel said. “It is such a technical event … It would be so easy to just get frustrated and quit, but I think that good vaulters secretly love that about the sport. We are stubborn, and we love the constant challenge that it presents.”
The first thing to remember about the pole vault is that it’s a speed event. A vaulter, armed with a fiberglass and carbon fiber pole sprints down a runway and plants the butt-end of the pole into a narrow, eight-inch deep box. The energy transfers from the vaulter to the pole by pushing up; The pole bends, the vaulter crouches. When the pole unbends, the jumper catapults himself into the air, and, hopefully, over a horizontal bar, then falls.
“Speed is the single most important factor in the vault,” said Walker, the 2007 World Champion. “Energy in equals energy out. But once you leave the ground it is all gymnastics, core and upper body strength.”
Many vaulters have a gymnastics background. Gergel, for example, was a Level 10 gymnast at Marian Catholic High School, south of Chicago, before taking up pole vaulting as a 9th grader.
“Spatial awareness is absolutely key, because if you can’t control your body well, you can’t pole vault well,” Walker said. “It is one of the more technically demanding events in all of sport, so you can’t jump high with strength alone. Even the bar clearances demand significant body control and spatial awareness.”
Don’t worry, he’ll be fine. Most likely. He’ll probably be fine. Possibly. — Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
In sports, individual greatness is measured in numbers. Numbers like .400; 1,500; 3,000 all mean something.
In vaulting, the magic number is six meters, or a little above 19 feet, 6 inches. Only 18 men have cleared that height. Walker, the greatest pole vaulter in the history of United States Track & Field, is one of them.
“It was a very significant mark in my career,” the 33-year old Spokane, Washington native said. “To put it in perspective their have been almost 100 athletes to break 10 seconds in the 100 [meter dash]. So at 18 members, it is a pretty elite group and one I am happy to be a part of.”
Of the 18, only two—Bubka and Lavillenie—have soared over 20 feet. Lavillenie broke Bubka’s 19 year record of 6.15 meters (20 feet, 2 inches) with a jump of 6.16 meters, a half inch higher. As vaulters push the limits of human potential, records now increase only marginally.
A half inch seems insignificant horizontally, but in pole vaulting it’s what makes a jump legendary.
“Anyone who saw [Renaud Lavillenie’s world record jump],” said Gergel, a former Oregon Duck, “it was obvious that there was more room there.”