And five and four and three and two and one.
Peter Leichner lets out a grunt and thrusts himself into the air. He flings off a flexible pole and soars over a bar more than 12 feet in the air with ease. He lands on dusty mat with a smile.
“Not bad,” he smirks.
The Page High School sophomore is practicing his pole vault. It’s come natural to him despite being considered one of the most technically challenging events in track and field, combining speed, athleticism, strength and a giant, flexible pole.
Leichner recently won the Williamson County meet a little over a week ago by clearing 13-feet. He finished 4th at the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association A-AA state championships a year ago as a freshman.
He measures each step and counts down while gaining speed toward the pole vault pit. This routine is sounded out aloud with each attempt.
And five and four and three and two and one.
The pole is lowered with each step before finally planting to launch Leichner. With simple physics and a transfer of energy, he slingshots himself up and over the bar, again.
“There’s just something about it,” he said. “I love it.”
A family affair
As of late, two families have been producing pole vaulting athletes the most at Franklin’s Page High School: the Leichners and Palombos.
“They keep bringing in more kids and we just keep regenerating our possibility of having pole vaulters here and rejuvanating our program,” said coach Wade, who is in his ninth season as Page’s track and field coach. “It’s been fantastic for Page.”
Peter is the anchor of this year’s team. Most of the boys at Page are tied up in soccer and other spring sports so he helps recruit more pole vaulters to the track and consistently helps out his teammates. In the summers, he has trained in Arkansas under the direction of former world record holder and Olympian Earl Bell, at Bell’s elite pole vaulting center.
“When he was in the 6th grade, I bought him his first pole,” said Peter’s dad, Ted.
|Page High School’s Peter Leichner launches himself into the pole vault pit.
Leichner is closing in on the school record of 14-feet held by Page graduate Les Gilbert, a 2009 state champion in the decathlon and former javelin thrower at the University of Tennessee.
His younger sister, Mary, is an eighth grader at Page Middle School. She’d be going to state with the heights she clears currently. Their older sister, Abby, a recent graduate, was also a pole vaulter for Page.
The oldest Palombo, Turner, a 2010 graduate, was also a pole vaulter. His sister Brierra, a senior, has led the girl’s jumpers since trying out as a freshman. Younger brother Steele, is another pole vaulter.
“Peter and Mary take it much more seriously,” Steele admitted. “I think Peter is going to have a lot of fun with his sister.
“It gets you closer to your siblings, it gets you closer to your family.”
Both families have more kids coming up, too, though several haven’t taken on the sport just yet.
“I guess we’ll have to see if the other two young men in the family will take it on as well,” said Ted Leichner, a former Troy State University pole vaulter in the mid-1980s. “I guess you could say it just runs in the family.”
For the Palombos, Turner, Brierra and Steele’s uncle Marc was a pole vaulter at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh.
“(Both) families have roots in pole vaulting,” Wade said. “If you’re an A-AA school like us, you probably don’t have a pole vaulter. To have two strong pole vaulters on each side each year has been a blessing.”
Paving the way for Page
Though not competing directly against one another, Brierra and Steele Palombo said working with a sibling does bring out a rivalry at times.
“She hasn’t gotten higher than me, but if she could, she would be bragging all the time,” said Steele, a sophomore. “But that’s one reason that makes me jump higher.”
The pair did gymnastics together until Steele was 12. They also played basketball together.
“Pole vaulting is just another sport where we are just helping each other and working with each other to get each other better,” he said.
“I think they do try to out do each other, but they get along really well,” said Brierra and Steele’s mom, Beth.
Brierra, a senior, was recruited by coach Wade to try out pole vaulting. Wade and other coaches identified several of the events poorly represented by the Patriots during meets and pole vaulting was one of them.
“We have some great athletes here that learned how to do it on the fly,” Wade said.
Brierra’s talents as a gymnast and cheerleader quickly surfaced in the new sport.
“I thought I would just try it out,” she said. “It kind of came naturally … when I started, I was the only one here.”
The small boys track team also required some extra encouragement to turn out. Leichner was able to recruit Aaron Fly to take on pole vaulting last season. Fly, a senior at the time, cleared 9-feet at his first meet in April 2012 and a month later Fly placed third at the TSSAA A-AA state championships by clearing 12-feet.
Two years ago, Brierra also placed third at state by clearing 8 feet, 6 inches. Abby Dodson, who went on to compete at Lipscomb last season, finished second, setting the school record at 9 feet.
“I think if more people tried it out they would find that it isn’t as hard, but it is still challenging,” Brierra said, adding that the younger Palombos and Leichners will keep Page pole vaulting flying high. “It’s good knowing they are coming up. It will keep going even when we’re gone.”
The Patriots will enter their final regular season meet this weekend at Brentwood Academy for the Charlie Harper Relays. The Class A-AA subsectionals begin next week at Lipscomb with sections to follow to qualify for the Spring Fling state chmapionships in Murfreesboro May 20-24.