Squalicum coach Rod Kammenga has been coaching pole vaulters for 42 years now – at Bellingham long before Squalicum opened its doors.
“We have a rich tradition of good pole vaulters here,” Kammenga said in a phone interview.
Despite that tradition, Kammenga had never witnessed what the Storm was able to accomplish last spring, let along coach a group of vaulters that was able to do it.
Last May, then-freshman Kirsten Webber won the Class 2A state title in the event by clearing a career best 11 feet, 9 inches.
Teammate Tori Franzen, who was then a junior, also cleared 11-9 at the state meet and ended up taking second place on jumps.
As if a 1-2 finish weren’t enough, then-sophomore teammate Madi Krussow finished sixth at 10-6.
Three teammates. Three state medals – all in the same event.
“I’ve had numerous state champions and had people finish second and third,” Kammenga said. “But I’ve never had three at one time. I don’t think in the history of the state meet anyone has had three individuals place in the top eight at a state meet. I’m pretty certain that has never happened before.”
With all three back this year, they’ve set their sights on doing it again – only better.
“We’ve definitely talked about it,” Webber said in a phone interview. “This year, we’re really hoping to go 1-2-3. That’s pretty much all of our goals.”
The truth of the matter is, though, none of the three would be satisfied with second or third place – each wants that gold medal, just like they wanted it last year.
Just ask Franzen about her second-place finish last spring.
“It was a little bittersweet last year,” she said in a phone interview. “I was definitely glad one of my teammates took the title. But then again, it was unfortunate to lose out to her on jumps when we both cleared the same height.”
But the fact that it came down to that is what’s impressive here.
How does one program have so much talent in the most technical – and most will tell you most difficult – event in track and field?
“Our coach,” Krussow said in a phone interview. “He is really amazing. He has so much experience, and he knows how to share that with us.”
According to Kammenga, it’s not just sharing his knowledge, it’s also choosing the right athletes to share that knowledge with.
“You have to be a well-rounded athlete,” Kammenga said. “You have to be the right fit and athletic enough. Not everybody can vault. You’ve got to have good speed, excellent core strength, balance and control. It takes a very versatile, well-rounded athlete to vault successfully.”
And let’s not forget about an athlete without a fear of heights.
These three girls, after all, are all capable of catapulting their entire bodies well above a basketball rim with the aid of nothing more than a thin, flexible pole of fiberglass or carbon fiber.
“You have to have great body control and not be afraid to fly through the air,” said Krussow, who last month competed at the State Gymnastics competition.
All three have backgrounds in other gymnastic sports that made them naturals for pole vaulting.
Franzen won the 2A state diving title last fall and spent nine years in gymnastics.
Webber, meanwhile, also grew up in gymnastics and has silk gymnastics or aerial dance – think Cirque du Soleil – on her resume through her time with the Bellingham Circus Guild. She’s also spent the past four years learning how to pole vault from the Bellingham Parks and Recreation track and field program.
“You have to have a lot of arm strength and be strong in your core,” Webber said. “It really helps you flip upside down and still have enough strength to hold you up there so you can get over the bar.”
But as important as those physical traits are, it takes much more to be successful in pole vaulting.
You also need the right mental game.
“I think you have to be really committed to the sport,” Franzen said. “It takes a lot of time and effort. … You have to really want it. If you’re just kind of doing it, you won’t do as well as somebody that has that drive. It’s a sport you’ve got to be willing to die for.”
Just like during competition, the pole vaulters are usually the first to start and the last to finish in practice, Squalicum head coach Katrina Henry said.
And that’s the way it has to be.
“It’s such a technical event,” Kammenga said. “It requires the ability to sprint and use this long instrument perfectly and understand the bio mechanics of the event and the leverage and really get a grasp of the gymnastics involved. It takes a long time to learn all that. And you have to be perfect.
“In the long jump, you can be a quarter inch short of the board and still have a pretty good jump. In pole vaulting, a quarter inch can be the difference between success and failure. You have a very small window for plant and optimum take off. It takes a lot of rehearsal. That’s why we’re usually the last ones to leave.”
That and all the time Squalicum’s pole vaulters have to put into the weight room, using gravity to help them build and train muscles for their event.
Finding one athlete at a school with all those capabilities at a state medal caliber is tough enough.
So how on earth did Kammenga find three at the same time last year?
“I knew Tori would be successful,” he said. “She was coming back from a successful sophomore year. But during her junior year, she had a 24-inch improvement. That’s just a great year. Madi was a little bit of an unknown. I saw the athleticism in her, but she has such vast improvement. It was really impressive. Kirsten is just a phenom. She’s a special, special athlete. She came in with past experience in vaulting already. She was going 10-6 as an eighth grader. But she went 10-6 to nearly 12-6 in one year. She’s very easy to coach, and she picked up on things quickly. She’s just a special athlete.”
Though all three are competitive, they remain friendly with each other – a good thing considering ho much time they spend together during practice and competition.
But Kammenga said they’re very supportive of each other and push each other to improve every day out.
As evidenced by last year, they’re their own best competition.
“It’s really fun, because we all want to win,” Webber said. “We’re good friends when we’re in practice, and we talk a lot. We even talk when we’re waiting at competitions. But when it’s your turn, you’re really focused. I know each of them is going to do their best, and that pushes me to jump as high as I can.”