A pole vault and raindrops are not a good mix.
A wet pole, and slippery conditions keeps jumpers grounded. It’s a safety issue.
So as the rain fell lightly on a dreary Monday afternoon in the middle of track practice at North Reading High, a trio of vaulters, senior Julia Valenti along with sophomores Rachel Hill and Victoria Grasso had to put their reps on hold.
The pit remained covered, and their poles were still wedged within their protective covering.
The precipitation eventually settled into a fine mist, allowing the three to make their way out onto the track and keep stretching.
Practicing in the rain is not ideal. But the event in itself demands a rare breed – athletes that aren’t afraid to test their limits.
Valenti, the defending all-state champion (with a personal-best record of 12 feet, 7.5 inches), stepped to the line first. After taking a deep breath, the Dartmouth College recruit began her strides down the runway, her eyes dead-set on the bungee cord stretching from one standard to another. She counted on the exhales, her articulation only audible enough for her to hear. Then, with only feet to spare, she planted her pole in the box, pairing it with an emphatic jump and and upward swing of her knees.
“It’s human nature to then hug the pole and hold on for dear life,” North Reading track coach Sotirios Pintzopoulos says.
“You need to fight the urge and push with your top arm.”
Valenti followed through, finishing her vault with an invert of the legs to make it over the bungee cleanly.
“In this weather, that’s some of the best vaulting I’ve seen,” said Pintzopoulos, much to the delight of Valenti.
Valenti, Hill, Grasso and a handful of high school vaulters in the area have experienced considerable success in a discipline that requires a wealth of athleticism, strength, body awareness and extensive fearlessness.
Grasso is soaring quickly. Three weeks ago, the sophomore was not competing in the pole vault, content with her rising marks in the long jump and the shuttle hurdles. But after a helpful nudge from Pintzopoulos and direction from Valenti and Hill, she picked the details pretty quickly. In her first competition, she qualified for the state meet with a jump of 7-6.
“I haven’t completely gotten the technique down,” Grasso said.
“My background in the long jump helps, but the introduction of the pole is a whole new dimension. Then there’s the inversion and turn.”
Little about pole vaulting taps into natural body movement. From the moment one is thrust into the air, feet facing anywhere but the ground, a sense of heightened body awareness gradually develops. For athletes such as Hill, a background in gymnastics expedites the learning process.
“There’s a lot of crossover between gymnastics and pole vaulting,” said Hill, a Cape Ann all-star gymnast this past winter.
“Both require a base upper body strength and the ability to know where you are in the air and situate yourself to land properly.”
Based on her jump of 9-9 at last year’s all-state meet, Hill is one of the top returning female vaulters in the state.
She is fearless, and confident.
“When you’re flinging yourself that high into the air, you need to trust your abilities, or your tentativeness will hold you back,” Hill said.
Added Valenti, “Every pole vaulter has to be a little crazy,” while eliciting giggles from all three.
North Andover junior Erick Duffy the defending boys’ state champion, agrees on that point.
This winter, he clear 15-9.25 at the indoor New Balance Nationals, a record jump.
“I remember his first meet like it was yesterday,” said North Andovercoach Steve Nugent .
“It wasn’t a great meet against Central Catholic, but he jumped 10-6 right from the start and beat their top guy. We’re usually lucky to get a guy to top nine feet, but there he was hitting second and third-year numbers immediately.”
His progression since correlates with the time he has put into training.
In addition to his work during the indoor and outdoor seasons, he also regularly practices with the New England Pole Vaulting Club.
“I won’t say he’s made it look easy, but he rises to the occasion time and time again,” Nugent said.
Said Duffy, “[North Andover] vaulting coach Dan Wrigley always says that he’s never met anyone who can’t vault, just people who won’t vault.
“For me, it’s my passion that drives me to get past any awkwardness or fear of going so high. Once you do it and get yourself up there, there’s not really any better feeling.”
At Tewksbury High, senior Ashley Colarusso is a contender for state honors after clearing 9-9 at last year’s all-state meet.
“When I first started the event freshman year, I would just try to muscle myself over the bar,” Colarusso said.
“Strength is a big factor, but learning the correct form and being able to invert and turn gives you such a higher ceiling.”
At one point, Colarusso felt as if she had maxed out. After jumping 10-3 at the 2014 All-State meet, she was unable to increase her height the following season.
According to Tewksbury vaulting coach Nick Parsons though, her inability to take a single defeat as a final defeat is the foundation of her success.
“She’s patient above everything else,” Parsons noted.
“Finding consistent success in the event doesn’t come quickly, and she’s been able to shake off any signs of discouragement and stick it out.”
And you must have a short-term memory.
“When you’re out there in meets, you can’t focus too much on standards,” Valenti said.
“You just have to clear your mind and focus on the single attempt ahead of you, trusting that the practice you’ve done leading up to it will serve you well.”