The pole vault is, at heart, simple physics. The athlete moving fastest down the runway has the greatest potential to go vertical using an enormous lever. That said, running quickly is but one part of being a great pole vaulter. Success in this most entertaining of events requires the speed of a sprinter, the strength of a weightlifter, the coordination of a gymnast and the courage of a daredevil.
I became enamored with pole vaulting in junior high when I saw older kids doing it in the gym. They weren’t jumping that high – roughly the height of the basketball hoop – but it didn’t matter. I was hooked. The discipline and technical proficiency, not to mention the daring, intrigued me.
My first jumps were around 7 feet, and by the end of my freshman year I’d cleared 9 feet, 6 inches. Riding the pole into the air, releasing it and falling to the mat was like flying. I’m often asked, “Isn’t it scary launching yourself nearly 20 feet into the air on a bending fiberglass pole?” It would be if you started at that height, but you don’t. Vaulters always start small, and our technical progression is slow.
Vaulting is much harder than it looks, with “>several components that must be mastered if you’re to make it over the bar in anything approaching a graceful manner. The first, obviously, is the approach. This is the run down the runway, and elite vaulters take 18 to 20 strides. The hardest part is learning to carry the pole.
Olympic-level vaulters typically use poles around 17 feet long, and getting down the runway at top speed while carrying one is a challenge. The higher you grip the pole, the higher you can jump, but it increases the effort needed to carry the darn thing. Yes, the pole weighs but a few pounds, but when you’re holding it from the end, it effectively weighs 20 pounds or more.
Back in the day, poles were wood, typically ash. That gave way to bamboo and then aluminum as vaulters jumped ever higher. Nowadays they’re fiberglass or a combination of fiberglass and carbon fiber. I used carbon-fiberglass poles because I found them lighter and more responsive. Lighter weight means more speed on the runway, and a more responsive pole provides a higher return on the energy put into them as they bend. Poles are rated by length and stiffness. Length is simple to understand. Stiffness is a measure of how much a pole will flex and is determined by subjecting it to a standardized load and measuring the bend. To make things simple, poles are rated by the maximum weight of the vaulter it can safely support.
After the approach comes the plant. This is where the vaulter, about three strides before the end of the run, “plants” the pole in the box. The box is a trapezoid about three feet long, 8 inches deep at the back and level with the runway at the front. It is imperative to achieve the same takeoff point on every approach, and my coach often said the key is to run in the same footprints each time.
Ideally, the vaulter moves the pole from the carry position at the hips to an overhead position for the plant. This helps deliver the energy from the run while moving the pole closer to a vertical position. Getting this right is critical because it is where the kinetic energy of the approach is translated to the potential energy in the flexing of the pole.
After the plant comes the gymnastic part where a vaulter “swings,” or inverts, his body as the pole bends. The goal is to be upside down, essentially in an ‘L’ position, and as close to the pole as possible as it straightens. The recoil of the pole propels you upward as you move forward toward the bar.
The final phase is the pull, turn and push. If everything has gone well to this point, a vaulter has tremendous momentum carrying him up toward the bar. He will extend his body and turn 180 degrees on his vertical axis to face the bar, then push down and away from the pole to release it. The turn is important, as it allows the vaulter to go over the bar face down instead of hyper-extending the back. This lets him hold onto the pole a bit longer, pushing down on it to propel himself upward.
Vaulters jump in an order and at heights determined before the start of the meet. Opening heights are based on the skill of the athletes, and it isn’t uncommon to see top-level international events have the men start at 18 feet. The bar is typically raised in increments of 4 to 6 inches, and each vaulter is allowed three attempts to clear it. You can skip a specific height, which you might do to conserve energy or if you’ve fallen behind on misses. Miss three jumps in a row and you’re out, just like baseball.
The winner is, of course, the one who clears the highest jump. In the event two or more vaulters finish with the same height, the number of attempts at that height comes into play. If everyone made the same number of attempts, then the number of missed attempts in earlier jumps settles things.
Making proper adjustments during competition is vital to ensuring success. A vaulter might adjust his grip on the pole, or the starting point of his approach, or the location of the uprights holding the bar. Yes, you can move the uprights in relation to the box to adjust for the peak of your jump. And, of course, you might try a longer or stiffer pole; given the importance of the pole, it isn’t uncommon to see world-class jumpers travel with eight or more. For any of these adjustments to work, however, you must have consistent technique and form. It’s like golf in that regard.
It can be tricky getting it right at first, but when you do, there’s nothing else like it. The pole vault is a sequential event, in that each phase is somewhat dependent on the phase that preceded it. Get each one right and the jump simply flows, seamlessly. Get one wrong and there’s a chance you might recover, but there’s little margin for error at the highest level.
My personal best is 6.03 meters, or 19 feet, 9.5 inches. It felt easier than many made at lower heights because everything just clicked. I can only describe it as fast. When you do everything right, a jump seems effortless as you defy gravity. Gravity always wins in the end, but it sure is fun challenging it.
By: Jeff Hartwig