“The University of Tennessee is located in Knoxville, TN. Serving as the gateway to the Smoky Mountains, Knoxville is rich in Appalachian history and an outdoor lover’s dream. Founded in 1794, UT was the first public university chartered west of the Appalachian Divide,” says Russ Johnson- the University of Tennessee’s proud men’s pole vault coach. “Smokey is the mascot for the University of Tennessee Volunteers, who are also known as the Vols and Lady Vols. The official colors of Tennessee are orange and white. We are a program rich with tradition, many dating back to the early 1900’s. The Vols are often recognized around the globe by their orange power “T” logo. The track and field/cross country teams are the most successful sports teams in school history, amassing a total of 81 SEC team titles and 8 NCAA team titles. Over the years, 35 athletes and 5 coaches have represented the Vols in the Olympic Games.”
UT is fortunate enough to have two enthusiastic and very qualified pole vault coaches: one for the men and one for the women.
Russ Johnson coaches the male vaulters and he gave us some detailed background about his coaching career. Here is what he had to say: “I am in my 8th year as the men’s pole vault coach for UT, dating back to the fall of 2005. Growing up in Carrollton, Georgia I found my way to Tennessee as a walk-on after jumping 15’6″ in high school. I worked my way up from 15’6″ to 18’6″ in college, winning one SEC title and making All-American three times. I had the wonderful opportunity to train under Coach Jim Bemiller for six years. Also, I spent a couple of years after college training with a group that included Tim Mack, Lawrence Johnson and Tom Pappas. I was away from Knoxville for a couple of years earning a Masters degree in Physical Therapy, but returned in 2005 and took on the coaching role that I currently hold today. My passion for the sport just continues to grow, and each year teaches me something new. I have been very blessed to have a steady supply of hardworking and talented athletes during my tenure, allowing us to win 10 of the last 15 SEC men’s pole vault titles, and produce several All-Americans.”
Women’s Pole Vault Coach David Job also gave us an in-depth look at his coaching career. He tells us: “I began coaching when I was in the army in 1968. I had just finished my third year as a UT pole vaulter having set the UT school record in 1965. I was a coach/vaulter on the Mannheim, Germany track team. After getting out of the army I coached several high school kids for a couple of years. Then real life happened and I began climbing the corporate ladder for the next 30 years or so. I coached the Oak Ridge, TN high school vaulters for several years in the late 1990’s. My athletes were pretty successful. That’s when I met Tim Mack (2004 Olympic gold medalist and record holder). His vaulters and mine were generally at the top of the game in the state. In the early 2000’s I moved to Knoxville and began to co-coach with Tim before he turned pro. In 2002 there was a head coaching change at the University of Tennessee and I asked the new coach, JJ Clark, if I could coach his female vaulters. He accepted and I’ve been coaching there and with the Knoxville Track Club ever since.”
To vault with the Vols of UT, high expectations must be met. Coach Johnson and Coach Job are looking for the best.
“For the men’s pole vault, it takes around 16’6″ to be considered for a scholarship,” says Coach Johnson. “Our walk-on standard is about 15’6″, but a lot variables are attached to both walk-on and scholarship status. Ultimately, we are looking for the best vaulters we can find, but they must also possess the athletic ability to progress and compete on the national level. As the SEC and NCAA pole vault continue to elevate, current performance and long-term potential are equally important factors.”
The female vaulters hoping to join the Lady Vols must be at the top of their game also. Coach Job says, “I used to accept anyone on the team and coach them up to be competitive in the SEC, but that has changed. The records have increased and the starting heights have gone up dramatically. So for a walk-on to be accepted on the team they would have to have jumped 12 feet in high school. To be on the travel squad an athlete would have to consistently jump 13′ since starting height at the SEC Championships is generally around 12’4″. Scholarship possibilities begin when an athlete can score in the SEC championships. That varies from year to year, but is somewhere around 13’3”.”
With such a strong history in pole vault, it is no wonder Coach Johnson and Coach Job are looking for only the best vaulters. Here are the all-time top male vaulters of UT according to Coach Johnson: Lawrence Johnson- 1996 (5.98m) 19-7.50 (current collegiate record), Russ Johnson- 1998 (5.65m) 18-6.50, Jake Blankenship- 2013 (5.61m) 18-5, Tim Mack- 1995 (5.60m) 18-4.50, Adam Smith- 1993 (5.60m) 18-4.50, Justin Daler- 1992 (5.60m) 18-4.50, Rich Fulford- 1991 (5.60m) 18-4.50, Rocky Danners- 2002 (5.51m) 18-1, John Coyne- 1991 (5.43m) 17-9.75, Chase Brannon- 2012 (5.42m) 17-9.25 and Joseph Berry- 2011 (5.42m) 17-9.25.
Coach Johnson says, “Currently there are four male pole vaulters on the roster. Tennessee has a long tradition of great pole vaulting. On the men’s side, Tennessee has produced 35 SEC pole vault champions, 5 NCAA championship titles, 30 All-American honors, and three Olympic Trials champions. In addition, alumni have set indoor and outdoor American records while also winning world and Olympic titles. Tennessee has produced eight 18-footers and more than 20 athletes over 17′.”
The Lady Vols have quite an impressive list of all-time best female vaulters also. Coach Job lists them as follows: “Linda Hadfield- 2013 (4.24m) 13-11, Jessica Reust- 2006 (4.16m) 13-07.75, Alicia Essex- 2009 (4.15m) 13-07.25, Christie Elwin- 2003 (4.02m) 13-02.25, Erin Champion- 2013 (4.00m) 13-01.5, Kendra Rhyne- 2004 (3.85m) 12-07.5, Tracy Carrington- 1999 (3.85m) 12-07.5, Lesly Love- 2000 (3.83m) 12-06.75, Beth Gehring- 2000 (3.83m) 12-06.75, Jessica Andrews- 2005 (3.80m) 12-05.50 and Leslie Henley- 1998 (3.80m) 12-05.50.”
“On the women’s side, the Lady Vols have competed in the pole vault since its SEC inception in 1998, winning the inaugural SEC crown,” says Coach Job. “The women have produced four SEC champions and five All-American honors. The number of women vaulters will vary from year to year. I have had as many as six and as few as one. This year I have two freshmen vaulters who are not yet on the travel team, and two who do travel who jump 13’1″ and 13’11”.”
Here is a detailed look, according to Coach Johnson, into the UT vault team leaders and their accomplishments: “On the men’s side, the Vols have two 1st team All-Americans on the roster. Freshman Jake Blankenship has made an immediate impact, breaking Lawrence Johnson’s freshman indoor record four consecutive times to finish off his rookie indoor campaign. Jake finished runner-up at the SEC Indoor Championships, and rocketed to a personal best and fourth-place finish at the NCAA indoor meet, clearing 18’4.5″. He most recently set another personal best at the Texas Relays, vaulting to 18’5″. Returning junior Chase Brannon is a team captain and is coming off of an outstanding sophomore campaign. Working his way from walk-on to All-American and adding almost three feet to his personal best, he has shown just how successful a talented athlete can be in our program through dedication and hard work. He has scored at the SEC Championships in each of his attempts and placed 8th at the 2012 NCAA Outdoor Championships. Tyler Porter is beginning to flex his muscle, after overcoming a series of injuries which slowed his first two years at UT. He recently vaulted a personal best of 17’5″ at the Texas Relays. Sophomore Michael Maira has added 16 inches to his personal best over the course of the 2013 indoor season, eclipsing 16’4″ at the New Balance Collegiate Invitational. Former Vol Robert Rasnick also trains with the group as he attends graduate school. He recently set a personal best at 17’8.5”.”
“On the women’s side,” Coach Johnson continues, “Linda Hadfield is currently the group leader. Her best jump is 13’11” and she placed fifth at the SEC Indoor Championships. As a freshman she set the UT freshman record. Each year in the SEC Championships she has climbed up the point ladder. This last indoor season she set the UT school indoor record and bettered the outdoor record. That sets my high expectations for the outdoor season. But that being said, her side kick and teammate Erin Champion is hot on her heels and improving weekly.”
As if the heights and honors listed above are not enough for this team to be proud of, Coach Johnson says that, “Already in 2013, every vaulter on the travel roster has set a personal best for either the indoor or outdoor season.”
It seems like a pretty good season is shaping up for UT and Coach Johnson also told us this about their division and conference: “Tennessee competes in the powerful Southeastern Conference. In recent years, the SEC has been a hotbed of pole vaulting producing several NCAA champion vaulters and numerous All-Americans. Regionally, Tennessee competes in the Eastern division for outdoor NCAA qualification.”
The Vol vaulters have their work cut out for them this season too. They keep a rigorous training schedule to keep at their high level. “Our training season starts at the beginning of September,” says Coach Johnson. “We use the fall for concentrated training for all of the components of the vault. We have special emphasis on sprinting, strength training, and gymnastics training. At this time of the year the pole run is highly emphasized and the basics are drilled into each athlete. Major technical changes are addressed and begin to be narrowed down as the fall progresses. Strength training is carefully planned throughout the fall and winter, to allow athletes to build and peak at the championship meets.”
“Our indoor season begins immediately after Christmas vacation, and lasts until the first week in March or so,” Coach Johnson continues. “The outdoor season begins two weeks after the indoor season ends. Depending on the success of the athlete the outdoor season can extend beyond the outdoor NCAA Championships deep into June. Over the summer, they are given a voluntary program to transition from the season and help build for the next one. This may vary depending on the athlete’s specific needs and the time they have available after the season ends. They also know what is expected of them when they return, so staying in shape is in their best interest.”
Staying in shape should come easily with great facilities and equipment. Coach Johnson sounds just as proud of his facilities as he does his vaulters. He tells us, “Tom Black Track at La Porte Stadium is a great place for pole vaulting. At least three American records have been set there over the years- the most recent being Scott Huffman at 19’7″ and Lawrence Johnson at 19’7.5″. These records were set in opposite directions, so both runways have street credibility. Vaulters enjoy consistent winds and favorable weather conditions from late March and on. Tom Black has hosted USATF, NCAA, SEC, NCAA Regional, and AAU championship meets over the last two decades.”
“Over the last 25 years, vaulters have competed and trained indoors at Stokely Athletics Center,” Coach Johnson also tells us, “which has a track record of 19′. That building will be demolished later in 2013, so the vaulters will be relocating to a new training location. Long-term, plans are underway for a state-of-the-art indoor facility.”
When it comes to equipment and training, Coach Johnson says, “Tennessee has traditionally used UCS Spirit pole vaulting poles, but occasionally vaulters have had a preference for other brands. We have a massive selection of poles which help our vaulters maximize their performances by making only small jumps in flex sizes as they progress. Tennessee has three UCS Spirit landing mats; two outdoor and one indoor. With football recently moving into its new $50 million training facility, the track team will reap several benefits. The vaulters will have primary access to the Percy strength facility and Tim Kerin training room, which remain state of the art. The training facilities include all the latest strength and rehabilitation equipment, and a massive hydrotherapy facility. The following on-site resources are available in the training facility: physician, orthopedic surgeon, pharmacy, chiropractor, physical therapist, nutritionist and massage therapist.”
Coach Johnson also lets us know that academics are not neglected with their vaulters. He says, “Academically, Tennessee vaulters have the best of the best. With 18 full-time staff members, the Thornton Athletics Student Life Center offers academic counseling services, a career development program, a student development program, a comprehensive tutoring program, a writing lab, a math lab, a computer lab, and accommodations for students with special needs.”
“Vaulters utilize Premier Gymnastics off campus on a regular basis to hone their gymnastic skills and perform pole vault specific strengthening and drills,” we also learned from Coach Johnson. He says, “Tennessee vaulters have had a longstanding relationship with legendary gymnastics coach Phil Savage, who has displayed amazing generosity to the vaulters over the years with his knowledge and access to facilities.”
Staying in shape mentally is also important for the UT vaulters. Coach Johnson says, “Mental training is a powerful tool that some of our vaulters have utilized over the years to gain an edge. Led by Director of Mental Training Dr. Joe Whitney, our vaulters have access to one of the nation’s leading experts. Joe helped Tim Mack build his mental plan which ultimately led to a personal best performance to win the Olympic gold. A former coach with a wide range of experiences, Dr. Whitney helps develop custom tailored programs for each athlete’s needs and uses the latest technologies to carry out training sessions.”
You can’t argue with results, and all the wonderful experiences that UT offers their vaulters are paying off. The University of Tennessee has produced some extraordinary alumni. “Most notably, Tennessee has produced two world famous pole vaulters in Tim Mack and Lawrence Johnson,” says Coach Johnson. “Multiple NCAA Champion Lawrence Johnson broke the American record in 1996 while competing for Tennessee and later went on to win a World Championship title and Olympic silver medal in his career. His collegiate record still stands today and he holds numerous facilities and meets records around the country. Also an NCAA champion, Tim Mack continued to train in Knoxville after college. While continuing to train under Jim Bemiller, he won the Olympic gold medal and broke the Olympic record in Athens. He also joined the exclusive 6m club, vaulting 6.01m at the IAAF Final in 2004.”
“Many of the former female vaulters have moved on to get married and start families,” Coach Johnson continues. “One graduated in Aerospace Engineering and is very active in that field. Some stay in touch and assist me with camps and clinics in the summer. All are very active and very engaged in their lives as I am kept up-to-date on Facebook and other social media platforms.”
Some of the UT alumni vaulters also come back to help with training. Coach Johnson tells us, “Tim Mack has been developing his local club (Tim Mack Pole Vault Academy) which includes vaulters of all ages, including a growing group of talented post-collegiate athletes. He has already produced several state champions and record holders. Tim remains involved with his alma mater and often takes time to share his knowledge with the Tennessee crew. As a former gold medalist, he is a valuable resource to have around.”
Coach Johnson also says, “Long-time Tennessee pole vaulter Jim Bemiller continues to stay very close to the program. He also remains active with USA pole vault development, giving lectures and writing articles. His daughter Kelsey is a senior distance runner for the Lady Vols and he is a professor at Tennessee. He provides a deep understanding of the vault and has a vast wealth of experience, both domestically and internationally. His great success as a coach produced one of the most successful vault groups in college history. Current Tennessee vaulters continue to chase many of the records his athletes produced, which keeps the standards very high at Tennessee.”
While the Vol vaulters train hard and take their athletic careers seriously, they do take the time to have fun. According to Coach Johnson there are lots of opportunities in their area to have a good time. “East Tennessee has over 3,300 miles of lake shore lines, countless streams and rivers, and the Smoky Mountains are 40 minutes away from the campus,” he says. “So hiking, camping, fly fishing and a ton of other activities are just minutes away from the campus. The athletes enjoy free time by taking trips to the Smoky Mountains, bowling, cooking out together, attending concerts and of course going to football games at one of greatest stadiums in college football. Tennessee vaulters have developed strong bonds together over the years and often travel around together over summers. Many will go home and participate in their home vault club’s activities, street vaults, coaching, etc.”
Coach Johnson and Coach Job have done well to create such a well-rounded, successful program. Their expectations for this year look to continue to be exceeded and we all need to watch out for them.
By: Michelle Walthall – Vaulter Magazine LLC