Jake Blankenship’s grandfather started the family tradition in the pole vault when steel poles and sawdust made up the sport. Then it was passed on to the next generation, then to the next.
“He was through that era and taught my uncle how to vault,” Blankenship, a senior on the Tennessee track and field team, said last week.
Blankenship has carried the family tradition to new heights.
He’s among 17 Tennessee entries — 15 individuals competing in 15 events — at the NCAA Track and Field championships that start Wednesday in Eugene, Ore.
Blankenship, who won the NCAA East preliminary meet by clearing 17 feet, 4.5 inches, will more than likely need to aim higher Wednesday.
“His coaches have done a great job preparing him physically and mentally,” Tennessee track coach Beth Alford-Sullivan said of Blankenship. “But he’s also really stayed the course. Knowing this is his final run at it, he’s put himself in the right spot at the right time.”
His final run at Tennessee has come with some obstacles. Blankenship was sidelined with a groin injury near the end of the indoor season in March, which meant hitting the reset button on his season.
“I had to just start over and rehab and strengthen that muscle over again,” Blankenship said.
Getting back to where he finished the outdoor season last year would go a long way.
Blankenship was a first-team All American for a second straight season, won the Penn Relays for a third straight time and set a personal best with a vault of 19-0.25 to win gold at the SEC championships.
After the injury, he’s peaking at the right time this season.
“He turned around and took it very slow, started late in the outdoor season,” Aflord-Sullivan said. “He’s timed this up very, very well.”
It wasn’t love at first sight when Blankenship was introduced to the sport by his family. He was forced to do it in eighth grade, before catching the fever as a freshman at Gahanna Lincoln High School in Blacklick, Ohio.
“It grew on me and I started to enjoy it,” Blankenship said. “I barely missed state that year and it kind of fueled the fire a little bit.
“And I ended up jumping pretty well my sophomore year and found I had a talent and career for it.”
A talent for the sport requires what’s obvious, speed and strength. More than anything, though, a vaulter has to be fearless.
“Jake is like a freight train coming down the runway,” Alford-Sullivan said. “There’s no hesitation, no fear.”
Few vaulters take a longer or faster approach on the runway, Aflord-Sullivan added, which allows Blankenship to “grip high and jump high,” she said.
“I think it’s a big deal mentally,” Blankenship said. “If you think about it, you’re running down there and putting a pole in a box and jumping over a bar. You have to be mentally strong and be competitive and not have any type of fear or anything like that.”
Blankenship finished sixth a year ago at the NCAA meet. He spent last summer competing for the U.S. in the Pan American Games in Toronto and the IAAF World Championships in Beijing, China.
He qualified for July’s U.S. Olympic Trials with a mark of 18-9.25 in February. And he’s well aware of what’s on the line once he gets there.
“If you’re there in those top three spots, you’re a contender to medal in the Olympics,” Blankenship said of the U.S. Trials. “You’re a great athlete and you’re doing something right.”