Twins’ Resemblance Extends to the Pole-Vault Record Books

BLACK SPRINGS, Ark. — Just off Highway 8, amid the cattle pastures, chicken houses and hog farms in these rolling hills, is Pole Vault Lane. Its short, gravelly path is decorated with pennants, and it leads to a metal building about half the length of a football field. It is a hangar of sorts, or, more accurately, an indoor runway designed to produce short but spectacular flight.

On Saturday morning, the identical twins Lexi and Tori Weeks traveled two and a half hours to challenge the national indoor pole-vault record for high school girls: 14 feet 2 ¾ inches. In early January, the twins vaulted 14-0 ½ and now ranked as the country’s top female prep vaulters, an extremely rare achievement for siblings in an event that requires enormous technical precision, along with speed, core strength and spatial awareness.

Inside the Arkansas Vault Club, about 50 spectators gathered for Saturday’s invitational meet. Most were parents of the participants, or grandparents, sisters, brothers, boyfriends, girlfriends. Some huddled near a wood-burning stove against the uninsulated chill. Others brought camping chairs and sat wrapped in blankets or helped themselves to hot chocolate.

“You’ve got to be coming here; you don’t just wander in,” Johnny Benefield, 71, the twins’ maternal grandfather, said of the isolated location.

He had been driving Lexi and Tori, 18-year-old seniors, once a week, since they were in eighth grade, from Cabot, Ark., a bedroom community of 24,000 northeast of Little Rock, to rural Black Springs, population 114, on the edge of the Ouachita National Forest.

If Black Springs seemed an unlikely place to set a national record, well, Arkansas is no less a base for pole vaulting than it is for Walmart and Clintonian politics. The University of Arkansas is an N.C.A.A. power. Morry Sanders, a high school guru, and Earl Bell, a former world-record holder, are highly sought-after coaches.

The Weeks twins hope to become the first high school girls to clear 15 feet, and they dream of qualifying for the 2016 Olympic track and field trials. To coach the country’s top two vaulters “even if they’re not related, is like winning the lottery,” said Sanders, who gives the Weeks twins specialized training at his Quonset hut facility for a modest fee of $10 per lesson.

“To have two girls that share the same DNA,” Sanders said, “it’s just unheard-of that they can do the things they do.”

Competing against Arkansas’s biggest high schools at the state indoor meet in early February, the blond and lithe Weeks sisters displayed a remarkable breadth of skill. Tori finished first and Lexi second in the pole vault and the long jump. Tori also took second in the triple jump. They each ran a leg of the 4×400-meter relay and helped Cabot High School set a state indoor record.


On Saturday Tori cleared 12 feet 9 1/2 inches despite dealing with flulike symptoms all week.CreditAndrea Morales for The New York Times

“I’ve coached a lot of girls, and they are the most athletic I’ve ever coached,” said Sanders, 44, who in 1987 became the first high school vaulter in Arkansas to clear 16 feet and has since coached vaulters to 111 indoor and outdoor state championships.

“They’re just as fast as a lot of high school guys, and their core strength is probably stronger than a lot of boys’,” Sanders said.

At least five sets of twins, four of them female, are vaulting in American high schools and colleges, according to an informal survey. For the 5-foot-6 Weeks sisters, the pole vault seems to be a natural fit for the body control they learned as gymnasts and cheerleaders, said Leon White, the head track coach at Cabot High School.

Kayla Caldwell, 23, a professional who also jumped at Saturday’s meet, said of the twins: “For high school girls, they really attack it. Most high school girls are cautious. You’ve got to be fearless to pole-vault.”

A twin provides competition, encouragement and a kind of mirror as a training partner, said Chris Uhle, 22, who vaults at Virginia Tech while his twin, Joey, competes for the Air Force Academy.

“In essence, it’s like watching yourself at practice,” Chris Uhle said in a telephone interview.

On Jan. 24, Uhle jumped his personal best, 18-1 ¼, and sent a text message to his brother, saying, “Guess who’s got the family record?”

Later that day, Chris said, he received a reply of “You wish,” from Joey, who had just jumped 18-2 ½.

The rivalry among twins is largely supportive and magnanimous, said Nancy L. Segal, the founder and director of the Twin Studies Center at Cal State, Fullerton, offering two examples from the Olympics.

During the slalom competition at the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia, the gold medalist Phil Mahre called his twin, Steve, the eventual silver medalist, and offered instructions on how to win. For the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, Tracy Barnes gave up her spot on the United States biathlon team to her twin sister, Lanny.

“There’s a very selfless attitude that twins have,” Segal said in a telephone interview. “They want to win, but if they don’t, it’s not terrible. In fact, they actually celebrate the victory of their twin brother or sister.”

Intensely driven, the Weeks twins said they had never received a grade below an A. Both scored above 30 out of a possible 36 on the ACT standardized test. Both are taking six Advanced Placement courses during their senior year and expect to be named co-salutatorians at Cabot High School.

In the fall they will attend the University of Arkansas, where they plan to vault, major in chemistry and begin work toward pharmacy school. Yale and Oklahoma also recruited the twins, but the girls said they never considered separate schools.

“I would be lost,” Lexi Weeks said.

Amy Weeks, 47, the twins’ mother, won a state championship in the 400-meter run in 1985 and still holds the Cabot High School record, 57.24 seconds. Her daughters have left their own marks beyond the pole vault. Lexi holds the school record in the 100-meter hurdles (15.15 seconds) and the long jump (18-3), while Tori holds marks for the 300-meter hurdles (46.01 seconds), the 800-meter run (2:21.5) and the indoor triple jump (36-10).

“We don’t slack off at workouts; we push each other,” Lexi Weeks said. “There’s someone beside you, and you don’t want them to beat you around the track.”

By last May, though, Lexi had begun to separate herself from Tori in the pole vault. While Lexi cleared 14-0 outdoors, Tori’s personal best remained 13-3. It became somewhat discouraging, Tori said, when people would approach her and say, “Are you the good one?”

After learning to straighten her lower arm as she planted the pole, Tori made a breakthrough last month, improving her best by more than nine inches at an indoor meet here as both twins jumped 14-0 ½.


After Lexi, right, cleared 14-3¼ to set a national indoor record, she received a hug from Tori.CreditAndrea Morales for The New York Times

“I was so excited; I could finally breathe,” Tori Weeks said. “People stopped asking who was better.”

Records have become as elastic as spandex since women’s pole vaulting was introduced in the Olympics in 2000. Twenty years ago, the world record was 14-0 ½. The current world record, set in 2009 by Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia, is 16-7 ¼.

The women’s N.C.A.A. record has been batted like a volleyball this winter between Demi Payne of Stephen F. Austin and Sandi Morris of Arkansas and now stands at 15-7.

The high school indoor record was in jeopardy Saturday, less than a year after it was set at 14-2 ¾ by Desiree Freier of Justin, Tex. (Freier vaulted 14-6 last April at an outdoor meet that was moved indoors because of bad weather, but the jump was not ratified as an indoor record for technical reasons, according to George Rodriguez, who is a coach and Freier’s stepfather, and Track & Field News.) Freier’s outdoor record of 14-7 ¼ also could grow vulnerable if the Weekses keep improving.

“I encourage them,” Freier, now a freshman at Arkansas, said of the twins, her future teammates. “It shows how far women are coming.”

On Saturday, Tori Weeks coughed into her arm. She had flulike symptoms all week. Her fever had spiked to 103 degrees. She felt better by the weekend, but her stamina was limited. She fluidly jumped 12-9 ½ and also appeared to clear her final attempt at 13-3 ½, but she reached with her hand to steady the bar. That is against the rules. Her day was prematurely done.

“I didn’t have the energy,” Tori said.

Lexi appeared relaxed and confident. She cleared 13-9 ¼ and held up an index finger.

“One more bar,” she said.

It was raised to 14-3 ¼.

“This will be for a new high school record for girls,” Sanders announced over the public-address system.

Tori approached Lexi, and they slapped hands.

“You got this,” Tori said.

The crowd began to clap in support. On Lexi’s first attempt, she grazed the bar with her shins and her waist, and dislodged it. She brushed the bar again on her second jump, but this time it held. As she landed, she began sobbing and was tackled by Tori in the foam pit.

“I’m so proud of you,” Tori told her sister. “That’s crazy.”

Sanders came up and hugged Lexi.

“You got it, you got it,” he said.

“I can’t stop shaking,” she said.

“Well, don’t drink any coffee,” he said, laughing.

This was no time for jitters. The bar was raised to 14-7 ¼, a height that matched the national outdoor record. If Lexi missed her three attempts, Sanders joked, she owed him 25 push-ups.

She did miss each time, kicking the bar away, but Sanders winked and said, “You had a pretty good day.”

After the meet, Lexi could remember almost nothing of her clearance at 14-3 ¼. She watched it again on her father’s smartphone and spotted some imperfections in her technique. Still, she felt certain there were greater heights to clear. Her Instagram motto is “15’ in ’15.” Fifteen feet in 2015.

“I’ve got to try to put the record up high,” Lexi said.

Other girls would surely be chasing after it. Especially her sister.

“If she can do it,” Tori Weeks said, “I can do it.”



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