LITTLE ROCK — Understandably frustrated by what happened at the U.S. Olympic Trials, Razorback pole vaulter Andrew Irwin can find encouragement in those same disappointing results.
Brad Walker, winner of the Trials, is 31. One of the other two qualifiers is 39-year-old Derek Miles. At the top, vaulters have a long shelf life — nothing new for athletes who are part sprinter-part gymnast.
Miles trains at Earl Bell’s center in Jonesboro and Bell was almost 33 when he finished fourth in the 1988 Olympics after a sixth in 1976 and a third in 1984.
At 19, Irwin will have more opportunities. This time around, it rained on his parade, literally and figuratively. In Eugene last month, the freshman from Mt. Ida and one of only six college vaulters in the competition, did not clear the opening height of 17-4 1-2. Neither did a dozen other competitors.
Rain was to blame. During the qualifying, the vaulters waited their turn under two tents. Another tent covered their pole bags. The landing pit was uncovered.
When it was their time, the vaulters would take a towel and do their best to dry their ride. “You tried to go as quick as possible,” Irwin said. “As soon as you hit the pit, you were just soaked. You try not to throw your pole back in the grass so it doesn’t get wet.”
Considering the conditions, it is surprising that the preliminary round went off as scheduled. Describing the scene, The New York Times said, “The sprinters pounded through puddles; the long jumpers landed in soaking sand. When the finals in the 10,000 meters were held, the runners were nearly washed away during the early laps.”
That Friday, the day before the men were scheduled, coaches were told the preliminary rounds of the women’s vault would be moved to Saturday with the finals on Sunday. Coaches protested back-to-back days of vaulting and the competitors eventually voted for all 29 to compete in a one-day final.
Even though it was raining harder on Saturday, the democratic process was not available to the men. “We kept hoping it was going to shut down,” Irwin said.
He refused to cite the weather as an excuse, but did say, “It’s not my favorite thing, to jump in the rain.” He did it once at Jessieville when he was in junior high.
A year ago, Irwin cleared 17-7, confirmed at the time as a national indoor record for a high school vaulter. During his freshman year at Arkansas, Irwin won the 2012 NCAA Indoor championship and the Southeastern Conference Indoor title, and then set an American junior record of 18-9 3-4 when he won the SEC outdoor title.
That leap alone stamped him as a contender in Eugene since the “A” standard required to compete in the Olympics is 18-9 1-4. Scott Roth, third in Eugene, had to surrender his spot on the team to fourth-place finisher Miles because Roth had not met the Olympic standard. Walker, the American record holder at 19-9 3-4, won the Trials with a jump of 18-7 1-4.
Warming up, Irwin said he felt pretty good. “I was trying my best, it just didn’t work that day,” he said. “It wasn’t how I wanted to go out, but stuff happens.”
Encouraged by coach Doug Case, Irwin took some time off, hanging out with friends at the Lake of the Ozarks. The itch to jump kicked in after a few weeks. “I think we’re going to be working on my run during the offseason, being tall during my run,” he said.
Watching the vaulting competition next week with temperatures around 100 in Fayetteville, Irwin can remind himself that the 2016 Olympics are in Rio de Janeiro where 78 is the average high temperature in August.
By Harry King