“It’s completely against human nature to run as fast as you can and try to catapult yourself over a bar,” says Nico Weiler ’12 (’13). Yet Weiler has managed to override those natural tendencies well enough to perform this irrational act 20 or 30 times a day in practice and, at the 2012 NCAA Championships in Des Moines, to clear a bar 5.50 meters (18 feet, ½ inch) high. At the 2012 Heptagonal (Ivy League championship) indoor meet, Weiler vaulted 5.38 meters (17 feet, 8 inches). These are the highest outdoor and indoor vaults, respectively, in Harvard history.
Pole-vaulting “is very mental,” Weiler says. At the ultimate moment, when you plant the pole and launch your leap, “you get every doubt out of your head, and just go for it,” he explains. “You visualize yourself clearing the bar and ignore any other feelings.” Assistant coach of track and field Brenner Abbott says, “Nico is very gifted mentally. This event requires supreme confidence. He has the ability to see what’s possible, rather than the obstacles to it.”
Successful pole vaulting has two physical requirements: speed and gymnastic ability. It’s about momentum—not, as you might think, about using the pole as a lever to muscle yourself over the bar with arm strength. (“If you’re pulling with your arms, you’re in trouble,” Weiler says.) The leap is essentially a matter of converting horizontal momentum into vertical momentum with maximum efficiency. Speed provides the former, and gymnastic skill handles that seamless conversion. Core strength matters, as it helps flip one’s body from a running posture to a vertical, inverted position on the way up to the bar.
Foot speed fuels both pole vaulting and the long jump, and Weiler excels in both. As a sophomore he won the pole vault at the Harvard-Yale track meet and also took the long jump with a leap of 6.64 meters (21 feet, 10 inches)—and as a junior, at the same meet he leapt even farther, 6.85 meters (22 feet, 6 inches) for second place. He can sprint, too: in high school in California, Weiler ran the 100-meter dash in 11.23 seconds, and once, Harvard head track coach Jason Saretsky inserted him on a leg of Harvard’s 4 x 100 meter relay, though Weiler says that was just “for fun.”
Yet speed without technique won’t get you very high. First, you carry the pole with the forward end raised aloft and sprint down the runway toward the bar, using 16 to 18 strides. Start lowering the pole toward the end of the run, as “it can add to your speed,” Weiler explains. “The pole has weight and dropping it down can pull you forward.” On the last two steps, raise the pole above your head, with your dominant hand on top. Then accelerate and plant the other end into the eight-inch-deep box on the ground, extend your arms fully and jump up (“similar to the triple or long jump.”) “The pole is bent; you get upside down, your head down, feet up, completely inverted,” he says. “Then the pole unbends, and when it’s completely unbent, you are straight up and go over. Ideally, you don’t see the bar until you are crossing over it, facing the ground.”
Though the vaulter is high in the air, “if you do it right, it’s not dangerous,” Weiler says. For one thing, of course, there’s a big pillow in the landing pit—one meter thick, of foam rubber. You can land any way you want—except standing up, which could roll an ankle. A key safety factor is to “hold onto the pole,” until ready to cross the bar, he says. “He [the pole] is your friend. If they feel they are in a dangerous situation, a lot of people panic and let go of the pole, which puts them in more danger.”
That pole comes with various brand names, weight ratings (a measure of flexibility), compositions, and lengths. A typical pole will weigh about eight pounds but it feels much heavier because the mass stretches out along the pole’s 5-meter (16.5 foot) length. Weiler uses a fiberglass pole, but he has also jumped with carbon-fiber poles in the past: “They bend a bit lower and feel different.” (It’s not only how much a pole bends, but where the bending occurs.) Vaulters progress from softer, more flexible poles to stiffer ones. In general, “a stiffer pole is better,” he says. “It catapults you harder and stronger—like a stiffer spring, there’s more power when it releases.”
Poles sometimes break; it has happened four times to Weiler. “It sounds like a gunshot and it feels pretty crazy,” he says. The problem then isn’t the landing, as poles break when maximally flexed; at that point you have enough speed to land in the pit. But when the flexed pole snaps, the break vibrates the piece you are holding; on one occasion, those vibrations broke a bone in Weiler’s left thumb. Another time, a fiberglass splinter stuck in his hand.
Born in Stuttgart, Weiler comes from a pole-vaulting family: his father, Roland, and older brother, Sascha, both vaulted. At age 11, Weiler started vaulting himself after watching his brother perform in practice: “He had a blast.” Weiler learned vaulting using the “Russian technique,” which involves a lot of drills and practicing before taking a real jump—he calls it the “safe thing to do.” (This technique helped Ukrainian Sergey Bubka becomethe greatest pole vaulter in history; now long retired, he broke the world record 35 times and holds both the outdoor and indoor records, at 6.14 meters or 20 feet, 1¾ inches, and 6.15 meters, respectively. Both marks have stood for nearly 20 years.)
In 2007 Weiler won the world under-18 championship with a record-setting vault of 5.26 meters. As an international high-school student, he lived with a family in Los Gatos, California, in Silicon Valley. He was, of course, intensively recruited and avoided programs where he would lose scholarship support if injuries kept him off the field. At Harvard, he concentrates in economics with a secondary field of astrophysics. After college, he plans to settle in Berlin, which he calls “the Silicon Valley of Germany.”
Meanwhile, he enjoys reaching heights just a tad short of the astrophysical, as well as the company of fellow athletes in the understandably small world of pole vaulting. “I’ve met some awesome people,” he says, adding, with a grin, “Most pole vaulters are a little crazy in the head.” At meets they share tips and appreciate their competitors’ successes. “In the end,” he says, “everyone wants to beat gravity.”