The Lompoc Valley-based California Pole Vaulting Club is reaching out for community support after a freak accident last spring decimated their pole collection.
As was his habit, Coach Russell French had loaded the team’s equipment, including 30 vaulting poles, on his van that April evening in preparation for the morning’s track meet in Santa Barbara. He had just one last errand to run, one quick trip out to Santa Maria.
Minutes into his drive, he heard the two pole bags and roof rack crash from the top of the van.
“I still don’t quite understand what happened. The poles didn’t come off the rack; the rack came off the van,” said French, who also coaches track and field at Cabrillo High School.
He tried to retrieve the bags, which had come to rest perpendicularly across two traffic lanes, but he was too late.
“I went to grab them, but an 18-wheeler was coming. Because it was dusk, he couldn’t see them, and I didn’t have enough time to grab them. I had to stand and watch this truck drive over the poles. I fell to my knees yelling, ‘Oh, no!’ I couldn’t say any other words for half an hour,” French said.
Of the original 30 poles, 13 were demolished. Four more were damaged beyond repair.
Vaulting poles, originally made of solid ash poles, are now largely manufactured with fiberglass or carbon fiber and vary from 10 feet to more than 17 feet in length. Each pole is rated to correspond to a vaulter’s weight, height of the jump and vary in stiffness. It’s not uncommon for elite vaulters to carry as many as 10 poles to a competition, though local club and high school vaulters typically share poles and adapt to the equipment available to them.
“Track and field isn’t a moneymaker, but it’s there for the kids,” French explained. “Out of all high school sports, without question the most expensive sport, except maybe football, is pole vaulting.”
Over the years, French had purchased the poles, which run about $600 each plus more than $100 for shipping, out of his own pocket. He donated them to the club, which serves about 30 athletes who compete year-round.
Some of the standout athletes include Cabrillo freshman Kimberly Deming, who has jumped 11 feet in practice, and Cabrillo team captain Kelsey Mickelson, who holds the school record at 10 feet, 2 inches. Incoming senior Niko Amescua jumps 14-6 followed closely by super standout incoming junior Matt Taber who cleared 13-6 just five practices in after recovering from a knee injury his sophomore year.
Junior high school-aged team members are also being groomed for futures at incredible heights.
The club also shares its equipment with Cabrillo vaulting team members, many of whom also vault with the club.
In the wake of the accident, team parents and friends pitched in to purchase five replacement poles to meet the immediate need of the 30 teammates who were in the thick of their season. French selected poles that would fill gaps most needed.
“You have to have a pole progression. If you’re like my son (BYU-bound Steve French), he’s 6-foot-1, 170 pounds but jumps on a 180 pole. If he starts his first jump at 15 feet, when they raise the bar 6 inches, he might go to a longer pole or, depending on the wind, might stay on a pole that’s the same length but different weight limit,” French explained.
The team is still in need of at least six more poles and could benefit from some capital improvements as well.
“We’re in desperate need of a pit and standards,” French said. “Our pit is so ghetto you can’t believe it. I’ve got the best pole vaulters in the league. We’re jumping year round. We could really use an update.”
The pit, or landing pad, runs about $20,000, and new standards — the posts which hold up the horizontal bar over which athletes vault — will run about $2,000, he estimated.