Vaulting Dragons are now specialists

Pole vaulters are a different breed of athlete.

How does a person decide it would be fun to launch themselves over a bar and fall back to a padded mat?

And once they want to do that, where do they go to learn how?

For many vaulters in central Illinois, the answer is the Flying Dragons Pole Vault Club in Bloomington.

The club was formed by Mike Cockerham in Pekin in 1999, hence the Dragons part of the name. Its current home is in a warehouse on Bell Street.

The den, as Cockerham calls it, consists of two pole vault pits, facing opposite directions, with artificial turf between them. There are also weight machines specifically designed to a vaulter’s needs, couches where parents can sit and watch practice, diner-type booths where athletes or siblings can do homework — and a long row of poles.

Right now, Cockerham is teaching approximately 100 vaulters, including 2012 Class 2A state runner-up Tyler Ginger of Olympia and two-time state champion Sarah Bell of Bloomington Central Catholic.

He also coached boys state record holder Logan Pflibsen of Streator, who vaulted 17 feet, 1 inch in the Class 2A state finals in 2010.

Former Olympia vaulter Alex Freshour, the 2009 Journal Star Track and Field Athlete of the Year, is now vaulting at Wichita State. He started going to the club before his eighth-grade year.

“I started vaulting in seventh grade and went 9-6 basically on my own,” he said. “My parents saw a little potential and thought I should have a little more coaching. Working with Mike, I obviously learned a lot — I went from 9-6 to 13 feet in a little over three months of indoor practice.”

By the time he was a senior, Freshour was consistently vaulting 15 to 16 feet.

“Without that kind of instruction, I would not have been nearly as good as I would have been,” he said.

Though vaulters may be different in personality — Freshour is loud and outgoing where Pflibsen is more quiet and reserved — all have certain similarities.

“The vaulter is a person of speed and strength and is fearless,” Cockerham said. “They like to take chances.”

Cockerham should know. He was introduced to the sport while growing up in Pekin but competed in high school in Fremont, Neb., where he set the state record.

“I had a really, really great high school coach named Patrick Murphy,” said Cockerham. “He took me all over Kansas and Nebraska and I jumped in the Junior Olympic program. We put the poles on his Cadillac and drove off. I said to myself if I ever got the opportunity to do that, I would. So I had the opportunity 20 years later, and I took it.”

Pflibsen, particularly, appreciated the opportunity to travel.

“It didn’t seem like he spared any expense to try to get us to as many meets as possible,” said Pflibsen, who earned a vaulting scholarship to the University of New Mexico. “My parents would usually go to the meets and I would ride with them, but I think the majority of the kids on my team piled in Mike’s van and he’d take them with as many pole bags on the roof that could fit. A lot of the time we would go places and the competitors wouldn’t even be close to us, so we’d just be competing against our own team. And I’m sure he knew that going into every meet, and could have just had us stay at our own facility and had a mock meet, but he knew that wouldn’t mean anything to us. He was always there for us, to make us better any way he could.”

Cockerham only allows his students to vault twice a week, but they may come to the den any time it is open, which is Monday through Thursday, 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4:30 p.m. Sundays are open gym days and members may also vault on those days. Weight training coach Cory Worthey offers free classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Cost for unlimited access to the club is $150 per month but there are other options for day-to-day usage and discounts for additional family members.

When Cockerham starts teaching a new vaulter, he begins with the basics — how to hold the pole, how to carry the pole, how high to hold the pole and what the grip width should be. He then adds footwork — he uses a six-step approach — then he teaches them how to swing on the pole.

“I tell them when they first come in, and I tell their parents, whatever sport they’re doing now, they will quit,” said Cockerham. “Whatever they’re doing for extracurricular activities, that will cease. This is all they’re going to want to do, is come in here and swing on that pole, because this is the most addicting sport of all sports. It is so technically difficult to do that when you do do it, the satisfaction and adrenaline is so great, you’ve got to have it.”


Flying Dragons Vaulter Magazine
Flying Dragons Vaulter Magazine

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