As excited as Susie Kardaras was to start pole vaulting last spring, Michelle Gao may have been more thrilled.
Kardaras’s start gave Gao a partner to compete with in the state group relays for the first time, and the two combined to capture the Group III state relays title Saturday. Gao, a senior, jumped 9-feet and Kardaras, a junior, cleared 8-feet.
”It was very exciting,” Kardaras said. “I knew once I cleared opening height, we had a pretty good chance of winning because Michelle was coming in so far ahead of everyone else. I thought if I could clear my opening height and Michelle could, we had a pretty good chance of winning.”
Gao is still on the mend from a stress fracture, and she is limiting her practice time. Kardaras is still learning, but she’s been a fast study.
”We went in and just wanted to do our best,” Gao said. “We recently got new poles. We don’t have coaching or anything. We went in and said, let’s do our best. It was a good surprise. Both of us didn’t do our best (heights), but we pulled it out in the end.”
”I thought it was a good day,” said Pirates head coach Todd Smith. “We brought home a bunch of medals. The kids competed pretty well.
”The pole vault and high jump were great. Kalayha Smith had a really good day. She teamed up with Paige Brown to win the high jump, and she ran a good leg in the shuttle hurdles. Pole vault is such a unique event in the winter. We don’t have the facilities to train. We have two girls that go out on their own and come back and compete for us. They made a commitment to the sport and come back to compete for us.”
Gao has been going to Apex Vaulting in Oakland for years, and Kardaras just started there in August. Before that, it had been Gao who had helped teach her the beginnings.
”I used to be a gymnast,” Karadas said. “I quit gymnastics right before I started track. When my coaches found out I used to be gymnast, they said I should try pole vault. I tried it and it was fun. I think I can do well because my gymnastics skills translate well into pole vault.”
Said Gao: “Last year, I started coaching her and she just picked it up. She’s a former gymnast so she has all the power and strength. She also picks up things really quickly. It’s great. I think she’ll be a really great pole vaulter. Last year, she was at 8-6. With a little more practice, I think she could beat me. I’m excited for her.”
They were happy to work together for a win for the team. The Pirates will compete again together at the Lavino Relays on Saturday, then a week later, they will compete at individuals to try to help WW-P South go after the Mercer County championship. The Pirates looked good in scoring in a number of events on both sides. The boys tied for fifth with 20 points.
The WW-P South boys 4×400 of George Hamilton, Eddison Gulama, Donyell Reid and Dan Riff was fourth. Dan Riff, Jake Riff, Hamilton and Gulama were second in the 4×800 relay. The Riff brothers, Reid and Gulama were second in the distance medley relay as well.
”We don’t race much, so when we do, we try to get them on the track as much as possible so they get the experience,” Smith said. “I think we’re in good shape. There’s room for improvement. The championship portion of the season is pretty long, about five weeks, so hopefully we can do well through it.”
Montgomery High School’s Erin Schiksnis and Madeline Davidian placed second in the Group IV girls pole vault at 19-feet. Shannon McCormick, Alexandra Van Hook, Ariel Epstein and Jillian Kelly placed fourth for Montgomery in the Group IV girls distance medley relay.
Montgomery’s Nick Hespe and Martin Esser Munera were fourth in the Group IV boys pole vault at 24-feet-6.
West Windsor-Plainsboro North’s Antony Zeng and Jerrick Zhang were fourth in the Group IV boys shot put. Olivia Harpel, Lauren Black, Carli Harpel and Patrycja Dziekonska of WW-P North were fourth in the Group IV girls shuttle hurdles. The Packet-area teams will be trying to build on their state relay medal performances.
”It helps our confidence,” Kardaras said. “Now that we know what the other competition is like, we can go into other competitions more confident and not worry as much. Now we know what our competition is like and we can focus on our individual performance and try to PR.”
Karadas hopes to continue to climb in the pole vaulting world. At Apex, she is surrounded by highly ranked vaulters from around the state, and she’d like to see how far she can get with it, though she also still will do long jump and triple jump in the spring.
”Apex has taught me so much about technique,” Kardaras said. “I didn’t know any of that before going to Apex. I’d run and hope for the best. Now I know a lot more about how I can improve my jump. They have a lot of college kids and a lot of the kids that are the best in the state.
Gao’s training regimen has been cut down by a stress fracture, though she is still trying to get to Apex twice per week.
”I’m still getting back in the thick of things,” she said. “I had to recuperate and rehab. I’m vaulting more now regularly, and instead of a full approach, I had to cut it down to five steps. That’s just so don’t injure myself. Hopefully I’ll get better as I go.
”It shouldn’t be an excuse, but I definitely feel I could be performing better. Now that I can’t do much of a run-up, me and my coach are working more at a technical thing and fixing the little things, not the running and the power.”
Gao looking to continue to vault in college, and she is hoping to use her final year at WW-P South to share her passion for pole vault and work back toward her personal record while helping the Pirates do as well as they can as a team.
”This win definitely gives us more motivation,” Gao said. “Hopefully it motivates the rest of our team. Paige and Kalahya also got first. That’s a boost to know we have some of the best athletes in the section. Getting the practice in will help give us experience for the meets coming up.”
The Pirates haven’t had many chances to show their ability, but they made the most of their opportunity at the Group III relays.
”We’ve only gone to one other meet,” Kardaras said. “I jumped about the same and Michelle jumped a little higher. In practices, I felt we could have jumped higher. This wasn’t our best, but it was pretty good start.”