As a freshman, Jake Blankenship reluctantly approached Gahanna track coach Ed Rarey and expressed a tepid interest in pole-vaulting.
Just a few days into practice, he disappointed his sports-minded family by deciding to quit. His mother, Becky, had set track records at Heidelberg College. His father, Kevin, is a bodybuilder and personal trainer.
His grandfather, Bob Banhagel, and uncle, Rob Banhagel — 65 and 43, respectively — remain competitive pole-vaulters.
“My family wanted me to be in sports so badly, I felt like I was forced to do it,” Blankenship said. “My grandpa and uncle had worked some with me in the pole vault, but I just hated it. I just didn’t have any passion for it.”
A bribe changed all that.
“Mom told me if I stuck out the season, she’d buy me a snowboard,” Blankenship said, “and I love snowboarding.”
Three years later, Blankenship is a state record-holder and defending national indoor and outdoor champion, working seriously toward the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He has signed with Tennessee, renowned for developing world-class pole-vaulters.
His transformation happened virtually overnight. He cleared just 10 feet, 6 inches in eighth grade. By the end of his freshman season, Blankenship had improved to 14 feet.“A lot of it had to do with a growth spurt,” he said. “I went from 5-1 to 5-11 in just a matter of two years, and I felt more like an athlete. Also, I really enjoyed the environment of being on the team. We had some really, really good athletes that year, and it was interesting watching their work habits and being around them every day. It motivated me to get serious.”Blankenship now has topped the 17-foot barrier indoors and outdoors 17 times, including an state indoor record of 17-61/2 on Feb. 26 at Oberlin College. It was the fourth-highest high-school indoor vault in U.S. history.
Rob Banhagel, who became Blankenship’s primary coach in 2010, thought all along that his nephew had the genes and athleticism to excel in the pole vault.
“Jake is not a freak of nature by any means, but he has a combination of height, speed, strength, coordination and agility that lends itself to pole-vaulting,” he said. “Just fooling around on the trampoline in the backyard, you could see that he did well with gravity.
“A big reason for his success is that his grandpa and I worked with him from the start and taught him how to do things correctly and consistently from a technique standpoint. He comprehends things and masters them exceptionally well.”
In time, it became obvious to Rarey that Blankenship would become one of the most-accomplished athletes in his storied 60-year career at Gahanna.
“I’m convinced that Jacob could compete in any event in track and field and excel,” Rarey said. “I told his uncle and grandfather not to bother asking me to let him try any other events. I could see what his future was, and I refused to be party to him tearing a hamstring and screwing up everything he has worked so hard for.”
Starting in 2010, Blankenship and Olentangy Liberty twin brothers Chris and Joey Uhle waged a two-year assault on the state record. Blankenship finished fourth in the state as a sophomore but beat both Uhles to win the title last season. His first 17-foot vault equaled Joey Uhle’s state record. He topped it by three-quarters of an inch to win the national title two weeks later.
Chris and Joey Uhle have gone on to Virginia Tech and the Air Force Academy. Blankenship misses the rivalry and camaraderie.
“It was wild,” he said. “We were breaking each other’s state records one weekend after another. Their presence motivated me so much. Every meet, I felt I had to jump higher than them. I miss them not being out there pushing me. I’ve had to train myself to just be better than I was the last time.”
Blankenship is getting help in that regard from his personal trainer, psychologist and speed coach, Butch Reynolds. The former Olympic gold medalist and 400-meter world record-holder from Ohio State is the newest member of Blankenship’s coaching team.
Like Rarey, Reynolds thought Blankenship was a winner the first day the two worked together.
“He has that mind-set of a champion,” Reynolds said. “He believes he can go to the Olympics, talks about it every day and is willing to do whatever it takes to reach that challenge.
“The other thing that impresses me so much about Jake is that he’s very coachable. I did a video analysis for him with a lot of constructive criticism, and he accepted it all and absorbed everything like a sponge. He gets it. He does it right the next time and moves on to the next area. And all technique aside, the kid is a great athlete.”
The 5-foot-111/2,185-pound senior, who uses extra-stiff poles designed for college competitors, doesn’t vault much during the season.
“On non-meet days, we focus almost entirely on drills and technique,” Rob Banhagel said. “We don’t want to generate any bad habits, so we go through essentially the same routine every day. The big push is for consistency, so when the time of the season comes that we want to peak, he’ll not only be prepared but hungry.”
The top U.S. outdoor high-school vault this season is 17-8 by Shawn Barber of Kingwood Park, Texas. Blankenship is ranked No. 3 at 16-8. The national record of 18-3 by Tommy Skipper of Sandy, Ore., has stood since 2003. Skipper became a three-time NCAA champion for Oregon.
Blankenship is pointing to the state meet on June 1 and 2 in Ohio State’s Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium and the New Balance national championships on June 14-16 in Greensboro, N.C.
“As soon as we get a weekend with some good weather, we’ll get 17 feet, and from there we’ll make our push to 18 feet,” he said. “Our dream goal is 5.58 meters, which converts to 18-4 — a national record. It’s out there and it’s reachable, but it’s a step-by-step process. Those kinds of jumps don’t just happen out of nowhere.”
By Steve Blackledge