Dunn Neugebauer Column: The Mindset of the Pole Vaulter

(photos by Dan McCauley)

Three years ago, I stood on the track with one of my runners, and I'll never forget what she said. "Track is so random! You throw things, jump into the sand, jump over bars, pass batons, run fast, run slow, and then there's that pole vault thing."

Yes, there is "that pole vault thing", where the "need for speed" meets "height feels right." Just where and what is the attraction of an event that requires the speed of the runway, the precision of the steps in inserting the pole, the strength of lift-off, the grace of getting over the bar, and the happy landing…or at least one can hope "

In a way, it's simply the art of being psychotic," one vaulter said with a laugh. "Still, there's a good feeling doing an event that a lot of people can't do. I mean, you can't just hop into the pole vault. It's also rather primal -- you're elevated 14 feet in the air by a stick and you give up control."

Is giving up control a good thing? Is it the adrenaline of it all? Not to date myself, but in the late 70s, high school pole vault was the easy way to qualify for state and miss school an extra day. The negative was, the "landing pits" were often surrounded by plywood, and I witnessed more than twice our vaulter landing on wood or asphalt, instead of a cushion.

Still, he -- like so many others before and after him -- continue to grab the pole, that pole that's hard to even get TO the meets, that pole that requires moving your spare tire and back seat around just to fit it in there.

"I like watching people do the event, and I think it's a rush to be 13 feet in the air, upside down, backward, whatever. It's just fun." This is from a vaulter who -- in an off-season accident, shattered his hand and wasn't supposed to be able to grab a toothbrush, much less a pole. He ended as a two-year state champion.

In moving on, it's not just the vaulters that get in on the "height is right" thing, as a former Florida coach Roy Benson added: "I once had to verify a world record set at 18, feet, 6 ½ inches at the Florida Relays. It was scary climbing up unwieldy stepladders to verify new records. It's not just the vaulters who get to see the world from a scary perspective."

Ex-high school coach Bill Railey phrased it this way: "It's a tough event to watch, it's tough even to participate in, and it's a tough event to coach. But when it's done right, it's unbelievable!"

Whether a rush or psychotic, adrenaline-filled, or all in between, the former "easy way to get to state" is now an event that proves to be a marathon without the miles at track meets -- and yes, even at the high school level. 

Okay, so now we have an event that requires speed, strength, and precision -- to name only some, plus it's something that takes up a lot of time. So in a world where many dream of scoring the winning touchdown, hitting the walk-off homer or scoring the game-winning goal, where does pole vault fit into all this? 

Perhaps the answer can be summed up the way a former high school state-qualifying vaulter did when asked what drew her in. 

"I'm not really sure…" Another put it this way: "It's like a violent ballet of sorts…" 

It is what it is -- an event that requires multiple skillsets, not to mention timing and balance. So -- in closing and to all you pole vaulters out there, regardless of whatever the attractions may or may not be: May your elevations always increase and your bellies or backsides never move that ever-raised bar. Oh, and one other thing: May your landings always be safe, soft, and sound…