Pole vaulting wasn’t on my bucket list. Somehow, the idea of flinging myself skyward on a fiberglass pole seemed as risky as bungee jumping or aerial skiing or platform diving. Generally, I like sports that keep me on the ground. But how often do you get invited to work out with Jenn Suhr, the world’s top-ranked female pole vaulter?
That was how I found myself at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center earlier this week, awkwardly, apprehensively standing on the pole vault runway while holding a pole Suhr used to set one of her eight American records.
Moments earlier, I’d watched Suhr move half-speed down the runway and clear 14 feet with the ease and effortlessness that comes from years of training. She might as well have been walking her dog. She reviewed video of each practice vault with her husband and coach, Rick Suhr. They picked apart her approach, her pole planting, her body position when inverted.
As I would soon learn, pole vaulting not only requires speed and strength, but also tremendous precision and attention to technique. If your hands are not properly placed, your shoulders and feet not pointed forward, your pole plant not well-timed, getting off the ground becomes difficult, if not impossible. Even as the most novice of novices, I could sense that each phase of a vault — the approach, the plant, the inversion, the upside-down acceleration toward the crossbar on a pole that sometimes bends to a 90-degree angle, the bar clearance, the fall — draws upon entirely different sets of muscles and motor skills.
To know that Suhr’s American indoor record stands at 16 feet (4.88 meters), to look up at a crossbar set to that height, you wonder if there is a tougher, more technically demanding sport.
“Sometimes it’s so simple you feel like, ‘How could pole vault ever be hard?’ ” said Suhr, a 12-time US national champion who also holds the American outdoor record at 16 feet, 1.75 inches (4.92 meters). “You just jump up and swing. Then, there’s days that it’s like the most impossible thing I’ve ever done. There’s still times that it just doesn’t click. You go through slumps where your timing is off and you can’t execute. So, it’s constantly back to the drawing board.”
Suhr wanted to fine-tune her technique, work out the kinks after a recent left hip injury limited her practices leading up to Saturday night’s New Balance Indoor Grand Prix at the Reggie Lewis Center. Suhr has set three indoor American records at the facility and considers Boston lucky.
Always a highlight on the indoor track calendar, the meet will feature Suhr, as well as fellow 2012 US Olympians Galen Rupp, Matthew Centrowitz, and Donn Cabral, as well as Ethiopian Olympians Tirunesh Dibaba and Dejen Gebremeskel. High school phenom Mary Cain from Bronxville, N.Y., a week removed from shattering the national high school girls’ mile record with a time of 4 minutes 32.78 seconds, will add intrigue to the 2-mile field.
Before my adventures in pole vaulting, I last saw Suhr, who will turn 31 on Tuesday, standing outside the Olympic Stadium in London. She was fresh from the women’s pole vault medal ceremony surrounded by fans eager to see her gold and snap pictures. With a successful second attempt at 15-7 (4.75 meters), Suhr won gold in a tough competition marked by swirling winds and rain. On her way to victory, she defeated world record-holder and two-time gold medalist Elena Isinbaeva.
“The difference between a silver in 2008 and a gold in 2012 is vastly bigger than I thought,” said Suhr. “It’s kind of scary because it’s only one place. But the recognition of it is different. In the past, it might just be pole vaulters or officials who might recognize me. All of a sudden, it’s people in other events, it’s distance running and throwing. The gold medal brings a different light to the event and to yourself. Sometimes I’m like, ‘This is crazy.’ ”
World-class instructionMy firsthand introduction to pole vaulting started far from any crowds and with a “baby pole,” a much lighter and shorter version of the unwieldy 15-foot-long, 10-pound poles Suhr uses in competition. Rick Suhr instructed me on the basic grip, bottom hand over the pole and top hand under, and I practiced snapping the baby pole into the air. Then, I tried one of Jenn’s competition poles and struggled to get it off the ground. I taxed muscles in my shoulders and back that are rarely used. It felt unnatural, as would everything that followed. The idea of running at full speed with a full-sized pole, as Suhr does, was mind-boggling.
Back to the baby pole, I jogged down the runway with a laugh-inducing lack of grace. The next phase was planting the pole and getting off the ground. Hopefully. Standing on the right side of the plant box, Rick shouted, “Just make sure you hold tight onto the pole.” I ran, I stutter-stepped, I planted the pole, I held on tight, I flung myself toward the large padded mat behind the plant box. To be honest, it was more a self-propelled leap than a vault.
It took a handful of practice jumps before I felt confident that I could ride the pole’s momentum into the padded mat. There was one jump where I let the pole fully carry me and, on the smallest scale, felt what pole vaulting must be like. Through it all, Jenn offered encouragement, mentioning her own awkward start in the sport.
“We pulled up video the other day of when I started jumping,” said the 6-foot, 141-pound Suhr. “I was this tall, lanky person. It looked like someone just shot me out of a cannon. My arms are going everywhere, my legs are going everywhere.”
Yet, about 10 months after Suhr took up the sport, she won her first national title, the 2005 USA Indoor National Championships. The meet took place at the Reggie Lewis Center and helped make Suhr a fan favorite in the city, though she lives in Churchville, N.Y. Suhr’s quick rise in pole vaulting can be traced to her phenomenal all-around athleticism and competitive drive. She starred in basketball at Roberts Wesleyan College and graduated as the school’s all-time leading scorer, as well as the school record-holder in the 100-meter hurdles, 400-meter hurdles, javelin, and high jump. She started pole vaulting during her junior year in 2004.
Given my hesitancy to throw myself into pole vaulting and truly take off, I wondered if Suhr worked through similar fears. Not exactly.
“I’m just a very competitive person and that does push out the fear,” said Suhr. “There’s times that athletes will be afraid of something and run through the pad. I’ll get to the point where I don’t care what happens anymore. I’m not running through this pad because I need to make this height. It’s very much a competitive thing. When I first started training, Rick would tell me to go home and do 10 of something, I’d go home and do 30 of them. I wanted to be the best.”
Competitiveness never drove out my fear. Not even close. When I asked Jenn to assess my pole vaulting ability, she said, “You had a good understanding of what needed to be done, correcting it, knowing your motor patterns. It was just your aggressiveness. You have to get after it.” Rick was more concise. He said, “Above average, but timid.” Both Suhrs were exceedingly diplomatic and generous.
Surprisingly, though, Jenn and I shared one thing when it came to pole vaulting: Rick boosted our confidence and made us believers. I never thought I’d come anywhere close to planting a pole and taking off. But somehow, almost magically, Rick talked me through, made everything sound simple and doable. Sure, I only cleared about 2 feet, but it was still a victory.
“He’s got an ability to inspire people and make them believe that they can do things that they didn’t think they could,” said Jenn. “He’s got this coaching X factor and he gets results out of people. When I walk into a stadium, I know that I have the best coach out there. I know I have the best person making the adjustments. I know I’ve done the best training leading up to it. So, I have all that confidence.”
Added Rick, “It’s Jenn’s belief in what I tell her that’s incredible. Athletes who believe 100 percent in what I tell them have been successful with me. They start to believe they can do what no one else has done. And that’s what Jenn has done. She has the top 10 jumps that an American has ever taken.”
Taking the leap Even with Rick’s constant encouragement, there were simply some parts of the pole vault experience that required more a physical lift than a mental lift. To approximate what it felt like to turn upside down during a vault, Rick and Jenn flipped me over while I gripped the pole tightly. Once inverted, Rick told me to look up at the crossbar. It was set to Jenn’s American indoor record of 16 feet. From my heels-over-head perspective, the distance to the crossbar seemed incredibly far. And the ability to launch that high on a bendable pole seemed to strain logic and gravity and sanity.
Next, I rode a scissor lift to the crossbar, seeing what it would be like to complete the vault. I was scared to even approach the edge of the elevated platform, never mind fall from that height. Lying on the pad below, Jenn shouted, “It’s probably good I’m not up there. It looks pretty high.” When vaulting, Jenn never stops to appreciate the view. She’s clearing the bar and falling down in one fluid, focused motion. Standing slightly in front of me on the platform, Rick removed the crossbar and jumped down without a second thought. Then, he shouted up, “Now, it’s your turn.” I asked if we could lower the lift a little.
The platform crept slowly downward until I was comfortable jumping from about 9 feet. Did I mention I don’t like heights? Despite instructions from Rick to keep my arms in and land on my back and behind, I fell backward onto the mat with arms extended, believing idiotically I could brace my fall. That I landed without injury was a feat in itself.
I’m glad I worked out with Jenn Suhr when I did. In the future, the bar will likely be set much higher. Rick said, “It’s good to be ranked No. 1 in the world two years in a row and know that you’re only getting better.” He believes Jenn is “going to peak probably two years from now.” And that should put Jenn in perfect position to defend her Olympic title at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
As for my pole-vaulting peak, it’s safe to say I reached it earlier this week.