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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. Continued...