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.Continued...