It’s been said that to be a competitive Division-I athlete, one must be physically strong, mentally aware and completely dedicated. Pole vaulters, however, have to add a fourth characteristic.
“You’ve got to be a little nuts,” said junior Christine Ahn, whose marks of 12 feet, 1 1/2 inches (indoor) and 12-4 1/2 (outdoor) are CSU records. “Most vaulters are rock-climbers, sky-divers, stuff like that.”
Such are the characteristics of the track and field event that, though often overlooked, could be the most exciting and dangerous of a meet.
“The pole vault is like a combination of extreme sports and track,” said junior Josh Horak, who holds the indoor school record at 17-3. “You get that rush of extreme sports while putting in the work for track.”
It’s the extreme side of the event that has brought the pole vault under fire recently.
During the 2002 NCAA track and field season, five collegiate athletes died while either competing or training for the pole vault, and it’s an issue the NCAA has looked into without recommending more than the use of helmets in practice and at meets.
Most accidents, according to head coach Del Hessel, are not due to the inherent dangers of the sport, but with technical factors.
“The majority of accidents are due to faulty technique,” Hessel said. “The athlete has to control the pole, the pole cannot control the athlete. There really is no safe way to vault, because if you don’t vault hard, you don’t do well.”
As for CSU’s vaulters, Hessel said the university has supplied the team with the best equipment to ensure the safety of its athletes.
“There are no short cuts in providing the best equipment that we can for the safety of our athletes,” he said.
As for the use of helmets, Hessel said it does not make much of a difference because the majority of the accidents occur when a vaulter falls into the pole-planting area known as ‘the pit.’
“The helmet is not an issue,” Hessel said. “The issue is missing the pit or losing control of the vault and coming down poorly.”
With the dangers of the event lurking, CSU vaulting coach Lindsey Malgrem said she puts her athletes through a series of workouts designed to improve technique.
“The training is similar to jumpers,” Malgrem said. “They need explosiveness so they do plyometrics; they need to be strong so they do a ridiculous amount of push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups; and for overall fitness and flexibility we have them do gymnastics.”
Another factor-effecting technique is the constantly changing pole sizes that vary in accordance to vaulter’s speed, technique and overall body size.
“The biggest difficulty we encounter is pole sizes,” Malgrem said. “The stronger you get the bigger the pole you have to get and you have to adjust your grip with each pole.”
And vaulting isn’t just about explosiveness. In fact, there is a lot of endurance involved in an event that can last as long as three hours per meet.
“A lot of people have a misconception on how hard it is to vault,” Hessel said. “If you are going to vault really hard, you’re not going to have a lot of vaults in you and (the pole vault) can turn into an endurance event when the athlete is out there 2-to-3 hours.”
All of it adds up to a lot to take care of and worry about for CSU vaulters Ahn, Horak and sophomore Ashley Nance. Yet, when competition rolls around, those concerns are put aside.
“I get nervous sometimes, but when the meet comes around I don’t worry about anything but the jump,” Horak said.
And why would he? After all, what is there to worry about when you’re a little nuts?