As Boston College High and host Westford Academy were squaring off in the first round of the Division 1 East boys’ lacrosse tourney in early June, a solitary figure was working out on his own, paying little attention to the heated action on the field nearby.
Maybe a few of those in attendance caught a glimpse of the lanky pole vaulter working on his technique: the run, the plant, and the swing, all in sync with one other.
And occasionally, Brendan Sullivan would glance over to follow his classmates before returning to his workout.
No one questions the work ethic of the 18-year-old Sullivan, the state record holder in the pole vault (16 feet), who is headed to Yale University this fall.
But genetics has undoubtedly also played a role in the development of the 6-foot, 168-pound Sullivan into one of the region’s top jumpers, who captured the all-state meet with a leap of 15 feet, three inches (besting his mark of 15 feet in 2011). He also owns the school record in the 55-meter hurdles indoors (7.73 seconds).
His father, Shannon, a former all-PAC-10 pole vaulter at the University of Oregon, finished fourth at the 1988 US Olympic trials in the decathlon. He coached at the Air Force Academy in preparation for the trials. And Shannon’s father, Denny, hurdled at Oregon and holds the decathlon record for the 80-year-old group. He is determined to break the decathlon record for 85-year-olds later this year.
“I wanted to expose Brendan to all sports, but [Westford] had me coaching the pole vaulters and he was drawn to it because of my background,” said Shannon Sullivan, who has vaulted a personal-best 18 feet.
Even before Brendan attended Westford, his father was a volunteer coach at the high school.
“Brendan's dad started to volunteer when his older sister, Natalie, ran for us at Westford,” said coach Phil Archambault.
“Brendan told me he wasn't going to do track, but wanted to do baseball and football. He never did any of those, and I think all of those trips to the track to watch his sister and his dad work grew on him.”
The younger Sullivan, however, struggled early in his freshman year before discovering that the challenging process takes time, practice and patience.
“Pole vault, like most track events, is about speed. You need to come off the ground fast,” said Sullivan.
Ingrid Gustafson, who coaches Sullivan at Patriot Pole Vault in Westborough, said that pole vaulting is “such a technical sport, that if you want to be good at it, you need to focus on the little things.”
Sullivan was buoyed after clearing 13 feet at the All-New England meet as a sophomore.
“That's when I wanted to get better, once I got able to get over 13 feet,” he said. “I loved how the sport was so technical and that each of the three steps required almost equal attention.”
As a sophomore and junior, Sullivan trained three days per week at Patriot Pole Vault, focusing in increasing his height.
He also attended the National Pole Vault Summit in Reno, Nev. with his father, chatting up Olympians while receiving one-on-one training.
“Two thousand pole vaulters descending in one place was pretty special to experience,” said Shannon Sullivan. “It definitely gave Brendan more motivation to get better once he left because the unique thing about the summit was the coaching and being able to talk to these Olympic athletes one-on-one.”
His development as a vaulter also helped foster a stronger bond between father and son.
They discuss details on how to improve, bouncing thoughts off one another on pole selection.
“The poles are designed to generate energy, so the more energy you generate, the higher you can pole-vault,” said Sullivan.
“Brendan and I go over the selection based on weather and how he's feeling. Since they all weigh differently, the way that they absorb your energy is crucial.”
"[Pole vaulting] has definitely brought us closer together,” said Sullivan. “I wanted Brendan to try every sport and not force him into doing what I had done, but I'm glad he did.”
Archambault added that “how Brendan is as a person defines him as an athlete. He's always striving to help improve the way his teammates do things, and his competitors as well.”
But Sullivan knows that in order to be succeed as a collegian, he must improve his run, the most crucial part of the entire three-step process.
“If you don't have a good run, your performance will be affected. It starts from the bottom,” said Sullivan. “I struggled for parts of the season and going into next year, having a more solid, long run is what will help me be more effective.”
“Brendan was good at hurdles because it chopped his stride. He is a tremendous sprinter, but needs to work on the long run to be a better pole vaulter,” said his father.
The poles are designed to receive the energy transferred from the run to propel the athlete over the bar. Thus, the better the run, the better the end result, and as Sullivan continues to improve his pole-vaulting techniques, he has one thing on his mind: the Olympic trials in 2016.
“Pole vaulting is exciting. It can be frustrating at times when you get on bigger poles because you won't always land in the pit but that just adds to the fun,” said Sullivan.
“I know in the future, [the Olympic Trials] is where I want to be. When you get over the bar, especially a new record or a personal one, it's great. You have a strong feeling of accomplishment because all of your hard work paid off. There's no feeling like it.”