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.
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