If you only watch Rachel Hill’s pole vault routine, it appears almost effortless. The North Reading junior’s personal best of 11½ feet is 3 feet higher than any other vaulter in Division 4.
Even she says, though, it’s not so simple.
“Pole vaulting looks very fluid, but when you’re actually doing it, there’s so much technique involved and so many phases to perfect,” Hill said. “Even just learning a run is complex because you’re not only running with a pole, but you need to plant at the perfect time and drive.”
North Reading has several first-year pole vaulters, and coach Sotirios Pintzopoulos said many are eager to soar into the air without fully understanding the intricacies of the sport.
“A lot of kids just want to get out on the runway and see how high they can can go,” Pintzopoulos said. “We always tell them that they need to take a couple days, first learn how to hold the pole, learn how to walk with it, and then go half-speed with it. Until they get a decent approach, we don’t let them get on the runway.”
For North Andover’s Erick Duffy, who cleared 15 feet to defend his state championship last spring and earned All-American status at the outdoor nationals (15 feet, 8.5 inches), the most difficult part was staying persistent through the early struggles.
“The worst day of vaulting is your first day,” he said. “It is so uncomfortable to get right. A lot of it comes down to the nitty-gritty and nailing things down. It’s not going to come the first day or first week. It’s going to come in that first meet when you clear a height and you get that adrenaline rush and say, ‘OK, this is what I want to keep doing.’”
“The hardest part is getting started,” said Central Catholic’s Pietro Fina, who finished eighth in the state meet (12-6). “My freshman year, I struggled getting the technique down and then finally, by the end of the season, I started figuring it out. Sophomore year is when I really kicked it in.”
Three of the top vaulters in the state, Hill, Duffy, and Fina agree that technique comes first, repetition follows.
“There’s that saying that practice makes perfect, but in pole vault, it’s more along the lines of perfect practice makes perfect,” Duffy said. “If you do something wrong a thousand times, you’re going to continue to do it wrong and it can be dangerous, but if you do it right, it’ll be engrained in your memory.”
“Just like in anything else, if you practice it the wrong way, you’re going to make that permanent and it’s hard to de-train that,” Pintzopoulos said.
After three pole vaulters died between 2002 and 2011 and five more suffered catastrophic injuries, the NCAA in 2012 mandated all college vaulters wear specially designed helmets. The Mass. Interscholastic Athletic Association does not require vaulters wear helmets, but has established standards for padding around the landing area.
Part of the safety concerns is variable New England weather. Rain and even snow can cause delays or even force the event to be moved to another day.
“You want to get out there as often as possible,” Pintzopoulos said. “There are things you can do in the weight room, there are things you can do out on the track to build strength, but it really comes to technique and if it’s raining, we don’t even bother uncovering the pits. It can be incredibly dangerous. If you don’t have the grip, you’re just going to slip and fall.”
Wind can have just as much of an impact on a pole vaulter’s performance.
“Having intense winds is really difficult to compete in,” Hill said. “If it’s blowing sideways, it can going to blow the pole right out of your hand.”
“A lot of people overlook how much effect the wind can have on a vaulter’s day,” Duffy said. “If you have a tail wind, you’re going to have a very good day of vaulting because all of that power that you’re generating in your run, the wind is one your side now. If you have a headwind and it’s pushing against you, it probably isn’t going to be your best day.
“It definitely takes a little bit of craziness,” Duffy said. “Most vaulters are not the most sane people on the track team if you talk to them. It takes a lot of love for flinging yourself up into the air.”
Central Catholic coach Mike Leal summed up what it takes.
“In a lot of ways, a pole vaulter has to be fearless,” he said. “You have to have the speed. You have to have the upper body coordination. But most of all, you need to have the right technique and mindset.”P.J. Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.