Pole vaulters have a unique ability to look past the risks of hurtling their bodies through the air, relying on their own physical strength to fly feet first over the greatest height possible.
Often referred to as track and field’s most dangerous event, pole vaulting is the ultimate all-or-nothing event. Athletes who compete in the event love it. Images of snapped poles, bad landings or wet runways never enter their minds.
Whiteland Community High School junior Jacob Ballain is a prime example.
“I remember walking by practices my freshman year to watch (former Whiteland pole vaulter) Cole Wuest and thought it was the coolest thing,” Ballain said. “At first it looked kind of scary, but the thing that helps is not to be afraid.
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“You have to be confident in your ability.”
Ballain decided to try pole vault as a sophomore. He evolved from missing the opening height in his first regular-season meet in April to clearing a personal-best of 13 feet, 1 inch, at the Connersville Regional on May 28.
The following week Ballain competed in the IHSAA State Meet at Indiana University, finishing 20th.
Ballain did so well so quickly that he made pole vault look easy. Only it’s not.
“This is an event that literally is not for everyone,” long-time Franklin Community High School boys track coach Mike Hall said. “I have great respect for the boys and girls at our school who work at the pole vault and the coaches trying to get them the best equipment and teaching possible.”
Gymnastics to pole vaulting
The teens drawn to pole vaulting typically combine explosive speed and strength with fearlessness, Whiteland boys and girls track coach Brandon Bangel said.
“Pole vaulters do tend to have a different mindset than most of the other track athletes. These kids are usually the risk-takers and are not afraid to try things that others would see as dangerous,” Bangel said. “We typically try to find kids with gymnastics/tumbling backgrounds because they are already over the fear of being upside-down.
“They also generally have better body awareness and can pick up the technique of the event more quickly.”
Maybe the best example is former Center Grove pole vaulter Sydney Clute, an Indiana University senior who on Feb. 26 won the Big Ten Conference indoor championship with a program-record height of 14 feet, 3¼ inches.
An accomplished gymnast at a young age, Clute picked up two varsity letters in the sport at Center Grove as a freshman and sophomore before gymnastics was discontinued at the school following the 2009-10 season.
Clute has been pole vaulting since she was 14.
“Having a gymnastics background definitely helps because you’re used to being upside-down, and the runway is very similar to (approaching) the vault in gymnastics,” Clute said. “The scariest part is learning how to trust the pole, trusting that it’s going to support you and you are going to be OK.
“I have never broken a pole, but it’s not uncommon for it to happen at one time in your career.”
Injury prevention through coaching
The importance of proper technique can’t be over-emphasized when it comes to staying safe.
Center Grove assistant track and field coach Scott Johnson, who along with fellow assistant Kevin Walsh, trains the Trojans’ boys pole vaulters. Johnson said coaching, or in some cases a lack thereof, determines who sustains injuries and who doesn’t.
“In the five years I’ve been coaching at the high school level, I’ve seen too many injuries and close calls to count. These are primarily due to the lack of qualified coaching or no coaching,” Johnson said. “This is a very technical event that requires speed, strength, fearlessness, intelligence and a qualified coach.”
Walsh said a reason Trojans pole vaulters recover relatively quickly following a sprained ankle or some other minor injury is because of the quality of strength-training Center Grove athletes do throughout the school year.
“If schools don’t have a qualified, knowledgeable and safety-minded coach in the pole vault, they probably should not have athletes participate in the event,” Walsh said. “But I don’t think that’s any different than any other track event or high school sport.
“Any sport can be dangerous if the athlete is not paying attention and there is not proper supervision.”
Johnson pole vaulted at Indiana University. Walsh competed in the event at Purdue.
An endangered event?
The IHSAA didn’t offer girls pole vault until 2003. The first state champion was Lawrence Central sophomore Tori Allen with a height of 11-10¼.
The reigning state champion is Angola’s Kennedy Trine, who won last year with a vault of 12-9. The state meet record is 13-6¼ by Pendleton Heights junior Elle McCardwell in 2009.
Unfortunately, expenses associated with pole vaulting are forcing some boys and girls programs — especially at the middle school level — to drop the event, according local coaches.
“I think pole vault has been a great addition to girls track, but it has added some difficulties,” Franklin Community girls track coach Tim Leonard said. “It is expensive. Adding up mats and pole it can run into the thousands.”
At the same time, whether it’s girls or boys, men or women, competing in the pole vault, there’s no event quite like it.
“Few sporting events offer the immediate excitement of the vault,” Hall said. “At most meets, spectator interest in the pole vault area is very high.”
Clute thinks back to first wanting to try pole vaulting because, as she said, “Honestly, it looked like fun.”
THE BALLAIN FILE
Name: Jacob Ballain
Born: Omaha, Nebraska
Family: Parents, Matt and Amy; sister, Julia, 19
Favorite TV show: “Breaking Bad”
Favorite food: Pizza
Favorite movie: “Step Brothers”
Favorite athlete: Pat McAfee
Favorite team: Indianapolis Colts
BREAKING IT DOWN
Successful pole vaulting is a process that includes six steps.
• Approach – The sprint down the runway in order to achieve maximum speed. Athletes vary in how many steps are considered most comfortable. Whiteland High School junior Jacob Ballain uses a 10-step approach (five lefts, five rights), but later this season plans to be at 14 or 16 steps. Indiana University senior pole vaulter and recently crowned Big Ten Conference women’s indoor champion Sydney Clute walks off 16 total steps regardless of whether she’s taking part in an indoor or outdoor competition.
• Plant and take-off – This generally occurs three steps from the final step. These final steps are usually faster than the previous strides. Eventually the vaulter drops the tip of the fiberglass pole into the box, the objective being to translate the momentum achieved from the approach to the fiberglass bar. The pole begins to bend once hitting the back of the trapezoid-shaped box in the ground at the end of the runway.
• Swing up – The swing and row simply consists of the vaulter swinging his trail leg forward and rowing the pole, bringing his top arm down to the hips, while trying to keep the trail leg straight to store more potential energy into the pole. The rowing motion also keeps the pole bent for a longer period of time for the vaulter to get into optimum position. The goal is to carry out these motions as thoroughly and as quickly as possible before the eventual unbending of the pole.
• Extension – The extension of the hips upward with outstretched legs as the shoulders drive down, causing the vaulter to be positioned upside-down. While executed, the pole begins to recoil, which propels the vaulter upward.
• Turn – In midair while releasing the pole, the vaulter rotates his body 180 degrees toward the pole, keeping his body as vertical as possible.
• Fly away – Said to be the easiest aspect of pole vaulting, this is when the vaulter pushes the fiberglass pole away so that it falls away from the bar and mat. The goal is for the vaulter to land face-up in the middle of the mat.