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Pole vaulting mixes athleticism with a certain fearlessness

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Former Center Grove High School standout Sydney Clute, a sophomore on the Indiana University women's track and field team, is one of the top pole vault performers in the Big Ten. Photos courtesy IU athletics department.
Former Center Grove High School standout Sydney Clute, a sophomore on the Indiana University women's track and field team, is one of the top pole vault performers in the Big Ten. Photos courtesy IU athletics department.

Track and field doesn’t go out of its way to promote its most challenging event as renegade.

No need. Followers of the sport understand pole vaulting extends invitations to those individuals who are, shall we say, the boldest of the bold.

It’s not for everyone.


If it were, these few seconds of morphed focus, speed, strength, agility and fearlessness would be much more mainstream than they are. Our knowledge would be greater, our worst fears tempered.

Those who pole vault competitively or did during some stage of their athletic existence insist there’s nothing like it. Those who don’t remain curious bystanders, their noses pressed against the glass of “How did they do that?”

“I absolutely miss it. The first time you bend the pole at practice you’re addicted,” said former Center Grove pole vaulter Kyle Buchanan, who advanced to the 2013 IHSAA Boys Track and Field State Finals after winning the Connersville Regional with a personal best of 14 feet.

“If you’re afraid of heights you definitely have to face your fears. You’re up in the air 14, 15 feet with

no control. It’s so unique. After you do it once you want to keep going because it’s the most exciting event out there.”

Tendinitis in both knees prevented Buchanan, a freshman at Indiana University, from attempting to join the Hoosier men’s track and field program as a walk-on this season.

This isn’t to say he never will.

Pole vaulting’s uniqueness lies in its difficulty. Everything from one’s hand positioning on the fiberglass pole to an ability to achieve maximum speed on the approach can spell either success or failure.

The vaulter then drops the pole tip into the metal trapezoid-shaped box in the ground at the end of the runway. The pole begins to bend, which drives the vaulter upward.

He or she then is called on to swing up, a process in which one’s hips are above his/her head prior to clearing the bar at the assigned height. It’s then up to the vaulter to turn his/her body 180 degrees while in midair and push the pole away so it doesn’t come in contact with either the bar or mat.

IU sophomore and Center Grove alum Sydney Clute established a personal-best Saturday when she cleared 4.15 meters (13 feet, 7½ inches) to take third at the Billy Hayes Invitational. In April she took first at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia by topping out at 13-4½.

An accomplished gymnast as a child, Clute went on to be an all-state golfer at Center Grove. She also long-jumped during her high school track career.

She said part of the allure of pole vaulting is that literally and figuratively the bar can always be raised.

“Pole vaulting is so technical,” Clute said. “I still don’t know everything there is to know about pole vaulting. It’s almost impossible because it’s changing and everyone does do it a little differently.”

Asked which aspect of pole vaulting is most critical, Clute doesn’t hesitate. “Definitely the takeoff. It impacts the rest of your vault,” she said.

“Pole vaulting is extremely technical, but the approach is the most important thing because so many things can happen,” said Whiteland senior Cole Wuest, a state finalist last June, whose personal best is 14 feet. “It’s just fun to do, and no one else really does it.”

Or so it sometimes seems.

The risk associated with pole vaulting be it a snapped pole, potentially landing awkwardly on the mat or missing the mat entirely provide it an air of danger.

One of Clute’s scariest moments was landing on her feet on the runway as a sophomore at the 2010 state finals. More recently, a landing in which Clute’s lower body grazed the mat resulted in her face-planting on the all-weather surface during a practice earlier this season.

“I had a track burn on my forehead,” she said, laughing.

As a high school sophomore, Buchanan sprained an ankle while warming up for a meet at Bloomington South after one of his feet touched down in the aforementioned box. He admits to being tentative during competition for close to a month after that.

Buchanan has also twisted an ankle hitting the mat feet first. This is why vaulters are coached to land on their backs or, at worst, their rear ends.

“It’s all about progression. If the turn is good, you’ll land good. It’s learning the proper technique or the proper progressions to make it safe,” CG pole vault coach Kevin Walsh said.

“With pole vaulting you want to have a kid who is fast, strong and has body awareness. A kid who is a risk-taker. But to be a good pole vaulter you have to constantly put yourself in uncomfortable positions to improve. To lean back a little or hold a position longer.”

As for a pole snapping, it definitely can happen.

“Actually, the pole snapping is not a big deal because you already have so much momentum that it carries you straight into the pit,” Buchanan said.

“In the six years I’ve been coaching I’ve had only one kid snap a pole,” added Walsh, a Martinsville High School graduate who placed fourth in the state finals as a senior in 1987 with a best of 14-6. “Personally, I broke four poles in my high school career, but that was never really in the back of my mind. It was just attack and go.”

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