When at a track meet, it seems as if the pole vault generates the most excitement among the crowd. Although some events move at a faster speed than the pole vault, it is one of the most complex. It is the closest track and field comes to an extreme sport.
In order to perform a successful vault, athletes must sprint while carrying a 16-foot-long fiberglass pole. Then, they plant the pole into a steel box with their arms fully extended and jump off the ground while holding onto the pole as it bends. Next, the vaulter must push off the wall and invert himself in mid-air to clear the vault before landing on the mat.
“The pole vaulters are the most athletic members of the track team,” assistant coach David Kaiser said.
Kaiser believes that no event in track and field is as physically and mentally demanding as the pole vault.
Among the physical requirements of a vaulter are the speed of a sprinter, the strength of a thrower, the ability to leap high and the athleticism to be able to invert his body while on a bent stick.
The various talents involved in performing the vault require athletes to work on each facet of the skill.
“We are usually the last people to leave practice,” redshirt freshman Kevin Day said. “We have intensive sprint workouts, lift pretty hard and go through a couple of vault sessions during the week.”
In addition to these workouts, the vaulters must focus on the difficult technical aspects of the sport.
“To work on the technique, you have to be jumping,” redshirt sophomore Kevin Peterman said. “You need to spend time on the takeoff, the swing and getting over the bar.”
To succeed in the vault, it is also necessary to be mentally strong.
“The athlete needs a certain level of confidence, and fear cannot be a factor,” Kaiser said.
When competing in the pole vault, competitors must not think too much. Day said that he relies on muscle-memory that he conditions from training.
“I try to have the same consistent run and make sure that my body is in the best position,” captain Craig Theissen said. “One of my problems is that I think too much.”
Another mental barrier that the athletes must overcome are the health risks of the vault. Athletes face more danger when competing in the pole vault than in any other event in track and field. In February 2002, Penn State pole vaulter Kevin Dare died, landing on his head, while competing in the Big Ten Championships. Michigan pole vaulters understand the risks involved in the vault. They feel that proper training and proper facilities can prevent such incidents from occurring.
“Across the country, there is a big push toward safety in the vault,” Kaiser said. “(At Michigan), we have an administration that is supportive about providing safety and a nice facility to jump in.”
Athletes confront these obstacles because they want to experience the thrill of pole vault.
“I love the ultimate rush you get from the second you leave the ground to falling back to the mat,” Theissen said.
This season, the Michigan pole vaulters have high expectations for themselves and hope to be part of a Big Ten championship team.
“This is the best team I have been on,” Theissen said. “We are refusing to settle for anything but a Big Ten championship.”
The team will continue its path toward achieving this goal when it hosts the Red Simmons Invitational on Saturday at the Indoor Track Building.