Flying high, above the crowd

Once upon a time in Europe, men used long poles to get
themselves across water-filled canals without getting wet.
Somehow, over the past few centuries, that mode of
transportation turned into a track and field sport. And a thrilling
one, at that.
Once upon a time in Europe, men used long poles to get themselves across water-filled canals without getting wet.

Somehow, over the past few centuries, that mode of transportation turned into a track and field sport. And a thrilling one, at that.

For a lot of track and field athletes, the rush of adrenaline they get from the anticipation of a big race, the sound of the starting gun going off and finally, the actual race around the track, is enough.

But not for pole vaulters. That doesn’t quite get them going. Apparently, they need some element of danger to really get their blood flowing.

These guys and girls seem to crave something more, or at least that’s how state-qualifying vaulter Todd Merrigan from San Benito High put it.

“I don’t like the other events because they don’t have the same rush,” said Merrigan after the CCS finals on Friday. “You crave it.”

It certainly takes a fearless attitude to be a pole vaulter. Merrigan said it doesn’t hurt to like to be a bit of a show-off either.

There are plenty of risky sports that require such a “no fear” attitude. The thing is, many of them can be learned at a young age, when fearlessness is still second nature. Gymnastics and skateboarding are two that come to mind. Those sports are easier to do at an older age when you’ve mastered them while still young.

But pole vaulting is different. It requires strength and coordination that young kids just don’t have. So many vaulters, like Merrigan, don’t start until high school, which means they pretty much just have ignore the fear and go for it. If you don’t want to do that, well, you can stick to high jump. And I mean that with no disrespect to the jumpers.

Personally, there’s no way you would get me try pole vaulting. At first, I thought it might be cool. But then I watched Merrigan and another CCS finalist on two separate tries vault themselves up – and nearly fall right back down onto the hard track because they didn’t get enough momentum going. Merrigan had the mental and physical presence to lean on his pole and push himself over to the landing pit.

When that happened, Merrigan said he thought he “was gonna die.”

On the other hand, Merrigan’s competitor kind of freaked out and clung to his pole for dear life before (thankfully) landing on the edge of the mat. Despite being visibly shaken, the kid went back for several attempts, as did Merrigan, which is probably the best example of the kind of guts this event requires.

The pole vault also seems to be becoming a fan favorite. Some of the loudest cheers at the CCS meet were for the vaulters. Plus, the competition can last for an hour or so, which makes it more fan-friendly than say, sprinting events, which can be over in a matter of seconds. Pole vaulting builds drama, which always makes for a successful sporting event.

The only beef I have with pole vault, at least in California at the high school level, is that the California Interscholastic Federation doesn’t require participants to wear helmets. I know, helmets might take away style points, but I think they’re necessary.

Baseball and softball players have to wear helmets and it seems a pole vaulter could sustain just as serious an injury – if not worse – without a helmet. Many college vaulters already wear them.

Other than that, I can’t wait to see the pole vault at this weekend’s state meet begin.

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