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Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016

Vaulting requires skill, courage

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Sikeston's Kirk Butler attempts to pole value 11-feet, 6-inches at a recent practice.
SIKESTON -- Holding a long pole, Sikeston senior Kirk Butler takes off running as fast as he can down a narrow runway.

At the end, he plants his pole into a steel box and soars 12 feet into the air letting go of his pole at the peak of his jump, falling those same 12 feet into a large pit of mats. After he lands, he gets up, ready to go again.

While many would never think of attempting to pole vault, for Butler and a select few, this is the next best thing to flying. A feeling they can't kick.

"It's like an adrenaline rush," said Sikeston sophomore pole vaulter Trey Stone. "Going 12 to 15 feet in the air and falling down to the mat, it is just fun."

However, what some consider fun, many others consider dangerous.

According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina, from 1983 to 2000 there was one death each year from pole vaulting-related injuries. In 2002, there were three deaths from the event in a two-month span.

"It is not an event for everybody," said Sikeston assistant track coach Chris Hodgkiss, who also coaches the pole vaulters. "You have to have somebody who is willing to take a little risk. You have to have someone who is willing to do more than the average person."

Hodgkiss said regulations requiring a larger mat area and new rules on poles have helped make pole vaulting safer, but not immune to accidents. Even things such as the rare case of a pole breaking while attempting a vault can cause injury.

"A lot of schools don't do pole vault anymore because they have to spend $10,000 on a new pit for the new regulations," Hodgkiss said. "Only your bigger schools seem to do pole vault anymore."

But even though there are dangers, that doesn't stop the pole vaulters at schools that offer the event.

"I try not to think about (how dangerous pole vaulting is)," said Sikeston senior Paige Kaiser who last year qualified for the state championships in the event.

Butler said pole vaulting involves a lot of mind work.

"Sometimes you can psych yourself out," Butler said. "It is pretty fearful hitting the box at full speed. But when you get the perfect plant and you look down at your pole and over the bar after you've just cleared it, and it is just worth it."

Not everyone thinks of the sport as dangerous.

"If you do everything right it's not dangerous," Stone said. "It is when you get tired and start slowing down that it gets dangerous. You just have to know your limits and when to stop."

Hodgkiss said safety is one of the main things he teaches and the pole is often times the vaulters best friend.

"I always tell our kids the first week that if you get off of the ground and something is not right, never ever, ever let go of your pole," Hodgkiss said. "You can always hold on to your pole and ride it down to the ground and land on your feet. Once you let go of the pole, you are ten feet in the air and on your own."

While many people see the danger involved in pole vaulting, they don't see the skill it takes to be good in the event.

"(Pole vault) takes all of your muscles," Stone said. "You have to use your legs to get a fast run, your arms to bend the pole and you have to be able to do all the movements in the correct order."

Speed and strength are some of the most important traits of a good pole vaulter.

"You have to have a lot of upper body strength and you have to be able to run quick," Kaiser agreed. "If you run slow you are not going anywhere."

Hodgkiss said that along with the strength and speed, vaulters have to have good technique in order to get high in the air.

"In junior high pole vault you can win a decent amount of the time just by sheer speed and strength and not a lot of technique," Hodgkiss said. "When you get up into high school you really have to be technically sound when it comes to performing in the pole vault."

Good technique includes having a really good plant, driving the knee once in the air and getting upside down. All aspects which require a lot of work.

"There are a lot of times we are here 30 to 45 minutes after everybody else is off the track because there is so much precision stuff that you really have to work on day-in and day-out," Hodgkiss said.

"(The vaulters) have to run steps back daily so whenever they are ready to plant their pole in the box their feet are where they need to be, so their take off is right. Once you take off you have to worry about driving your knee up and getting your hips up in the air."

But while event takes a lot of practice, those who pole vault wouldn't have it any other way.

"It takes a lot of hard work," Butler said. "But to be honest with you, it is the only reason I do track."