April 22, 2011

High School Track and Field: Still young sport, but girls' pole vault soaring

As the numbers improve, the heights improve as more and more girls are willing to give defying gravity a try.

By Rachel Lenzi rlenzi@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

click image to enlarge

Nevada Horne of Falmouth saw pole vaulting and decided it looked like a cool sport. It is, and other high school girls have been giving it a try.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

FALMOUTH - Nevada Horne simply wanted to find out what it felt like to fly.

But in her first week of pole vaulting with the Falmouth track team, she got a brief history lesson in women's pole vaulting. As she gripped a fiberglass pole near the landing pits, she learned that women's pole vaulting is a relatively young endeavor at the high school level. Fifteen years ago, the idea of a woman soaring to new heights in high school competition was just that -- an idea.

"I had no clue about pole vaulting," Horne said. "I just saw it and thought, this looks like a cool sport, and I wanted to try it out. It's something new and something different.

"I haven't started vaulting yet but I'm excited to do it. I'm excited to defy gravity."

In Maine, high school girls' competition began in 1996, around the time that today's high school competitors were born.

Amy Webster, one of Falmouth's returning girls' pole vaulters, wasn't aware of the young history of the event at the high school level in Maine or across the nation.

"I never knew that existed," said Webster, a senior who is in her third season of pole vaulting. "And the records here (in Maine) are pretty new. But records are to be broken. Though it's hard to judge from that perspective.

"Because it's so young, there's so much more of an opportunity to do something to help it progress and have it be more exciting."

In track and field, some athletes tend to find an event that's well-suited to them, while others are returning for their second or third outdoor season of competition.

Webster finished fifth at last year's Class B state meet, clearing 8 feet, less than two years after she picked up the sport.

"A lot of vaulters do have a gymnastics background," Webster said, "but I didn't. I just picked it up and I loved it. I had friends that were older who wanted me to try it, and it's so unique that you love the process. It's fun to do something different and work hard at it. When you get good at it, it's really exciting."

SO FAR FROM EASY TO DO

In a 2003 "Top Ten" series, USA Today named pole vaulting at heights of 15-plus feet the third-hardest thing to do in sports. Besides simply clearing a certain height, pole vaulting comes with other challenges: the cost of vaulting -- fiberglass poles run between $300 and $500, and pits run from $8,000 to $15,000 -- the dearth of coaches who specialize in pole vaulting, as well as the technicality and specialization of the event.

"The pole vault is the most technical of all the track events," said Peter Slovenski, a track coach at Bowdoin College and former All-Ivy League pole vaulter.

"You need to be methodical and careful about practicing the technique. In every sporting event you need a certain type of intelligence to excel, but the pole vault rewards a scientific process of trial and error."

Pole vaulting is a combination of strength, speed, physics, agility, flexibility, gymnastics and a certain lack of fear. In a sense, it's an extreme sport. And if you can't launch yourself into the air, there's no sense in attempting to vault.

"If you're terrified of it, you won't be able to do it," Webster said. "You have to have the confidence to trust that the vault will work out. You have to be confident about it."

GYMNASTS TURN TO VAULTING

The National Federation of State High School Associations doesn't have a specific number of high school girls' pole vaulters in the United States, but Greg Hull, who works with the NFHS as a track and field/pole vaulting consultant, estimates the number at around 15,000.

Slovenski attributes the growth in girls' pole vaulting to an absence of another sport - gymnastics.

"There's a lot of interest in gymnastics among girls who are coming up from middle schools and elementary schools, and when they reach high school a lot of gymnastics programs become less accessible," Slovenski said. "The pole vault has attracted girls with a background in gymnastics. And the pole vault has drawn a lot of outstanding girls' athletes to track."

The Maine Principals' Association sanctioned girls' pole vaulting for outdoor track to start the 1996 season and while no one can pin down exact participation numbers in the event, the marks (heights) have improved.

In 1996, its first year as a sanctioned event, Amy McLaughlin of Mt. Blue won the Class A girls' title with a mark of 8 feet, 6 inches. Three years later (1999), Sara Smith of Winslow tied the state record of 9-6 to win the Class B title.

In 2002, Chantelle Haggerty of Hermon became the first female pole vaulter in the state to clear 11 feet in indoor competition.

In 2006, Bethany Dumas of Cony set a state record in the outdoor girls' pole vault when she cleared 11 feet, 6 inches at the Class A championships.

"It's gotten more competitive since I've been doing it," Webster said.

"There's definitely a lot more younger girls doing it now, and doing it better, and who are placing higher and clearing higher heights."

Staff Writer Rachel Lenzi can be reached at 791-6415 or at:

rlenzi@pressherald.com

 

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