Pole vault, safe or not?
Dayton High senior Shaun Merrill shook his head when he heard the suggestion to ban the event.
“The feeling I get from the pole vault is awesome,” said Merrill, a gold medalist at the 3A state meet last year in Las Vegas. “When everything goes right; when you clear the bar and you’re hanging there, just going toward the sky, there’s nothing else like it.”
So, there you have opposing viewpoints on an event that was in the news after 19-year-old Penn State University sophomore Kevin Dare died from a head injury he sustained during the Big 10 Indoor Track and Field Championships on Feb. 23. Dare was attempting to clear the bar at a height of 15-feet, 7-inches — well below his personal best — when he appeared to stall on his jump and fell backward, head-first into the metal box. Five days before that, 16-year-old Jesus Quesada of Clewison (Fla.) High died when he bounced off the padding and struck his head on a practice vault.
The pole vault represents a challenge and risk, according to Steve Chappell, general manager for UCS Spirit in Carson City, which manufactures poles world-wide to such clients as women’s indoor record holder Svetlana Feofanova of Russia, as well as American Olympic medalists Stacy Dragila, Nick Hysong or Lawrence Johnson.
“There is an element of risk, for sure, because you have the landing and the landing needs to be in the pit,” said Chappell, a 17-foot vaulter during his own competitive career and whose son, Chris, has gone 17-1-3/4 this year as a sophomore at the University of Arizona.
Like anything else, education is a key element when it comes to safety and success in the pole vault.
“You can raise or lower your risk of injury, I think, just by common sense,” Chappell said. “Just because a pit is big, that’s not to say it’s going to be there to save you. The beginning concepts of pole vaulting are that you are moving forward before moving up.
“So the risk is raised if you hold higher than you should be holding because you won’t have the energy to get into the pit, or if you make a poor selection of a pole, and the pole’s too stiff. These are things that are going to cause you to land in front of the pit.”
Lane Maestretti was a high school state champion from Austin who went on to a successful rack and field career at the University of Nevada — he qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials as a pole vaulter in 1980 and as a decathlete in 1984. Maestretti describes the pole vault as challenging, but not dangerous.
“I was officiating for a J.V. meet at Reed (on March 23) and I didn’t see any dangerous activity. These were all beginners, but they were all holding well and a lot of them did bend the pole. I didn’t see anything that made me nervous, otherwise I would have given some suggestions,” Maestretti said.
“The equipment these schools have now is twice as big as what I used to have, and I jumped over 15 feet in high school. I had a high jump pit and I didn’t really have any coaching, and I didn’t hurt myself. If the basic level of coaching and supervision is provided, it’s a safe event.”
Does it take a pole vaulter to coach the event? Not necessarily, according to Chappell.
“What impresses me is a coach like Mike Paul out at Dayton (High School). His background is certainly not the pole vault, but what a great teacher. He taught himself to be a pole vault coach. He responded to a need of the kids and his results have been terrific. It’s encouraging to know there are coaches who want to teach,” Chappell said.
Paul, who threw the weights competitively, smiled when he heard the complement.
“I didn’t teach myself, I learned it from Steve,” he said. “When I first started out here six years ago, I heard about UCS Spirit so I gave Steve a call and he offered to do everything he could to help.
“It’s been a great draw for us,” Paul added, noting that the Dust Devils now have about a dozen vaulters. “Everybody wants to try it — some of them only try it once — but the success we’ve had has been good.”
Among those successes has been Merrill, who set a school record of 13-feet, 6-inches to win at the 3A state meet last year.
Paul was able to recall one injury of note since he has been coaching at Dayton.
“I had a girl break her ankle in the pit a couple of years ago. She landed right in the middle of the pit, she just had weak ankles,” he said. “Her mom was there, everybody knew it was an accident. If I would felt that I had done anything wrong as a coach, or that was going to be the norm and kids were going to be at risk, then I wouldn’t do it.
“It’s definitely one of the higher risk events, but you can teach it to be safe. You have to have responsible kids and they’re aware of that.”
Iowa eliminated the pole vault at the high school level in 1986 and the event is not part of high school track and field in Alaska. Merrill opposes suggestions to scrap the event in Nevada.
“Accidents happen and we all accept that,” Merrill said. “If everybody just stayed home and tried nothing because they thought it was dangerous, nothing would ever happen.”
Merrill began pole vaulting late in his freshman season and hopes to carry the event with him into the Air Force. He is now one of the best in Northern Nevada, regardless of classification.
“We’re really aware of Shaun’s safety because obviously, the higher you get, the higher the risk there is, so if he’s having a bad day, we don’t push it. We just come back to try it again another day,” Paul said.
Laurel Lehl is another senior who has been involved with the pole vault four years at Dayton. Lehl, a state meet qualifier last year, loves the event and feels it is safe.
“It’s safe if you do it right. If you’ve got a good coach out there watching you, if you’re doing what you’re supposed to, if you have the right form, if you do the drills out on the field with the poles before you start jumping, then it’s not dangerous at all,” said Lehl, whose 3.93 grade point average ranks No. 7 in her class.
“I think pole vault is the best sport because it’s all technique,” she added. “If you work at it and put everything in it, then that’s how good you will be.”
Patience is essential for beginning pole vaulters, Chappell advised.
“I think it’s important to recognize that you don’t learn to be a pole vaulter overnight,” Chappell said. “Kids need to be doing things in the right order — progressively, according to their limitations.
“I heard a coach say it well a couple of weeks ago when he asked kids at his pole vault camp what they thought the No. 1 goal in pole vaulting was. The kids raised their hands and said, ‘You want to jump higher and jump on a bigger pole.’ He told them, ‘No, the No. 1 goal is to land safely in the middle of the pit.’ That’s an example of a coach who has a high consideration for being responsible in the pole vault.”
Dave Price is a sports writer for the Nevada Appeal