By Andrew Kenneson
Run, jump, swing, pull. That’s what Coach Alan Cox preaches to his athletes. He’s been coaching pole vaulting at University School for about five years. In those years, a UH vaulter has finished in the top five eight times at the state championships – including current Lipscomb University vaulter Devon Wade, who captured back-to-back state championships in 2012 and 2013.
It’s an unexpected run of success in a sport that itself is a bit unexpected. An ex-military man and a doctor, Cox vaulted at the University of Florida and started coaching when his son, Campbell, started pole vaulting at UH. 2016 graduate Salter Blowers was this year’s state runner-up – his third time placing at state. Rising sophomore Julia Gabel was third. She and rising junior Moses Coley, who just missed out on a state berth as a sophomore, are the team’s current top vaulters.
Watching someone pole vault elicits several emotions. The first is excitement. It looks fun and different to launch yourself high in the air using only a 12-foot pole. The other is fear. It looks terrifying to launch yourself high in the air using only a 12-foot pool. It looks, in a word, crazy.
But it’s not crazy. Pole vaulting is like building an engine. It’s putting together little parts, step by step, until you have a final product that accomplishes something that only seems crazy to untrained eyes. To mechanics and pole vaulters, it makes sense. To mechanics, the engine looks like pistons, crankshafts, spark plugs, and valves. To pole-vaulters, at least the ones at University School, pole vaulting looks like run, jump, swing, pull.
Here’s Cox’s breakdown of how a person launches him or herself 14-feet in the air using a metal pole wrapped in fiberglass.
First you have to run. You have to run quickly and with high knees. You have to plant the pole high above your body. You drive your right knee into the ground. You swing your left leg to bring your hips up and keep swinging until your body is inverted and in a tucked position. Then you pull on the pole with all your strength and you are launched in the air. Hopefully you clear the bar. Run, jump, swing, pull.
Of course it’s more complicated than this brief description. As Cox says, there are subsets to each element. And you have to be at least moderately good at each tiny little part, or you’ll never clear the bar.
It’s this attention to detail that’s part of the draw to pole vaulting. To some people, this would be frustrating and off-putting. But Gabel says the challenge of fitting all the little pieces together was exactly what drew her to the sport. Coley agrees. He says all the pole vaulters he knows are math and science oriented in the classroom. They are drawn to the meticulous precision of pole vaulting.
There’s also a democracy to pole vaulting. It’s not like some sports where a select few can pick it up in a few months through some inborn ability. No one is good when they start pole vaulting. It’s too strange.
Cox emphasizes this often, saying his athletes must temper their expectations. Everyone is going to jump eight feet when they come out their freshman year. They’re going to go over the bar, as Cox says, “flailing through the air and saying little prayers.” But if they work at it for two or three years, maybe they jump 13 1/2 half feet and finish second in state as Jarod Smith did last year. Or maybe they jump 14 feet, win state twice, and land a scholarship as Wade did in 2013. No matter what, though, they all start in the same place.
Although it takes an enormous amount of hard work and a mind willing to focus on details, the most important trait for a pole vaulter is confidence. As Cox says, “It’s just you and the bar, and you have three attempts.” To clear that bar, to go run, jump, swing, and pull every single time and not let anything distract you, takes supreme confidence in your own ability. You have to stop caring, as Coley says Cox often tells him. And to really stop caring, you have to think you can do it.
Gabel and Coley are two of three vaulters at UH right now. Both have bright futures. Gabel cleared 8 feet, 6 inches at state last year. She thinks she can clear 10 feet, a height that would have won the state championship last year, by the time she is a senior.
When Coley started at the beginning of his sophomore year, he was jumping 9 feet. Two or three months later, he was clearing 11 feet, a phenomenal growth rate. But he’s struggled since then to go higher. By his own admission, he’s become comfortable with jumping 11 feet, even though he knows he can push himself more.
This year is crucial for him. He hopes to break out of his slump and jump 12 1/2 or 13 feet, numbers that would make him competitive at state. Regardless of how well he does, Coley says he can thank pole vaulting for making him a more confident person. “Even if something seems scary,” he says, “you might as well just try it once.”