When it comes to launching yourself on a skinny, bendable fiberglass pole, “it helps to be a little crazy,” says PA-C student Anne McNeil. She began pole vaulting in high school in 2002, the first year that Illinois allowed girls to compete in the sport.
“I’d been in track and had been a gymnast, so my coach knew I was used to flinging my body around,” she says. As a student at Illinois College, she sprinted and then specialized in the pole vault; some of her records still stand. McNeil then spent a year coaching the sport at her high school.
“I made the vaulters do this killer high-bar workout and 500 abdominals or the equivalent in every practice,” she says. “They hated me for that.”
Upper-body strength is key in vaulting, McNeil says. So are strong core muscles, speed on the runway and finely tuned coordination, adds D.O. student David Lindenberg. “I think it’s the most technical track event, because you’re flinging yourself up in the air 15 feet on a pole that’s bent.”
A vaulter at the University of California-Davis, Lindenberg won the first-ever masters’ pole vault competition at last year’s Drake Relays with a jump of 15 feet, 7.75 inches. That topped the second place winner by more than a foot.
Lindenberg offers these steps for a successful vault:
Find your mark, the place on the track where you start your run.
Get a grip: Lindenberg holds his pole with his top hand nine inches from the bottom tip of the pole and his bottom hand at about elbow length plus three handgrips below his top hand.
Start the run. Raise the pole tip to about 60 degrees, stand up as straight as possible and square your shoulders, torso, hips and feet to directly face the crossbar and pit. Take a gentle hop-step and begin the approach.
Run conservatively at first, then accelerate to peak speed, with enough energy for a powerful “plant” of the pole. At the five-step countdown, push off the ground with each stride, maintain posture and lower the pole.
Plant: As the pole tip lowers, stay tall and begin to raise your arms. Lean forward and push the pole forward slightly, using the momentum of the dropping pole tip to accelerate. Raise arms above head on the second-to-last step.
Take off “like a leap of faith”: On the final left-foot step, use the ball of the foot to propel yourself upward. Simultaneously drive the right knee up and forward. Continue reaching up as high as possible on the pole. Maintain a firm grip.
The rockback: With an effective plant and takeoff, you should have enough speed to confidently and safely invert into an upside-down position. Extend and sweep the left leg forward like a pendulum. Begin to “row” the pole from the right shoulder, keeping pressure on the bend of the pole with the left arm. As your hips rise, continue to roll backward, letting your shoulders drop beneath you until you are completely inverted, all the while the pole is moving forward.
The pull-turn: Keep the pole tightly in line with your body. As it begins to recoil, let your left elbow flex so your arms can transition from a pushing to a pulling motion. Stay inverted as your toes shoot toward the sky. Let your entire body spiral like a torpedo, counterclockwise, as you continue to rise in front of the crossbar. As the pole unbends, push with your left arm, followed by a final heave with your right. Once your feet are above the bar, raise your hips and begin to flex at the waist so your body wraps around the crossbar.
Fall to the pit: Land on your back on the pad. Celebrate that the crossbar has not fallen. Raise it six inches and do it all over again.
Photos © istockphoto/Brandon Laufenberg