Pole fault: Cost of safety grounds high school pole vaulters

Alaska's state meet has been without event since 1991

Posted: Friday, February 14, 2003

Jason Porter climbed into the back of his green pickup truck and pressed his weight forward, tightening the straps that cinch his two pole vault poles. He wrestled the equipment alone, the January wind whipping his face as he wedged the poles between the tailgate and truck bed while his classmates inside Patuxent High School approached the end of another school day.

Soon, Porter's indoor track and field teammates would walk to their locker room to prepare for after-school workouts. Porter, meantime, would drive 1 hour, 20 minutes to Landover, Md., for his practice at the Prince George's Sports and Learning Complex.

"It's so far away," Porter said as he secured the poles to the truck's cab. "But I'd rather drive an hour to get some practice in than just sit there and not get any better."

The pole vault has been all but eliminated in Maryland high schools this school year, leaving athletes such as Porter struggling to merely practice their sport. After three vaulters died in a two-month span last spring, the National Federation of High School Associations for Track and Field ordered landing mats expanded. Replacement pads cost between $6,500 and $8,000, according to the NFHSA, and in Maryland only one county decided to spend the money, basically outlawing the event everywhere else.

The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA), acknowledging the cost of replacing or even refurbishing mats at each state school, eliminated the event from regional and state team competition. Last season, more than 350 vaulters competed in the Maryland regional indoor and outdoor meets and more than 125 competed in state meets.

"There are a whole myriad of problems associated with it," said MPSSAA Director Ned Sparks, who said the event will be evaluated from year to year. "If there is an answer to it, we will try to find it, but at this point in time, it's kind of an event that's taken on a lot of expense and danger."

After the three vaulters died when their heads struck hard surfaces outside of the designated landing area, the national federation ruled that mats must be at least 19 feet 8 inches wide and 16 feet 5 inches long behind the metal box in which pole vaulters plant their poles and initiate their jump. The previous dimensions were 16 feet wide and 12 feet deep.

"Me and (outdoor track Coach Valerie) Harrington measured our mats last week and we were two feet short on the back and the same on the sides," Porter said. "All of this for two feet."

According to NFHSA assistant director Cynthia Doyle, Maryland is the only state to change the pole vault's status since the federation adopted the new measures. Doyle said Utah has considered taking the vault out of its meets for a year as its schools come into compliance. Pole vault is not offered at high schools in Alaska, Iowa or the District of Columbia, which dropped the event three years ago, citing cost.

Alaska's state track and field meet hasn't held an official pole vault competition since 1991, even though the state has produced several quality pole vaulters over the years. In the late 1980s Alaska was one of the first states to allow female pole vaulters, even though their competition was an exhibition event at the state meet and no team points were scored.

Former Wasilla High pole vaulter Jim Drath vaulted at Fresno State (the Mecca of college pole vaulting) and earned a spot at the 1995 U.S. Track and Field Championships. His 1996 personal record of 5.62 meters (18-feet, 4 1/2 inches) ranked 219th in the world as recently as September 2001. Former Palmer High pole vaulter Ben Brainard competed at Montana State and later became a decathlete at Missouri Southern with a best vault of 17-0 3/4.

Brainard was a senior in 1992 and state track meet director Michael Janecek, then Palmer's athletic director, let a few vaulters hold an unofficial competition at an outdoor pit (the state meet used to hold pole vault indoors). Brainard vaulted 14-10, which would have topped the state record of 14-3 held by Dimond's Mike Brinkmeyer had the vault been official.

Alaska School Activities Association executive director Gary Matthews said the ASAA Board of Control voted to drop the pole vault in the mid-1980s for two main reasons - the increasing costs of protective gear and a lack of trained coaches in the state. Matthews said ASAA's catastrophic injury insurance policy doesn't cover the pole vault and the rate hike to add the sport means it won't happen. Janecek agreed that safety and liability are concerns with the pole vault, but he disputes the coach issue.

"The real reason is all the teams in Anchorage got tired of getting beat, and you can quote me on that," Janecek said. "There are lots of trained coaches out there."

"A lot of people in high schools, I think, are making irrational decisions by just dropping the sport," said Ed Dare, the father of Penn State sophomore Kevin Dare, a former Pennsylvania AAAA high school champion and a junior national champion, who died Feb. 23, 2002, while competing in the Big Ten Indoor Track Championships in Minneapolis. "I've been the biggest proponent for increased mat size, and I don't care about the cost. I hear people talk about it, but that's like putting a dollar amount on safety. That just doesn't jibe with me. I'd spend my entire paycheck the rest of my life to have my son back.

"I think they are using cost as an excuse. What they're really making is a knee-jerk reaction to the issue of safety."

Some states have chosen to modify their pole vault competitions in ways beyond expanded landing pads.

New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota require all high school pole vaulters to wear helmets, and New York also requires college vaulters to wear helmets, although specific helmet requirements aren't listed. Florida plans to add specific helmet requirements for this year's season. Missouri has required pole vaulters to weigh in before meets since 1985 to make sure they are within the weight limits specified for their poles.

Porter planned to make the trip three days a week in the winter season, but the sports complex is off limits if he does not have a Patuxent coach with him or if a Prince George's County high school is using the facility. Sometimes plans change at the last moment.

On this January day, Porter had less than an hour of uninterrupted practice before giving way to a 4 p.m. meet.

Porter's practice plan was to move from a 13-foot pole to a 14-footer, which, when mastered, will propel him to greater heights. It requires great concentration, which was broken by early-arriving meet participants carelessly walking across the runway.

"It frustrates me because I only have one hour, and to go down the runway it needs to be all out," he said. "But if you do them too quickly it wears you out. Once you get tired, everything starts getting sloppy and it's easy for you to go back to your old habits."

Porter is struggling to improve in an event that has had its own struggles in the past year. Dare's death came eight days after Jesus Quesada, 16, of Clewiston (Fla.) High, was killed at practice. Samoa Fili of Southeast High in Wichita died April 1 during a competition. Sixteen other pole vault-related deaths have been reported to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research since 1982.

The pole vault dates from the Greeks and Cretans, who used poles to vault over bulls, but it did not become the running and vaulting competition of today until 1850. It was a medal event in the 1896 Athens Olympics, and the 2000 Sydney Games included the women's pole vault for the first time. Maryland high schools have fielded the boys' pole vault for decades, and the first girls' event was held in 1997.

The recent changes have Terry Porter, Jason's mother, believing that the school system has let her son down.

"I'm always worried about him getting hurt, on the soccer field or wrestling or pole vaulting or even driving for that matter," Porter said. "But when he's vaulting he's always assured me that if it doesn't feel right when he's going he won't go up, and I trust that. But now he can't practice at school. So here's an honor student who has worked so hard and is capable of earning a scholarship, and colleges will never know what he's really capable of. It's unfair."

Jason entered an open meet at the Prince George's complex in January - winning the high school division with a jump of 12-0 - but such meets are only offered once per month. In between, all Porter can do at school is lift weights and work on ground drills such as practice runs and pole plants. He cannot leave the ground under any circumstances.

"It would be like trying to teach someone to ride a horse and sitting the saddle on a barrel," Terry Porter said. "It's not the same. Until you actually jump, that's the only way you can improve your heights and master the mental aspects of jumping that high."

Jason Porter, who attended pole vault camps at Slippery Rock University the past two summers at a cost of $300 per week, vaulted over 12 feet last season and had his sights set on 14 or 15 feet this season, a realistic goal for improvement. He has drawn the attention of three Pennsylvania colleges - Lehigh University, Elizabethtown College and Robert Morris University - as well as UMBC. At one point last year, colleges sent him letters every week.

Harrington said colleges have been understanding of Porter's plight, but she and Porter still worry that a vaulter who can compete this season will eventually overtake him. Porter acknowledged that he is not improving as he expected, but said his heights are similar to those of the vaulters at some small colleges.

"I try to drill as much as I can," Porter said. "But Saturday I met a boy from Pennsylvania who said that all of the schools up there are buying new mats. So they have the chance to get better every day, and I don't."

Calvert County Supervisor of Athletics Brian Stevens acknowledged that athletes such as Porter have gotten caught in the middle, but despite recent success of Southern Maryland athletes (three SMAC pole vaulters won state championships a year ago), Stevens found only seven athletes from his county returning to the event this season.

"So we were talking about, at a cost of up to $30,000 to refurbish three pole vault mats, seven kids being able to participate in an event that we felt was dangerous? It just didn't seem like it made any sense at all," Stevens said. "I hate that a potentially college-bound kid was one of those that got blindsided by this, but we have to do what makes sense for everyone."

Juneau Empire sports editor Charles Bingham contributed to this story. He can be reached at cbingham@juneauempire.com.

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