SHERIDAN — The pole vault requires a unique set of skills.
Quality vaulters likely possess quickness and strength but have also practiced the event ad infinitum to hone the technique. The event contains several distinct phases and countless variables to master.
“There are a lot of things that can go wrong,” Sheridan High School freshman vaulter Ryan Karajanis said.
The modern version of the pole vault originated in the 1800s from practicality. In parts of Europe — mostly the wetter areas of England — residents used poles to propel themselves safely over water and other natural barriers. Italian gondoliers also utilized poles to help move their boats to and from landing spots.
In competitions, athletes have three attempts to clear the pole vault bar at each height. They are out once they record three consecutive misses. The athlete who clears the highest mark wins. If multiple vaulters have the same height, a series of tiebreakers occurs to determine the winner. The Wyoming high school record is 16 feet, 0.5 inches for boys and 12 feet for girls.
The pole vault is generally considered to have six separate aspects: approach; plant and take off; swing up; extension; turn; and fly away. Ideally, an athlete can move smoothly from a standstill to a sprint to soaring in the air to a safe landing over the course of a few seconds.
The approach involves running while keeping the pole steady and about an arm’s length out from one’s body. Sheridan pole vault coach Pete Karajanis compared the plant step to a layup in basketball: if a person is right-hand dominant, the athlete takes the last step with the left foot and drives upward with the right knee (or vice versa if the athlete is left-hand dominant).
Once the pole is planted, the athlete exerts force on the pole, causing it to bend. During the takeoff, swing up and extension portions, vaulters must keep moving forward while also moving upward by pulling with their arms on the pole.
Pete Karajanis and the athletes all said the toughest part involves momentarily being upside down and then twisting over the bar.
Sheridan senior pole vaulter Matthew Legler said being familiar with such an unnatural motion presents a challenge, but it becomes easier with practice.
“You kind of get more used to it to more you do it,” Legler said. “Then you get more used to being inverted with the pole and being able to actually look down at the ground while you’re like 13 feet in the air.”
The fly away portion involves throwing one’s pole away from the vault bar to ensure a successful vault. After discarding the pole, landing on one’s back is key. If an athlete lands on his or her feet, he or she may bounce off the mat and have a painful landing on the ground.
The pole vault coach is always nearby to help catch his athletes if one of them has a poor vault and falls off the mat or seems to be headed for a landing off the mat. In his 28 years coaching, Karajanis hasn’t had any students seriously injured, though he has suffered plenty of cuts and bruises from breaking athletes’ falls.
Pete Karajanis has taught the event for nearly three decades. He begins by instructing new vaulters how to properly hold and run with a pole, which must weigh the same or more than a competitor. Different pole lengths and weights suit athletes differently, depending on body type and skill level. Legler, for example, is 150 pounds and uses a pole that is 14-and-a-half feet in length and weighs 155 pounds.
During practice, Sheridan vaulters often focus on different portions of the event before trying out a full run-through.
Any small error can produce a poor end result, so the event requires constant technical refinement.
“If one thing goes wrong — if your run-up isn’t fast enough, then your step is going to be off,” Legler said. “If your plant (step) is off to the side, that messes up the rest of your vault. It’s like a whole entire chain reaction, and if one link is bad, the whole chain is going to break. You have to piece everything together.”
Pete Karajanis said speed is the most important aspect to being a successful vaulter, but the event includes people of all body types.
Legler — who tied for second in pole vault at the indoor state meet this year — said core strength and an aggressive mentality are essential as well.
“You have to attack every single step,” Legler said. “You want to get speed into the box, but then as soon as you plant, you want to hit the pole harder than the pole hits you. If you don’t hit the box hard, it’s going to shoot your arm back … and you’re not getting as much bend in the pole as you normally would.”
Ryan Karajanis placed fifth in the event at indoor state last season. He began competing in sixth grade and was excited to try the event. Karajanis competes solely in the pole vault because he enjoys its complexities.
“It’s kind of the only thing that interests me,” Ryan Karajanis said. “… You can always improve.”
Similarly, Sheridan junior vaulter Alicia Thoney started the event in sixth grade because it looked exciting. She enjoys pole vault because there is always something new to learn, noting that she didn’t feel totally comfortable with her technique until indoor track season this year.
“You kind of realize, the longer you’re pole vaulting, how many things you’re doing wrong,” Thoney said. “… There’s a big learning curve.”
In addition to physical craftsmanship, the mental aspect plays a large role in successful vaulting. Pete Karajanis said a fine line exists between helpful reminders and overthinking.
“Your worst enemy is in your head as a vaulter,” he said.
During competitions, Thoney will tell herself specific tips and use positive reinforcement.
“I have to be in a really good mood,” Thoney said. “… I don’t compete well when I’m super stressed out or worried.”
Ryan Karajanis tries to stay relaxed and assured before a competition.
“It doesn’t really help when you’re angry,” Ryan Karajanis said. “… I’ve found that I do better if I’m confident and realize what I can do.”
For coach and athlete alike, the pole vault entails a never-ending process toward improvement.