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Clearing the air

Pole vaulting is not meant for just anyone

Clearing the air

Cal State Stanislaus pole vaulter Alycia Wagner says the run is the most important part in succeeding in her track and field event.

POSTED April 5, 2011 11:06 p.m.

In order for Alycia Wagner to describe the initial feeling she had during her first time pole vaulting, the Cal State Stanislaus senior traveled back to her childhood, when life seemed to be a little bit more carefree.

“I remember the feeling and the feeling was more like a swinging motion, like swinging from a rope in a tree,” she said. “Like when you’re swinging from a top rock or on the side of a hill on a rock and you go out, you let go and land in the water. That’s what it feels like the first time trying it.”

It’s a track and field event that’s not for everyone.

But it’s one of the more exciting events, perhaps for that very same reason. And pole vaulting will be one of the many events to watch when this year’s NCAA Division II Championships hit Warrior Stadium on May 25-28, a meet that will attract thousands of athletes and spectators and boost the local economy.

Wagner has already cleared the provisional qualifying mark for the national meet, and just like her teammates, she’s eager to compete in front of a home audience. Despite the fact that she’s considered one of the best, Wagner only started pole vaulting as a freshman at Paso Robles High before developing her skills at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.

Just like her techniques, the sport of pole vaulting has evolved. Of course, it existed long before Wagner began competing in high school. It existed during the times of the ancient Greeks, though it’s only been a full medal event at the Olympic Games since 2000 for women (for men, it began in 1896).

The event involves a long, flexible pole, which is used to clear a bar set on two erected poles. For an athlete to overcome the bar, a runway is needed. For Wagner, she begins some 92-93 feet away before she attacks the ground and sticks the end of the pole that’s the furthest from her into the metal pit, where she takes off skyward. It’s the closest thing to flying.

The goal is to clear the bar after letting go of the pole, to only then land safely into the padding. And whoever clears the highest mark, wins. It’s simple as that. But the event is not for people afraid of height. Those people might want to look away when someone is in midflight. If he or she doesn’t have enough momentum (or swing, as pole vaulters say), there’s a chance of dropping straight into the pit. Ouch. But that rarely happens.

“You have to be a little crazy” to compete in the pole vault, said Annie Burlingham, an All-American pole vaulter for the Warriors last year. “I mean, you have to be a little nutty.”

Her husband is Kasey Burlingham, who won a national title in the pole vault in 2009. They now teach pole vaulting at youth camps and can tell when someone can compete in the event by the way the young athlete approaches the takeoff area. With the pole horizontal to the ground, some kids sprint straight toward the padding area before suddenly stopping.

“You can be low-key in life, but as long as you have that competitive drive and that adventure, it’ll go,” Annie Burlingham pointed out. “If you’re low-key in all accounts, it’s not going to work.”

It’s not a stretch to say that pole vaulters are built with a passion for adventure. They climb rocks. They race up mountains. They like to strap a bungee-jump harness across their body. They jump out of airplanes for an adrenaline rush.

Tom Brenda, who coaches the pole vaulters at Stanislaus, admits that his event is a bit unusual.

“This event probably belongs more in a circus than track and field,” he said, laughing. “For obvious reasons, it’s kinda funky.”

He has been around the sport long enough to know what it takes to succeed in the event. Strength and speed are needed, he said. After he sees those qualities, he teaches the athletes how to mentally prepare for an attempt. Again, it’s not for everyone.

Wagner knows what it takes.

“There are so many things you can do right, there are so many things that you can do wrong,” she said. “In order to start getting those wrong things right, you have to take it step by step, day by day. You have to start practice jump by jump. You have to put aside the things you’re doing wrong and focus on the things you’re doing right, and elaborate on those.

“I feel like consistency is the main thing. Between mental focus and consistency, all I can add to that is dedication.”

To contact Chhun Sun, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2041.

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