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  • Writer's pictureMatt Keyser

Defying Gravity

Step one. The first step of the day’s first vault is always the most intimidating. There you stand, 110 feet staring down a runway and up at a beast in the form of a fiberglass bar resting 13 feet above the ground, daring you to start your run.

The thing with the first step is it must be taken with authority. It’s an equation of aggression plus confidence minus any hesitation to clear the beast ahead. Step one. Step two. Add another 14 more before you reach the metal box, where, once there, you have to add a dash of trust to ease the panic of sticking your 15-foot pole in the middle of the box and hoping that the pole doesn’t suddenly have a change of heart and join forces with the bar and attack. Divvy up a bit more trust once you’re bending the pole so far back that it looks as if you might catch a piece of the ground, only then to rocket upwards with a force strong enough to propel you over the bar.

Now, the rest is up to you to have the proper technique to maneuver your body over the beast, making sure that the slightest shirt graze doesn’t touch it, because the softest touch can send it off its pegs and crashing to the ground, making all that you had just done futile.

Welcome to the world of pole vaulting.

“The sport where 20,000 things have to go right,” Brenham junior high track and field coach Michael Pittman says.

This story begins with Garrett Larson standing 110 feet down the red brick-colored runway. As a junior, he’s Brenham’s leading pole vaulter, and the one hoping to rewrite the Brenham record books by clearing the 15-foot-7 mark set by Chris Duhon at the state track and field meet in 1976.

Larson has a pole vaulter’s build: at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds, he has the ability to bend the pole in ways that look as if it should snap and send fiberglass splinters flying through the air with a shotgun boom. He possesses the speed of a sprinter that carries his 6-foot-3 frame down the runway, the upper body strength to bend his 15-foot pole at will and a gymnast-like ability to maneuver his body up and over the bar.

He’s what coach Pittman calls “a phenom as far as what he does.”

It was back in eighth grade when Larson first grabbed a pole, a time when he said he was young and dumb enough to attempt his first vault—all vaulters have a bit of crazy in them, high school pole vaulting coach David Yeager says—an age when boys are naive enough to think immortality still applies to them.

But sometimes the limits of immortality must be tested to discover your talents.

The first hundred jumps aren’t easy. Fear weasels itself in the pit of your stomach and sends out waves of doubt that makes your knees buckle, not allowing your body to take that first step. Luckily, pole vaulting is a repetitive sport, where hundreds of jumps might end in failure, but with each jump comes confidence. And with confidence comes success.

We could take a peek into Larson’s success. But in doing so, you have to take a look in the early years, where the success was minimal—through the grind of Larson conquering the fear, understanding the way the beast works—to understand how Larson got to be the vaulter he is today. By ninth grade, the fear was still conquering him, doubt coursing through his body.

“He had to overcome the fear factor,” Pittman said.

Between his freshman and sophomore years, something clicked. What that was exactly, Larson isn’t sure. But the fear was gone, the doubt no longer had control. In his first meet of his sophomore year, he cleared 13 feet, one of the career plateaus set by the Brenham coaches. Vault by vault, Larson was learning to control his emotions—the fear, the uncertainty. Most importantly, he was learning to battle the beast.

With Larson’s success breeds the success of younger vaulters for Brenham. Such is the case with sophomore Erik Yeager, an up-and-coming phenom in his own right. In eighth grade, Erik Yeager set the eighth-grade junior high pole vault record at 10-6.

Like Larson, Erik Yeager has the looks of a pole vaulter’s build. At 6-foot, he’s three inches shorter and five pounds lighter than Larson. But don’t let his shorter stature, his blonde hair or southern drawl fool you. With each day that passes, he’s slowly climbing the ranks; slowly learning to battle the beast.

Don’t you do it, Garrett Larson. Don’t you dare let that doubt fill your head with uncertainty. Clear your mind. Let loose those evil thoughts that, if allowed to run rampant, will crush your hopes of clearing the bar. Because if you want to tame that fickle beast, the smallest ounce of doubt could destroy the greatest amount of confidence, the slightest hesitation could sway the pole a centimeter to the left in the box, and uncertainty could cause the smallest misstep on the five-second run down the runway.

There. Did you see it? A yawn. A last chance to suck in the sweet oxygen that will help carry him the 110 feet down the runway, into a battle with the beast. Another. A last chance to clear his mind, to black out all surroundings, to illuminate the goal at hand.

There he goes. The pole raised well above his head, one step forward, one step back and he’s off. Step one. Step two. Fourteen more and the pole meets the metal box, a date with the beast mere milliseconds away.

You have to understand, the bar radiates uncertainty. It wants you to fail. It wants to conquer another victim to add to its ranks. The more you fear it, the stronger it becomes.

“I’ve seen meets where the wind blows and it will fall off,” Larson said. “Other meets vaulters will hit it and it will bounce about two feet and fall back on its pegs. Those times, you just look at the vaulter and say, ‘You just got extremely lucky.’”

There is one man who spent an entire career working to tame the beast. And in the sport’s history, he’s the only man to come close.

Sergey Bubka brought the sport to the forefront when he shattered the world record’s highest vault. Bubka has a bodybuilder look—a 6-foot-1, 170-pound frame—but during his vaults, he competes with the elegance of a gymnast.

It was 1994 in Sestriere, Italy, and with his high-prancing steps, his burst of speed and strength to crank the pole well beyond 90 degrees, he cleared the beast resting 20-1 above the ground. Eighteen years later, he remains the only man to clear 20 feet.

The battle between Larson and the beast is now in full force. With a crank of the pole Larson prepares for his air assault—asking his body to defy both gravity and physics. With a push off the pole, he’s airborne—one on one with the beast. Now, don’t blink, or you’ll miss it. Larson twists, his stomach exposed over the bar, limbs pulled close, and just like that the battle is over. He’s done it. At 14-6, Larson has won.

Now, here’s the thing you truly have to understand about pole vaulting: As one battle ends, another begins. The beast keeps climbing, daring you to try once more.

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