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EP-170209345.jpg&maxh=400&maxw=667.jpgMatt Ludwig, photo courtesy of New Herald

January 6th, 2018

 Katie Nageotte's Winning AL Clearance #2 on 2018 World List

While Saturday evening's artic winds were driving wind chill temperatures beyond 20 degrees below zero in Akron, Ohio, inside the Stile Athletics Field House on the University of Akron campus, a few world-class pole vaulters were heating things up with some of the best clearances of this early 2018 indoor season.

Why in the world would some of the best vaulters in the world make a wintertime trek to Akron, Ohio? First of all, the University of Akron's indoor facility houses one of the best indoor track & field venues in the nation, especially for the pole vault where 5 different vault pits can be utilized simultaneously. In addition, Zip head coach Dennis Mitchell - Akron's vault maestro and a national class pole vaulter in his own right back the mid-80's - has built a terrific track & field culture, not just for his highly-successful teams, but also in particular for his pole vaulters who have garnered 5 NCAA pole vault titles in the past 4 years. Further, the Saturday night pole vault competition for elite men and women represented the pinnacle of the 6th annual U of A Pole Vault Convention - a multi-day on-campus instructional pole vault seminar that attracted well over 100 aspiring vaulters of all types: boys, girls, men, women, grade school, high school, collegiate, professional; and post professional.

For the premier competition, pole vault royalty was in the house. Katerina Stefanidi - the Greek star who actually has an established residence in northeastern Ohio - was present, but not yet ready to open up here indoor season. The reigning Olympic and World outdoor champion was in attendance to offer classroom insights on the many ingredients of successful pole vaulting during the Convention's educational sessions. Jenn Suhr - the 2012 Olympic champion and reigning World indoor titlist - had ventured down from her upstate New York home with plans to open up her indoor season. And while she warmed up with the field, a tender hamstring which just wouldn't cooperate prevented her from competing.

In the men's pole vault battle a strong field was hoping to catch 2015 world champion Shawn Barber - 7th ranked on the 2017 world list - on an off night. In the midst of the competition when the bar went up to 5.50m/18'½", 5 competitors remained: 6-time NCAA Div. III pole vault champion Luke Winder; former Tennessee All-American Chase Brannon; 2017 3rd place finisher in the USATF indoor nationals Chris Pillow; reigning NCAA outdoor vault champion Matt Ludwig; and Barber. After the 5 combatants rang up 15 consecutive unsuccessful attempts at the new height, Ludwig and Barber - tied for first - moved on to a jump off to settle the matter. After neither could clear with single attempts at 5.50m nor at 5.45m/17'10½", the competition was starting to look like an extra inning baseball game. After Barber's lofty hip height was negated with balky rhythm and he missed yet again at 5.40m/17'8½", Ludwig - with last bats - sealed the event with a rough clearance at the same height for the walk-off win.

"This is the first time I have jumped on these poles since nationals [the USATF outdoor championships]," explained the animated winner afterwards. "And it's been a month since I've done this level of jumping. Coming into it, I was really excited to put on the uniform again and jump for the team," the University of Akron Junior revealed. "It was a little rough at the end. I have to get a few things consistent. The perfect jumps didn't happen today. I haven't really polished these off in practice yet. I really started to put things together at the end in that last jump. So it was a big step in that direction. It turned out great. I'm really excited about the future." The University of Missouri transfer was quick to acknowledge the benefits of the University of Akron hosting this Pole Vault Convention. "It's fantastic. It's a real name-booster for the school. It brings in a lot of people and it really helps Akron grow as a program. And it kind of showcases what we're known for in the vault. We're really strong on the men's and women's side and it is truly great that we can dedicate a meet to this each year."

Ludwig acknowledged there still is some early season timing and rhythm rust to address. "But this is the type of training and jumping that I need to have, to keep progressing, and to get better in the future," he said in recognition of perhaps the true benefit of these early-season, low-key competitions. The NCAA champion had no hesitation offering straight answers when asked about his goals for the year. "As far as numbers go, there is a school record and a collegiate record [which Shawn Barber] set at 5.91 meters which is 19'4½". The goal would be to break that. That's what we're looking for."

Veteran Barber - the runner-up - was gracious in defeat, his only loss at the Pole Vault Convention after victories in all five prior years. "At the end of the day, the better jumper today did win," admits the U.S. collegiate record holder. "I think Matt jumped well. I have nothing but good things to say about the guy. He is a really good competitor."

Nursing occasional minor injuries is the plight of all vaulters, and Barber aims to get his lingering maladies under control as the meaty part of the indoor season approaches. "I have a big bruise on the bottom of my left heel. I came down on the side of the pit. I've been walking around all week on my toes to alleviate the pain," shrugs Barber. "And my calves are overused. And I'm cramping up like crazy on the runway." Is he planning to represent Canada at the World Indoor Championships? "That's the plan as long as I can stay healthy and keep those jumps under me."

Barber, now a seasoned veteran of the professional pole vault wars, has been working hard to recapture the form that propelled him to the world outdoor championship in 2015. He knows there are many elements that must be in place for good vaulting. "That's a big part of pole vaulting," notes the former University of Akron star in acknowledging the various ingredients to a great vault. "It's just not the biggest guy out there. It's not just the fastest guy out there on the biggest poles. It's who can put 20 parts of a jump together in the right order. And that's what's going to lead to success. It is not necessarily the person who has the best hip height. I was killing it on hip height today. But the height has to be at the right place at the right time. That's where I faltered."

The 3-time NCAA vault champion is also aware of yet another critical element of pole vault success: minimizing outside distractions. Following his breakout performances in 2015, the last two years have been disrupted by overly-sensational media attention given to a purported incident of banned substance usage [a charge for which he received 11th hour exoneration just prior to the Rio Games] and his 2017 public disclosure regarding his sexual orientation. But Barber may have an effective plan to insulate himself from the social media distractions over which no one has control. "I'm looking forward for a peaceful year. I keep telling myself: this is the year of no burned bridges; the year of the vault," declares the former U.S. national high school pole vault record holder. "Every time I try to plan on something like that, the opposite starts to happen. So for this year, the focus is on having fun and if hectic things come up, then they come up. If you're enjoying life, nothing else really matters."

In the women's vault, even with the last two Olympic gold medalists on the sidelines, the competition proved spirited. In the women's event, Kristen Hixon, who came to this venue with the 4th best vault [4.32m/14'2"] on the world list, looked to press defending champion Katie Nageotte who was opening up her indoor season in the afterglow of her #2 American and #6 World rankings in the women's pole vault by Track & Field News. Into the competition with 3 of the 6 women done for the evening, the bar stood at 4.26m/13'11½". A first round clearance by University of Akron sophomore Lucy Bryan gave her the lead over Hixon who needed two attempts to clear and move on. As the bar went up to 4.41m/14'6", Bryan and Hixson went three-and-out while Nageotte, just entering the event, cleared the new height on her second attempt to post the 2nd highest vault on the 2018 world indoor list. With the successful defense of her title now secure, Nageotte moved the bar up to 4.56m/14'11½" and her first attempt success at the new height strengthened her grip on her #2 2018 world-list ranking. Passing all the way up to 4.76m/15'7¼", three valiant attempts by Nageotte all missed in what proved to be an unsuccessful attempt to wrest the 2018 world-leading vault mark away from Russia's Angelina Krasnova [4.61m/15'1½"].

The winner was upbeat about her opening indoor performance. "In the first meet I expect to just come in and execute what you've been practicing, just have a good meet. I admit that I always like to give myself a chance to PR even if it is the first meet," said Nageotte who set the NCAA Div. II pole vault record while at Ashland. "I was a little disappointed in that I felt like I wasn't executing some of the things as well and as efficiently as I was in my last couple of practices," she admits. "Part of me is happy in that I feel like this wasn't the best day I've had lately, but it was still a pretty good day. And I know moving forward what to work on." An experienced vaulter, Nageotte knows that the early stages of the indoor season is all about refining the various elements that go into a smooth and efficient jump. "The first meet is when you add adrenaline and maybe you add a different runway and other different factors, so getting that timing and trying to make the jumps as consistent as possible is what you're trying to execute. I think when you add the adrenaline in - even as much as you don't want it to make a huge difference - it can. I could tell that I felt a little anxious, a little jittery. So I am proud of myself because I kept that under control pretty well." Reminded that notwithstanding the expected, early-season challenges she nonetheless posted the #2 clearance on this year's indoor world list, the victor, laughing, added, "That's cool!"

In a year devoid of outdoor global championships, Nageotte is directing her energy toward making the U.S. world championship team that will compete in Birmingham, England in early March. "That is definitely my goal: to make the world team," she declares without hesitation. Her plan for outdoors? Let 'r rip! "I think outdoors is just going to be about - cheesy as it sounds - jumping as high as possible, executing things, executing cues," states Nageotte in outlining her 2018 goals. "I think that's what it really comes down to: just making those jumps as consistent as you can. I still feel a little raw, so I just want to refine it as much as possible."

Before leaving to re-connect with her family cheering section that braved the cold to support her, Nageotte evaluated her last winter move to the west coast to train with American outdoor pole vault record holder Brad Walker. "I think it definitely was the best thing I ever could have ever done for my career. And I've had wonderful coaches in the past, great coaches that have known what they're doing. But I think that [the move to Washington to train with Brad Walker] was definitely the move that I needed to make," offers Nageotte with candor. "I needed to just put myself in a new situation, get totally out of my comfort zone, fix my takeoff, and fix things that I wouldn't have if I was in the same place as always in my comfort zone. He is so good at pushing me past that comfort. I was letting a lot of the emotional stuff get to me. I was a very emotional vaulter," laughs the winner.

Nageotte appreciates that Walker - as an athlete who not only could vault at the highest level but also now can effectively instruct others about this complicated craft - is a rare and special coach. "That's what so impressive to me," explains the young vaulter with a hint of amazement. "He is able to verbalize it in a way not a lot of people can. He not only was great at vaulting, he was the best in the United States," notes Nageotte of Walker who - indoors or out - is the #1 all-time American performer and the #6 all-time world performer in the men's pole vault. "He is able to put it into words in a way you can actually understand and then you can do it yourself." Aided by Walker's savvy tutelage, Katie Nageotte did it herself Saturday night.

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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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