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Opening the Vault of Courage - Just how difficult is the Pole Vault?

Have you ever lived in a second floor apartment? Let’s say you locked yourself out one day. Instead of tying to pick the lock, grab a super long (10ft to 17.5 ft) flexible pole, back up about 18 steps then run at full speed toward the building.

As you do this, lower your pole slowly (while continuing to sprint) and when you’re about pole-length away from the building, jam the butt-end of the pole into the ground and use the momentum to lift your body off the ground. 

As you ascend, push your feet over your head so you’re hanging upside down in the air, a good 10-13 feet, supported by nothing more than your bendable stick. At the peak of your flight path, turn your body to face the pole and while floating in mid-air, push the stick backward and fling your body onto your second floor balcony. Who needs a locksmith? An ambulance is more likely.

The elements of the event

The aim of the pole vault is simple, to clear the greatest height possible without knocking down the bar. Olympic caliber athletes start with the bar higher than your average second floor apartment – they start the competition around 18‘8” (5.7 meters). 

Here is how they accomplish this death-defying feat:

  • The sprint: While sprinting down the runway, the athlete is attempting to reach the maximum speed possible while finding the correct position to make the best takeoff.
  • The plant: The key is to turn the kinetic energy from the approach into potential energy from the pole. This helps gain as much vertical height as possible.
  • The takeoff: Here is where the athlete leaves the ground, swinging their body up and rowing with their arms to pull their body into a U shape, feet overhead.
  • Flight and Landing: Using the recoil in the pole, they push with their arms to eject themselves from the pole and over the bar. As they push the pole away, they gracefully fall back to earth, landing on the mat without hitting the bar as they descend.

Each vaulter can attempt a height three times, but three failures will get them eliminated. If a pole breaks, it’s considered an equipment fault and the athlete is allowed to try again. The event takes speed, technical prowess, gymnastic grace, huge upper body strength and even more courage. A select few find the danger worth it - to be able to fly.

pole vaulter sally peake
"Sally Peake - Women's Pole Vault - Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games" by Sum_of_Marc is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Men’s Pole Vault Olympic Record

19 feet, 9 inches – 6.03 meters

Thiago Braz da Silva, Brazil, 2016

If you think hometown advantage isn’t “a thing” in track and field, ask Thiago Braz da Silva his opinion on the matter. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, he was not favored to win.

With rain delaying the event way beyond the time the vaulters were expected to finish, Silva prepared to take his second attempt at 6.03 meters – a height 10cm higher than any he’d ever cleared.

His opponent, Renaud Lavillenie, had performed flawlessly at lower heights and it seemed he would defend his previous Olympic title with ease. 

But the hometown crowd thought differently. As thunderous cheers of encouragement filled the stadium, Thiago was lifted above a bar nobody outside of Brazil thought he’d ever reach.

A man who had never won a Diamond League Meet or a medal at the World Championships became an Olympic record beaker and a national hero.

Women’s Pole Vault Olympic Record

16 feet, 6 inches – 5.05 meters

Yelena Isinbayeva, Russia, 2008

Sometimes you’re the favorite for a reason – because you’re really, really good. In 2008 Yelena Isinbayeva was heavily favored to take the gold in the women’s pole vault.

When American vaulter Jennifer Stuczynski cleared 4.80m, Yelena answered with a world record vault at 5.05 meters. But that wasn’t a rare event for her; she had broken the record 16 times before.

She often complained about the lack of real competition in her event – saying her main competitor was herself. So she jumped against herself and won, ultimately winning two Olympic gold medals, seven world championships and breaking the world record 30 times.

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