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The science of pole-vaulting

BY AMY TIFFANY | FEBRUARY 22, 2011 7:20 AM

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A pole bends close to a 90-degree angle without snapping in two, holding a human body in the air.

Gripping the pole, Kirsten Weismantle inverts herself, her body now almost parallel to the lines on the walls. She stays this way for only a millisecond before her body torques over a bar, and she falls into a pit.

The Iowa sophomore is pole-vaulting.

Three female Hawkeye athletes on the track and field team are willing to explain the science of their sport in a way that seems understandable. The physics behind pole-vaulting is far too complicated to understand on the first try, so their coach, Christi Smith, suggested a relationship to another sport: gymnastics.

“Both [gymnastics and pole-vaulting are] about flipping,” sophomore pole-vaulter Katie Truedson said. “I learned really well how to get upside and twist my body around through gymnastics.”



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The process

The pole-vaulters practice in the Recreation Building, holding poles — 12 to 14 feet long and made out of numerous layers of a combination of carbon fiber and fiberglass — at their sides, ready to take flight.

As one might expect, the approach is the first step in pole-vaulting. At the start of the run, their knees are high, brought close to the chest as they run. As they continue down the runway, they build into a straight sprint before planting the pole in the box and launching themselves into an upside-down position midair.

To do this, pole-vaulters swing their plant legs up. Their legs shoot straight into the air to the level of their right wrist. The hips follow their legs into the air, now positioned alongside the pole. After the body has taken flight, the legs reach over to clear the crossbar. With the pole now angled down, the vaulters fall into the cushioned pit.

A vault almost seems as if it occurs in slow motion, with the crowd tensing while waiting to see if the vaulter will hit the bar or not.

As complicated as it might sound, the motion itself is very fluid from takeoff to landing — if executed correctly.

Some days, practice involves approaches; other times, the Hawkeyes work on conditioning, watching film, and completing drills that don’t involve vaulting. In the fall, practice includes gymnastics drills. One drill comes from Sergey Bubka, the holder of the world record for the pole vault, which works on a high bar to teach the pole-vaulters to get their butt upside down, raise the hips and legs, and drop the shoulders.

At the Iowa Open on Feb. 18, Weismantle, the only woman pole-vaulting for the day, warmed up by completing a number of stretches and jumps. When she progressed to attempting warm-up approaches, a number of them included gymnastic-like tumbles, such as somersault flips into the pit.

Weismantle took third place, clearing 10 feet, 113⁄4 inches.

Smith, who assists both the men’s and women’s teams, coaches vertical jumps, combined events, and pole-vaulters. She described pole-vaulting as a speed and power event that needs good acceleration down the runway. It’s necessary for the upper body to be strong, in addition to the entire body — but the core and upper body must be able to hold the body weight while in the air.

“The best pole-vaulter has the upper body and core of a gymnast and the legs of a sprinter, so we do gymnastics training at the beginning of the year,” Weismantle said. “A lot of core. It’s unbelievable how much core you use to pole vault. You don’t think so, because it’s such a quick event, but in those few seconds you’re in the air, you’re really using your whole body.”

The making of a pole-vaulter

Iowa is the only state in the United States in which pole-vaulting doesn’t exist at the high-school level, Smith said. Weismantle, Truedson, and freshman newcomer Heather Lipasek, who joined the Hawkeyes this winter, all hail from Illinois.

Weismantle began pole-vaulting for a short while during eighth grade. She chose trying the pole vault in the gym instead of running outside in the rain. In high school, it became her favorite event.

Truedson, who began pole-vaulting four years ago, was a gymnast for a great deal of her life and a member of her high-school track team. She decided pole-vaulting was something she wanted to try.

Lipasek, who first pole-vaulted during her senior year in high school, worked out on her own this past fall in an attempt to make the team. The former gymnast started training with the Hawkeyes this winter, and she will compete for the first time during the outdoor season.

The movements, energy, and motion involved are at least intense — if not intimidating.

“If you think too much, it just gets in the way,” Weismantle said.

So what’s so intimidating about trusting a pole to literally help a body flip upside down and cross over a bar up to 11 or 12 feet in the air and land safely? Vaulters must trust the pole, be aggressive in their approach, and not shy away from the challenge.

“I had to get over the fear of running with a pole and planting and jumping into the air and trusting it, bending it, and everything,” Truedson said. “So I just had to trust myself.”

With confidence burning, Weismantle sprints down the runway and vaults into the air.

“There are not many opportunities you get to just run full speed at a stationary object and flop on it just for fun,” she said.


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