Today we are celebrating Flyte. And Flight. For some, flight evokes a fear that leaves them white knuckled sitting in a plane seat... for others it's a superpower dreamt of since childhood. But, for pole vaulters it's a daily reality. An inevitable component of their favorite challenge - willingly relying on a fiberglass pole to propel them through the air. What does it feel like to fly? Who better to ask than our two Haute Volée pole vaulters Megan Clark and Kristina Owsinski!
There’s silence as I stand at the back of the runway. I collect my thoughts, chalk my hands, and find the bend in my pole. In one motion, I pick it up, take a deep breathe in, and step back. This is when my jump begins.
I start my approach with a short walk in, a right and a left—measured at exactly five feet. As I hit this checkpoint, I start to run. It’s sixteen steps to the pit, and the rhythm of my approach is key. When I’m eight lefts out, I feel tall. My steps are bouncy, and I remind myself to push. At seven, I tell myself to be patient. I don’t want to floor it too soon; it’s a gradual build. At six, I tend to get antsy, so I focus on my posture. At five, I can tell whether I’ll hit my mid-mark on my next stride (a 4 left checkpoint). If it looks good, I start accelerating to the takeoff. I commit to the jump. By 3, all systems are go. 2-1-Takeoff!
As the tip hits the back of the box, I jump into the bend of my fiberglass pole. I do everything I can to keep my hips back and stay upright as the pole pulls my hands back and creates stretch in my shoulders. When I feel the stretch that I’m looking for, I aggressively close off the space I just created—moving my hands to my feet and my feet to my hands. I get my feet back over my shoulders before the pole starts to unbend. As it lifts me, I stay close to it for as long as possible, but when the timing is right, I turn and push off of it.
And then, for just a moment, there’s flight. Just before the fall, there’s a feeling of solace. It’s just me in the world—floating in space, completely unbridled. All at once, I’m weightless and powerful; I’m vulnerable and free. For just that instant, there’s nothing in the world that can stop me. I’m flying.
It’s not long before I feel gravity’s firm grasp. As I crash down to the pit, I become more aware of the world around me—of the noise, of the stresses, and of the changes I need to make in the next jump. And just like that, the vault, the magic, and the flight are over. So naturally, I gather my pole, and I do it again.
The vault begins the moment I wake up. The morning of a competition and even the morning of practice, my mind becomes restless and anxious at the thought of picking up the pole and hurling my body into the air.
I pick up my pole for the first time to warm up. Remembering every mark on the runway to the centimeter to make sure my steps are on. My sweaty palms masked with excessive amounts of chalk to ease my mind that my hands won’t slip. I ritually measure using the length of my arm against where my hands meet the pole. Before I even get on the runway I religiously rub more chalk and test my grip until it feels comfortable. That familiar feeling of my hands firm on the equipment that I trust, again reassuring myself I’ve done this before, it’s nothing new, trust the feeling and get ready to fly. I step onto the runway with an accelerated heartbeat, using my eyes like a magnifying glass to find my step.
I lower my pole close to my body and gaze down the end to see the seamless curve of the pole facing down. I begin pushing down excessively on the body of the pole to make sure the bend is perfect. I take a deep breath and exhale the nerves. My heart settles and my body is ready. I step back lifting the pole, assessing how it feels between my hands one last time. “One…two…three…” a countdown before take off. I power through my first steps, zoning in on the end of the runway. I count every time my left foot strikes the track “One, two, three, four, five…” The pole starts dropping. As soon as I see the end of the pole in front of me, making it’s way toward the box, I’m signaled to punch my arms up towards the sky.
As my hands reach up I jump, feeling my whole body being picked up by the pole. A rush of tension alters me to contract every muscle in my body. Swinging my legs to become vertical with the pole, my body goes through the motion in a split second while my mind feels like I’m in slow motion. In the blink of an eye I push myself away from the pole to soar over the bar and begin to fly.
What does it feel like to fly? The stark contrast of control and technique it takes me in the beginning of my vault. The moment I take flight every bit of tension is gone. A true free fall where my mind can let everything go. Like jumping from a high rock into the open water, the wait feels close to eternal for my body to hit the mat. When my seconds of flight are over and I land I always appreciate the moment I know I’m safe and back on the ground.
So there you have it, if we all had the superpower of flying that's what it would feel like. I'll be honest, kind of makes me want to hit up the nearest pole vaulting pit...