Pole vault winner Jenn Suhr at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene (© Victah Sailer)
Jenn Suhr, the 2012 Olympic champion, has enjoyed a resurgence of form this season, improving her career best outdoors to 4.93m in mid-April. For this week’s edition of our ‘I love athletics because…’ series, the 36-year-old US star takes time out to explain more about her motivation and passion for vaulting.
“My pole vaulting story was a little different in that I did not come from a gymnastics background and I didn’t start vaulting until I was aged 22. I was a basketball player at college, who just did some track to keep fit. I competed in hurdles, high jump, javelin and on relay teams without being particularly good at any event.
“The assistant track coach at the time, Rick Suhr, who has coached some very good high school vaulters, wanted to recruit more athletes. He watched me play basketball and he must have liked what he saw when I elbowed one of the guys out of the way and took the ball off him. He believed I could be a good vaulter.
“He took some time to talk me into it. I said no a couple of times before finally deciding to give it a go. It is funny looking back on this, because Rick is now my coach and husband!
“I found pole vault hard at first. Everything seemed backwards. I was not a gymnast, so to have to hang upside down was difficult for me. I started out vaulting with the high school girls but as I was five years older than them I was embarrassed that they could achieve greater heights while stiff-poling over heights. It was tough, but I think Rick’s belief in me, plus the challenge of the event, kept me motivated.
“After starting my master’s degree at Roberts Wesleyan College, I reached a crossroads in my life. I was at school hoping to be a school psychologist training for pole vault while working in a gas station making pizzas and cleaning bathrooms to make ends meet. It was all too much and I had to make a decision.
“I was a novice at the event and at that point there were many questions marks about my future as a vaulter, but that is when I decided to fully commit to the sport. I was no prodigy, who had everything handed to me. We were broke. I cleaned toilets to scrape together the money to stay at hotels for the meets and Rick remortgaged his house to ensure I could keep training.
“Fortunately, within a year of making this decision I had won my first US title (the indoor title) and in early 2006 I signed my first shoe contract.
“Because my introduction into the sport was a little different to many other vaulters, I fell in love with the sport through the challenge of the event and the competitive side of the sport. I felt rewarded clearing a great height and knowing that my hard work paid dividends. I enjoy that feeling of freedom of flying through the air.
“Financially the sport is better than making pizzas and I also appreciate having a gift and being able to perform in front of people. I’m naturally a homebody, so I find leaving my animals at home and travelling on the circuit out of my comfort zone. Having said that, I’m working harder on appreciating some of the amazing cities and places we travel to as a professional athlete.
“I think back to all my experiences as I vaulter, I believe I have learned so much from the adversities I’ve faced over the past 14 years. The event has made me a stronger person and helped me prepare for the future. When one day I become a coach, I know I will have many experiences to share.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF