The first family of pole-land

Tim Downey, center, coaches at Otsego High School and BGSU. Four of his sons - from left, Ethan, Shawn, Travis and Drew - are also pole vaulters and coaches.
Tim Downey, center, coaches at Otsego High School and BGSU. Four of his sons - from left, Ethan, Shawn, Travis and Drew - are also pole vaulters and coaches.

Tim Downey, 51, knows first-hand the danger of performing the pole vault improperly. As a sprinter and pole vaulter at the former Lafayette High (now Allen East) in Ohio, he received little advance training in the vault and saw his potential in the event diminished by a partially torn achilles tendon, the result of an errant landing.

This mishap didn't stop Downey from introducing his five sons to the sport, all of whom got additional training at home on the runway and vaulting pit he constructed alongside the family barn in Weston, Ohio. The brothers all competed for Otsego High School.

Shawn, 31, a 1989 Otsego grad, was a two-time state champion for the Knights and later became one of the better vaulters in the Big Ten at Purdue, where he cleared a personal best 17-113/4.

Travis, 27, a '93 grad, won a state title as a junior and was runner-up his sophomore and senior years. He became a four-time Mid-American Conference outdoor champion at BGSU, the only athlete in MAC outdoor track history to accomplish that feat. His top career vault was 17-63/4.

Nathan, 23, a 1997 grad, was too large at 6-6 and 240 pounds in high school to be effective, but still competed in the vault along with the shot put and discus.

Drew, 21, a '99 grad, became the family's third state champion as a senior. He vaults as a junior at BGSU, where his all-time best is 16-6.

Ethan, 19, an '01 grad, was the Suburban Lakes League champion in the vault, has cleared 14-0, and is attending BGSU.

“It is pretty much a passion in our family,” Ethan Downey said. “I started at about 6 [years old] in the backyard with a broomstick, just because I saw my brothers doing it.”

Tim and four of his sons - Nathan is the exception - all have also coached the event at either the high school or college level. Most Sundays during the track season, in addition to their weekly team coaching duties, Tim and two or three of his sons can be found conducting pole vault training at Otsego, sessions that are open to any junior high, high school or college athlete. The emphasis is on developing proper technique.

“One of the biggest problems is, the minute you push these kids to be winners, you push them past their fundamental background,” Tim Downey said. “They should be trying to achieve perfection [in form] instead of trying to achieve a win. Winning takes care of itself. Don't let kids go from one step to another until they've mastered it.”

Travis Downey feels coaches should perhaps be required to earn some form of certification or pass a test before being allowed to supervise pole vaulters.

“You're not going to eliminate all the injuries, but if an athlete is taught correctly, you're going to reduce them,” he said.

Always looking for ways to improve their sport, Shawn Downey said that he and his father have discussed the idea of a slide-in mat that could be used to cover the dangerous planting box area just after the vaulter has made his climb toward the crossbar.

“Something they can land on that doesn't hamper the movement of the pole,” Shawn said. “They may still get hurt, but not as bad.”