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What goes up must come down.
For this very simple scientific reason, gravity dictates that earthbound creatures are put at risk once their feet get more than a few feet off the ground.
When that height is from 12 to 18 feet, which many high school and college pole vaulters often try to clear, this track and field event inherently comes with an element of danger. (View graphic showing proposed changes)
Jesus Quesada, a Clewiston (Fla.) High School junior, was killed Feb.18 after bounding off the landing mat and striking his head on underlying pavement during a practice vault.
Kevin Dare, a Penn State sophomore, was killed Feb.23 at the Big Ten indoor championships when he landed head-first on the unforgiving hardness of the unpadded planting box.
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Samoa Fili, a Wichita (Kan.) Southeast High School senior, was killed April1 after a 12-foot attempt in which he bounded off the back of the landing mat and hit his head on pavement.
Yet despite the deaths, some of the area's most highly regarded coaches and some of the best local competitors in recent years feel that the event can be safe.
That is, if the athletes receive proper training, use the equipment as designed, and progress at a sensible rate.
“If kids are taught correctly, the chance of getting injured in this sport isn't so high,” said Tim Downey, a former high school vaulter and a longtime coach of the event at Otsego High School and Bowling Green State University. All five of his sons competed in pole vault, with three becoming state champions who later competed in college.
“Most coaches go to clinics, and there are forums on vaulting safety,” said Whitmer track coach Greg Kubicki, also a former vaulter. “Most coaches are OK [teaching the event], because track is a unique sport where we share information and help each other out.
“[Vaulting] seems a lot more complicated from the outside. But if you break it down, step by step, I don't think it's as hard as it looks. You start low and work your way up.”
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These points do have merit, but the educational aspect probably needs to reach more eyes and ears before the safety question can reasonably be answered. That's because high school participation - which this year in Ohio for the first time includes females - has reached an all-time high nationally in recent years.
According to data provided by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research (NCCSI), between the school years 1982-83 and 1999-2000, 15 vaulting-related fatalities occurred nationwide involving high school athletes.
In addition, there were seven documented vaulting injuries during that 18-year span that caused permanent disabilities to high school athletes, plus six other mishaps that caused serious injuries from which the athletes eventually recovered.
Based on an NCCSI estimate that approximately 25,000 high school athletes now participate in pole vaulting each year, the rate of catastrophic injury - fatality or permanent disability - is higher than that of any other high school sport included in its study at 4.89 per 100,000 participants per year.
By contrast, football had 78 reported fatalities on the NCCSI study between the falls of 1982 and 1999, plus 185 permanent disability injuries over that 18-year span for a total of 263 catastrophic injuries.
Based on a per-year participation average of 1,433,333 prep football players over the 18-year study span, the rate of catastrophic football injuries computes to 1.02 per 100,000 per year.
To be fair, it should be noted that the participation rates are based on the total number of athletes on teams nationwide and, whereas all pole vaulters actually attempt (practice or competition) vaults throughout the season, perhaps fewer than half the players on most high school football squads actually take part in the most violent on-field action on a regular basis throughout any given season.
Beyond the statistical data, one of the top vaulters this area has ever produced feels that a few simple steps can greatly reduce the threat of injury.
“With proper coaching, which would include jumping technique, pole selection and right on down the line, the event in my opinion is safe,” said Shawn Downey, a two-time Ohio high school champion who cleared 17-113/4 while vaulting at Purdue University. “It's when you get individuals who start people out with very little instruction that you get kids hurt.
“It can be a very safe sport, but it can also be a lethal one if not performed safely. The best form of defense is educating people. When done properly, [a good vault] is going to get you quite a few feet off the ground. If you don't have the basics down on how to come down, that's where we see a lot of the problems.”
The NCCSI research points out that all of the above 28 fatalities/ injuries were the result of vaulters either landing or bouncing outside of the landing-mat area.
Current minimum NFHS standards require the mats to be 16 feet wide by 12 feet deep behind the crossbar standard, plus a four-foot front pad. In June, the association will vote on adopting pad dimensions of 19 feet, 8 inches wide by 16 feet, 5 inches deep behind the crossbar, along with the four-foot front pad.
“If the vote passes, we would pass [the new size] as a rule and then it would be up to the state associations to enforce,” said NFHS assistant director Cynthia Doyle.
The NFHS has made no decision about making safety helmets mandatory for high school vaulters, although some coaches are requiring their athletes to wear them and some athletes are making that choice independently.
“That could be our next project,” Doyle said. “But right now there's no helmet made specifically for pole vaulting, so there's nothing to test.”
Currently, vaulters are using helmets designed for cycling, rollerblading or skateboarding. While they may not be perfect for vaulting, it is believed by many coaches to be a good idea, particularly for novice vaulters.
Deborah Moore, assistant commissioner of the Ohio High School Athletic Association, said the state's governing body for prep sports will adopt and enforce any rule change implemented by the NFHS, and that she already has great confidence in the safety of the event because of the trust she has in Ohio's track and field coaches.
“We have a tremendous cadre of coaches who are experts, and the leadership among our track coaches is outstanding,” Moore said. “They took a leadership position to be out front with the training and teaching of the event to novice coaches. It's probably a good thing to evaluate your efforts occasionally, especially now that girls are getting involved. Maybe it's time to reinforce some of the training techniques.”
Moore's comfort level exists primarily because of the efforts of a small group of coaches and athletic directors, primarily in northwest Ohio, who educated their peers on the proper training techniques and supervision requirements for pole vaulting in the late 1980s.
Tim Downey, former Bowling Green head track coach Hub Reed, and others formed a committee and came up with a safety strategy that included, among other things, an instructional training video - with Downey as the on-screen teacher - for coaches and an ongoing series of clinics around the state.
The educational plan was enacted at a time when the OHSAA was ready to ban pole vaulting from the list of sanctioned statewide track and field events following the death of an Ohio high school vaulter.
In response, one OHSAA board of control member attempted to have the event eliminated from state competition. But the board's vote to do so tied 3-3, with one member absent, and the pole vault survived.
Since that time, Tim Downey estimates that participation has more than doubled, at least in the Midwest.
Although he said he hates to side against any fellow coaching practitioner, Downey said he was compelled to do so around six years ago when he was called upon to testify as an expert witness in a civil trial involving a high school vaulter from Escondido, Calif., who suffered a severe injury while competing.
The boy's parents had acquired and viewed the training video Downey had done for Ohio schools, and wondered why no such action had been taken by the California association. Their suit - filed against the high school for alleged negligence on the part of the coaching staff for insufficient training - gained a settlement of about $750,000, according to Downey, who denied a subsequent request to testify in a similar case in another state.
“I felt somewhat bad that I was going against another coach, but I felt strongly enough that safeguards were not in place and the proper foundation for vaulting wasn't put into place,” Downey said. “The thing that ticked me off most was the fact that some of the kid's teammates were depositioned and said that he had missed the mats off to the side twice that day before the vault that injured him.”
When Downey sees a high school vaulter who appears to have not been trained properly, he says he prefers the more subtle mode of approaching the individual directly to offer instruction, as opposed to seeking out the coach for blame.
“There are still some places where coaches, with no instruction, have allowed kids to vault,” he said. “It's going to continue to happen. But even if [a coach] hasn't done anything in the pole vault, certainly you ought to be able to tell when a kid is not in control.”