High-flying fun


Sports editor

You might call pole vaulting the oldest extreme sport.

Long before body piercings, half pipes and jumping out of an airplane with a parachute strapped to your back, there was pole vaulting — a sport as extreme as it gets.

You sprint as fast as you can down a runway, plant a Fiberglass pole and catapult in a graceful, gravity-defying spectacle.

“It’s fun to fling yourself in the air,” said Federal Way High School junior Brian Crick.

That’s the type of attitude that has to be displayed, as well as believed, to excel in the sport. But, like any extreme activity, there’s danger involved with taking up pole vaulting and the people who regulate the sport are taking note and attempting to make it safer.

According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, pole vaulting is the most dangerous sport of any it has researched, with an average of one death per year from 1983. According to the Sky Jumpers Vertical Sports Club, 90 percent of serious pole-vaulting injuries since 1983 have been to the head.

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, the governing body of high school sports in the state, started requiring all of its pole vault coaches to be certified instructors this track season. To become certified, coaches must attend a one-day class that covers safety issues associated with pole vaulting. Things like the proper amount of padding needed for the landing pit, coaching techniques and tips on the selection of a proper pole, among other things.

“If you are not familiar with pole vaulting it can be pretty confusing,” said Federal Way’s girls track coach Jean Licari, who also acts as the Eagles’ pole vaulting coach. “There are coaches who are now certified that don’t understand it and that’s a concern. But, the bottom line is, at least they are getting a one-day class.”

Federal Way features three of the best pole vaulters in the South Puget Sound League. Crick and senior Eli Harry are tied for second in the 19-team league with vaults of 11 feet, 6 inches on the boys’ side and senior Aimee Hafen has the best vault for the girls and second best in Class 4A at 10-6. Decatur, Jefferson and Beamer also have certified pole vaulting coaches, but only Decatur’s Mike Boute and Dan Smith have made opening height — 8-6 for boys.

“We are all two-year pole vaulters,” Harry said about the three Federal Way athletes. “It looked like fun and we ended up liking it. It’s kind of awkward at first. The first time you pole vault is hilarious. But it is really cool when you know what you’re doing.”

Licari was the logical choice to teach the vaulters at Federal Way how to handle the event. Her husband, Pat, is the pole vault coach for the University of Washington track team and was a state champ during his prep days at Sumner before moving on to Washington State University.

According to Licari, teaching proper pole vaulting technique is the key to reducing the chance of injuries. And the Federal Way coach has taken a hands-on approach with her pole vault athletes.

“I tried it myself,” she said. “I wanted to understand what the athletes are going through mentally. I was a middle distance runner in college, so I never pole vaulted.”

Licari took the same attitude when she was hired a few years ago to coach the Federal Way throwers. She learned how to throw the discus and shot put.

“(Pole vaulting) is difficult for me, because I am not really, really fast,” Licari said. “I definitely learned some things. I could tell the kids that if you don’t run hard you are not going to get into the pit and you are going to get in trouble. I learned from my own mistakes.”

According to Licari, not sprinting hard down the runway is the biggest mistake young pole vaulters make. Something that could lead to serious injury. Problems happen when vaulters lose control on the way up and end up being tossed to either side of the landing pit or tossed backward into the approach area, where there is not padding.

“You just have to be really aggressive,” Harry said. “As long as you go hard, you are not going to get hurt. If you don’t do anything stupid, you are not in danger.”

The worst stretch of pole vaulting injuries came during a three-month stretch in 2002. From February through April 2002, two high-school students and one college athlete died from head injuries when their vaults went wrong.

Following the deaths, coaches and others campaigned to make pole vaulting safer. In June 2002, the National Federation of State High School Associations increased the required width of landing pits from 16 feet to 19 feet, 8 inches and increased the required length from 12 feet to 20 feet, 3 inches.

The other safety measure that has been getting a lot of backing in the pole vaulting community is the use of helmets. Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Minnesota already require helmets for high school pole vaulters, and New York is considering a similar law, according to

The rule changes that have been mandated seem to be working, however. There has been no reported deaths since 2002 and the worst injury suffered by the Federal Way vaulters came when Crick landed on the pad wrong and was stabbed by one of the spikes in his track shoes.

“It was just in and out,” he said. “I just had a hole there. It didn’t hurt that bad. It was no big deal.”

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