In conversations over the past two years, Rick Suhr, coach and husband of Jenn Suhr, would catch up and talk a bit of pole vault. Rick would note that, when Jenn Suhr got healthy and could put together the training, she was going to go real high.
Jenn Suhr: The Sky’s The Limit
New Indoor Vault WR Holder At Top Of Her Game
March 10, 2013
What a difference a year makes. Just about 12 months ago, pole vaulter Jenn Suhr was making a pilgrimage to Indianapolis in search of a solution for the nagging Achilles issue she was experiencing with her left foot – her take-off foot. “Of course, the Achilles issue had to be with my take-off foot,” Suhr laughs as she reflects upon her buzzard luck. But the skillful practitioners at Indy’s St. Vincent facility helped Suhr solve the problem. “They provided great treatment and instructed me on how to care for it,” she notes. “My Achilles is manageable as long as I am on top of it. I definitely know how to manage it now.”
Fast forward to the present – and Jenn Suhr’s world is beautiful indeed. In the intervening year, Suhr not only got her left Achilles to calm down, she also overcame a subsequently-developed quadriceps issue to win the vault at the U.S. Olympic Trials. And in the Olympiad, she was able to defeat her vaulting nemesis Russia’s Yelena Ishinbayeva, capture Olympic gold, and ensure herself the event’s annual #1 world ranking. But the London competition was not without its own anxious moments. “In London, the qualifying round was the first time I took the brace off. Every meet leading up to London I jumped with a wrap around my quad,” explains Suhr. “When I got to the final, I thought ‘OK, it’s all or nothing. It’s either going to hold up or it’s not.’ So I took it off and jumped in the finals without it.” Was it a time of anxiety? “It was,” confides Suhr. “It was more of a security thing. It kept my quad tight – it couldn’t move. It was restricting my motion. So for the finals, I took it off.
And just last weekend in Albuquerque, Suhr achieved a long-standing quietly-pursued goal by breaking Ishi’s world indoor vault record with a magnificent first-attempt clearance of 5.02 meters [16’5Â½”]. At the pre-meet press conference in Duke City, Suhr responded coyly when asked about her goal for the national championship competition. “I have a goal,” Suhr announced. “But if I don’t hit it, then it’s a fail.” But fail she didn’t. Her record breaking jump – which unfolded beautifully like the blooming of a rose – completed a determined quest for the new world-record holder. “We came in here for one thing,” explained Suhr in the immediate afterglow of her record jump. “And I think if I had not gotten it, I would have been very disappointed.”
Now an experienced pole vaulter at age 31, Suhr is approaching the zenith of her career. With the benefit of hindsight, she is able to be reflective as she looks back upon the wisdom she has gained during her pole vault journey. Suhr is quick to cite the real-time jump skills she has been able to develop that have allowed her to transform a jump that could be destined for disaster into a bar clearance – to make lemonade out of a lemon. “When you are in different parts of a jump, the more experience you get, you can kind of manipulate bad jumps,” explains the new world record holder. “Early in my career, I couldn’t. It was either all or nothing. But now, with more experience, I can manipulate the pole and the positioning of my body during my jump to make bars that I normally couldn’t.”
Suhr now can even detect an emerging good vault in the early stages of her jump. “Sometimes you know right after take-off. Sometimes you’ll just know from the momentum generated at take-off,” explains Suhr. “In Boston last year, I felt it while I was upside down. I could feel the pole accelerating me and I thought ‘This is new. I haven’t felt this before. This could be good,'” she laughs.
Vertical jumps – like the pole vault — pose yet another special challenge. Unlike the horizontal jumps or the throws where the athlete can pop a winning performance on any attempt, the pole vault requires its performers to navigate carefully through the ascending heights – making bars and conserving the energy that will be needed for that winning clearance at the end of the competition. Suhr knows fully that judiciously meting out energy throughout the event is a critical component of any successful competition. Suhr’s Albuquerque performance – where the vaulter passed on many earlier heights and strung together energy-conserving first attempt successes through her world record clearance – demonstrates her strategic mastery. “The way we look at it, we have three attempts at each height,” offers Suhr methodically. “And each attempt – from Rick’s [Suhr’s husband/coach] feedback and my adjustments – is going to get better. If you look at it any other way, it starts to become defeating.”
Competing in an event that already requires the mental and physical capability to make tweaks and adjustments, Jenn Suhr’s pole vaulting world requires yet another facet of adaptability. Rick Suhr – once an accomplished vaulter in his own right – serves as Jenn’s husband and her coach. “At times, it is so easy. It just works – everything flows together,” she explains. “And at times, you really have to work on separating the two.” Reflecting upon the mercurial and often volatile relationship shared between coach/husband Bobby Kersee and athlete/wife Jackie Joyner Kersee, Jenn appreciates how she and Rick have made their dual relationship work. Suhr notes that occasional disagreements emerge, but cites another cause for those rare moments of friction. “I think it is more the frustrations,” she explains. “The pole vault is such a frustrating event. So then you are looking to take it out on everyone. And it just so happens that your husband and your coach are the same person,” she laughs. “So he gets a lot of the brunt of my frustrations with it. I do try to separate them the best that I can and he does the same. But it can be difficult at times.”
And so with a new world record capping an essentially errorless indoor season, Jenn Suhr looks ahead to the challenges of the more-robust outdoor season. She feels no special pressure competing as the reigning Olympic champion and the world’s top performer. Quite the contrary. “When I was at Drake last year, it was the first time I had competed ranked as #1 in the world. And they announced that,” Suhr explains. “So I told Rick, ‘We are going to do as many meets as we can because I want to hear that,” she laughs. “Then I got hurt. And I wasn’t in many meets after that. Now that I am the Olympic champion, they never will be able to take that away. It is not a yearly thing. It will be forever,” she adds with a smile.
Beginning with the Drake Relays, Suhr begins what is hoped to be an outdoor march to the World Track & Field Championship meet in August. The championship site – in Moscow – arguably gives “home field advantage” to Ishinbayeva. Or does it? While a predominantly Russian crowd will undoubtedly pack Olympic Stadium to roar at their vault heroine’s every clearance, the heightened expectations and building pressure leading up to the August showdown might unnerve even as great an athlete as Ishinbayeva.
Much can – and likely will – happen between now and the anticipated August showdown. But if Jenn Suhr could prevail in Moscow in what should be an epic pole vault battle with her Russian nemesis, Suhr’s first world championship crown – just like her Olympic victory – would be an achievement that no one could ever take away from her. And as the new indoor world record holder knows well, it would be forever.