St. Patrick's Day Showdown, Aerial Pole Vault Combat Kicks Off World Indoors

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LaVillenie_Renaud1-World16.JPGRenaud Lavillenie, photo by PhotoRun.net

The folks at Tracktown did an amazing job with the first nigth of the World Indoors. By showcasing the pole vault, they gave one of the most athletic events in our sport its proper due. A real battle on the women's side, as Jenn Suhr put it all together and won over Sandi Morris and Ekaterina Stefanidi. On the men's side, Renaud Lavillenie won a savvy competition over Sam Kendricks and Piotr Lisek, as well as Shawn Barber, outdoor WC, who finished fourth.

Suhr_Jenn-World16.JPGJenn Suhr, photo by Photorun.net

Our friend, David Hunter, who is now surviving sitting next to me for two consecutive weekends, did it once again. His column, on the pole vault competition gets the importance of showcasing a field event each opening night of a championship.

16th IAAF World Indoor Championships / Opening Session / Pole Vault

St. Patrick's Day Showdown
Aerial Pole Vault Combat Kicks Off World Indoors

March 17th, 2016
Portland, Oregon

So you're a track & field fan who can anticipate and appreciate a great competition. As you take your seat at the championship venue, you remind yourself to follow closely a long-awaited pole vault battle for a global title. You catch some opening clearances, but then are consumed as you track the bubble time in the first round of the men's 800m and frequently check progress in the women's long jump. An occasional crowd roar reminds you when you regularly miss critical vault attempts. As the new vault champion is introduced after you failed to observe the winning jump, you glumly admit you not only didn't witness the magnificent final clearance, you also missed many lead-changing moments in the vault competition.

If you can identify with the above scenario, you - along with the packed crowd of 6,924 in attendance - would have savored the men's and women's pole vault in the opening session of the 16th IAAF World Indoor Track & Field Championships. The twin vaults were the only events held in the opening session and were staged in a manner guaranteed to capture and hold the attention of the crowd and to consistently provide uniform audience reaction throughout the competitions.

In the women's event, 9 athletes began the quest for the crown. Utilizing two pits to accommodate simultaneous competition in both the women's and the men's vault, the male and female athletes alternated attempts and were frequently inspired by roars in unison from the fully-attentive crowd. The early rounds in the women's contest featured two national highlights. New Zealand's Eliza McCartney posted a new Kiwi national record when the 19 year old topped 4.70m/15'5". Swiss competitor Nicole Büchler staved off early elimination by making third attempt clearances at 4.60m/15'1" and 4.70m/15'3". When Büchler failed in her first two attempts at 4.75m/15'7", she went all in and passed to 4.80m/15'9" for one final effort. The gamble paid off. The focused crowd roared as she sailed over the bar. It was her final successful jump of the evening, but that clearance raised her Swiss national pole vault record. You've got to risk it to get the biscuit.

As the bar went higher and remaining competitors dwindled, a trio emerged to battle for the medals. Greece's Ekaterini Stefanidi jumped out as the early round leader when she efficiently made 5 consecutive first-attempt clearances, topping out at 4.80m/15'9". She would go no higher as she captured the bronze medal. American Sandi Morris - still in the afterglow of winning her first USATF title just 5 days earlier - missed only once at 4.75m on her way to her highest vault at 4.85m/15'11". She would take home the silver. But wily veteran Jenn Suhr - the reigning Olympic champion - patiently plotted her pathway to the gold medal. Jumping only 4 times, she made each attempt - including a magnificent first-attempt clearance at 4.90m/16'¾" to set a new world indoor championship record and place her on the podium's top step. With the medals decided, the crowd buzzed as the bar was set momentarily at the indoor world record height of 5.04m/16'6½". No attempts at the record height were made as the new champion, citing a tight calf, retired and declared, "I started this season healthy and I want to end this season healthy. It was great to complete my indoor season with the World Indoor title, and I've jumped a Championships record today, a world record earlier. But I still feel like there is so much more in me in terms of performance, so I strive to do better," added Suhr, who joins Stacy Dragila and Elena Isinbaeva as the only women ever to win Olympic and World Championship indoor titles. Observing 4 different athletes clear 4.80m or better, the undistracted crowd witnessed what is being labeled as the greatest women's pole vault competition in history.

The men's vault battle proved no less exciting as 14 of the best vaulters in the world competed for places on the medal stand. The competition was spirited as two rounds eliminated only one athlete. 4 more were sent packing at the third setting at 5.65m/18'6½. When the bar went to 5.75m/18'10¼" - just over 2 hours after the competition began - reigning Olympic champion Renaud Lavillenie came in to make his first attempt. It was a monster clearance, as the world record holder exhibited Leprechaun-like nimbleness over the bar and offered a palms-up shrug as he descended into the pit. He then promptly passed the next two heights to watch the carnage continue as failed third attempts sent more vaulters to the sidelines.

When the bar went to 5.85m/19'2¼" only 4 vaulters remained. Outdoor world champion Shawn Barber - who sports Irish blood lines - had called upon the Luck Of The Irish to help him make third attempt clearances at 5.65m/18'6½" and 5.75m/18'10¼" to stay in the hunt. But even his lucky green socks - nicely complementing the Oregon Convention Center's emerald green track and infield - couldn't save him as yet another final jump attempt at 5.85m/19'2¼ failed. Barber - who joined the 6.00m Club earlier this season - would finish 4th, missing the medals. Poland's Piotr Lisek first attempt clearance at 5.75m/18'10¼" would edge Barber for the bronze. America's Sam Kendricks - last weekend's winner at the USATF championships - was perfect through 5.80m/19'2¼", but could go no higher and would win the silver. When Lavillenie - a master of attempt management - stood on the runway as the only athlete remaining in the competition and prepared for his first attempt at 5.90m/19'4¼" to win the event, it would be only his second jump of the evening. It was a height he cleared easily as he sent the bar higher to 6.02m/19'9". Nearly grazing the ceiling and lost in the venue's brilliant illumination, the Frenchman made yet another first attempt clearance to to win the title and set a new indoor world championship record. The appreciative crowd was treated to three attempts by the new indoor world champion at 6.17m/20'2¾". While Lavillenie's earnest tries at a height cleared by no man were not close, few in the media tribune doubted that the new champion would one day clear that lofty bar. "I had a good mark," stated the gold medalist. "Anytime you can jump above 6 meters, it is good. Obviously, the world record is not easy.

As the spectators streamed out of the OCC, you could sense - despite the late hour - their energy and invigoration. Evident was their universal appreciation for the unique luxury of watching the pole vault without distractions - even prompting among some a wishful longing that future global vault competitions could always could be staged in this uninterrupted fashion. While such a wish may never be fulfilled, most of the departing fans are sure to watch future pole vault competitions with an awakened appreciation of what a dramatic and thrilling event a highly competitive pole vault competition can be. Dave Hunter

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