Howard Goes To Camp, Part II [reprint from American T&F]

By Mary Nicole Nazzaro


During the summer of 2003 I spent four days covered in rope dust and itchy hay in the backyard of one of the greatest American pole vaulters of all time. Spent it with roughly eighty kids half my age from dawn until dusk, jumping butt-first into vaulting pits and rolling around on dry grass and learning kips and Bubkas and how to look really brave when you’re shaking inside at the thought of your legs leaving the ground again because how could that itty-bitty little pole really support your weight for a full-on airborne approach to the pit? And with a coach standing right there, waiting for you to take your four-lefts approach and vault into the air, the last thing you want to do is look like a wuss in front of the tenth-grader you were just giving college application advice to as the two of you waited in line.


Twelve years ago, American Athletics, the predecessor to American Track & Field magazine, sent writer James Harman to a camp that just might have the coolest name in the universe: the Skyjumpers Vertical Sports Club, the brainchild of 1972 Olympic bronze medalist Jan Johnson. Harman’s mission: to learn how to pole vault, and to file a full report. Harman came back with a nickname Johnson gave to just about everyone at camp when he couldn’t remember their names: “Howard.”


I didn’t know about that article when Johnson told me about his camp during an interview this year. I just knew I wanted to go to camp too. After several years of watching world-class women flirt consistently with the 16-foot threshold, it’s hard to remember how recently girls weren’t allowed to vault in most schools in this country. As a high schooler, the option simply wasn’t open to me.


So it was time to settle old scores. It was time for Howard Goes to Camp, Part II: Nicole Becomes A Pole Vaulter. On the first day of camp, one of the coaches laid it all out there for us. “There are two kinds of people in the world,” he said. “Those who pole vault, and those who wish they could.” Up until that moment, I had been one of the second group. It was time to become a member of the first.


But first, a little about Jan Johnson. A bundle of energy that completely belies his fiftysomething age, Johnson sports a trophy case full of hardware from his own forays into this daredevil sport, including a bronze medal from the 1972 Olympics. The ensuing thirty-one years have done nothing to curb his love for the sport, or his passion, or his insanity. He loves to go high, loves to teach others how to go high, and that energy fuels the fire of all the athletes who come to his backyard every summer to absorb what he knows. He’s also a hoot.


And a little about me. I’m an average athlete with absolutely no experience in performing esoteric acrobatic skills like becoming airborne and staying graceful at the same time. When the women’s elite pole vault began to take off, I started paying attention. Pretty soon I was quizzing the likes of Stacy Dragila on the finer points of pole vault technique. It was in her hotel suite at this year’s Prefontaine Classic that I said the words that would seal my fate. “You make the vault look like so much fun,” I gushed in a moment of complete journalistic nonobjectivity. “I’d love to learn how to do it.”


“You should!” she replied in her usual go-getter, positive way. I had no idea how right she would turn out to be.


I’d love to report that I really did become a vaulter at Skyjumpers: that after just four fourteen-hour training days I was sailing past the twelve-foot mark with ease, turning effortlessly in the air, landing with Dragila-esque style in the pit. It didn’t happen that way, but it’s what I’d like you to believe.


What did happen is that I gained a new and deep appreciation for the beauty, challenge, and flat-out guts factor of the pole vault. And I marveled at the fact that, in an event women couldn’t compete in just a decade ago, girls just about outnumbered boys at this year’s camp.


From the first moment Monday at noon when we all signed in, we had poles in our hands. Methodically, carefully, and sometimes a bit wackily, Jan and his staff put us through exercises designed to lock in our bodies every single aspect of a correct vault. First we learned the transition: the moment, two steps before takeoff, when you move the pole in a parabola motion, from your hip to above your head, readying for the plant. We learned how to count our “lefts” – the number of steps we would take before planting the pole and taking off. “Three lefts” for a right-hander like me meant five steps, starting with the left foot, taking off when the left foot hit the ground for the third time and the right leg swung up, followed by the left leg (the “trail leg”). And we learned the basics of the “swing” – chest forward, hips behind chest, folding the body into a pike before pushing down on the pole to sail the body skyward. Nobody in their first four days of vaulting would be able to actually do all of that and land safely in a pit, but the fact that I could at least understand the concepts indicates just how good the coaching staff was at explaining the mechanics of the vault.


I think the other campers had fun too – even when they, too, were shaking in their shoes at the thought of trying yet another scary exercise.


“I am the shortest person here,” said one of my favorite campers to me one night as we stood in line for one of Jan Johnson’s homemade drills: the rope vault. It’s a cataclysmically terrifying exercise, a cross between a high dive and a pole vault. Johnson described it: "as the best toy on the property for simulating the gymnastics of pole vaulting" First you climb onto a ten foot high scaffold and take hold of a rope. Then you swing across a pole vault pit, invert yourself in the air, then launch into a vaulting motion and land on a huge pile of cushions. Yikes.


Trying to relieve my own tension before climbing up the scaffold, I smiled at the thought that this camper had actually taken the time to self-deprecatingly compare herself to every other athlete here. Ah, the joys of teenage life. “All the boys at school told me that pole vaulting is the most dangerous sport, and it’s going to break every bone in my body,” she said.


“Well, you could always tell them that messing with you is the most dangerous sport, and you’re going to break every bone in their body,” I suggested. That seemed to do the trick. She laughed and climbed up the scaffolding for her turn on the rope. I love it when teenage confidence problems and really hard sports come face to face. The sport wins. And by definition, so does the kid. Sailing into the air on a regular basis, after all, can do wonders for a budding sense of self-confidence.


By Tuesday morning we were all sore, and we still had three days to go. “Today’s the day I’m really gonna crunch ya!” Johnson cackled at us. “Yesterday was just a warm-up!”


During a break I took a look around the joint. Johnson’s facility includes four vaulting pits located under shade trees next to a big barn that houses a set of weight machines, a mini 3' skate-board half-pipe, and a a bunch of home-made drill stations meant to emulate specific portions of the vault. In the rear of the barn, he stores approximalty 30 wetsuits and surf boards, which we will use later. Also, he has the entire barn wired with a network of television sets connected to his VCR and video camera, the better to play homemade vaulting videos for us during lunch and dinner breaks. Out side, next to the barn, he has a 7' half-pipe, which also serves as wet suit drying faciltiy, and storage for approximalty 300 vaulting poles, stored in length and weight catagories, he affectionaly calls the area, "pole creek," and it is so designated with a sign. Next to pole creek, is a highbar set up complete with straps and spotting harnesses, and a huge frame and pad set up called the rope vault. The whole place feels like it’s been here since Johnson won his Olympic medal thirty years ago, even though he’s only been doing camps at this facility since 1994. (He also conducts camps in other parts of the country)


The weight plates on the leg press machine are rusty and aging; the homemade drill stations are all tied, glued, and sautered together with tools from Johnson’s sprawling barn. It all feels just slightly edgy, like the weight room scenes in Pumping Iron – gym, circa 1975. But then this is the ultimate back-to-basics place to learn the art of going vertical, and that’s what it feels like all around.


What is Skyjumpers all about? I’d say creativity. Johnson has fully thought out every aspect of teaching the vault. One coach smiled at me one evening and said “Jan – he’s like the professor of toys.” I couldn’t think of a better way to describe him myself. On Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon we went surfing – the cross-training activity of choice for central California’s vaulting community. Johnson surfed circles around us all, of course.


In addition to Johnson, there were over twenty other coaches working this camp, the better for all of us to get an amazing amount of personal attention. Shayla Balentine, the top high school girl in the country in 2001, helped me get my butt above my legs in the rope vault. Todd Sprague, a 17’6” vaulter in his day, picked out my pole for me when I had no idea how to go about such a thing. Roy Settegren, a twenty-two-year-old coach at Eastern Illinois University, whispered hints all week about placing my hands correctly on the pole. Mike Ramosca, a Mission Viejo-based high school coach, showed me how to measure my paces from the box so that my “three-lefts” approach – the distance it takes to approach the box from five paces away, starting and launching off my left leg – would be the correct distance away from the box, the better to actually get myself airborne.


Exhilarating. When it wasn’t terrifying, it was just plain cool. Four days at pole vault camp became an exercise in fear management, as I went from the rope vault to the ring vault (same concept but starting from the ground, holding on to a gymnastics ring with both hands) to the vaulting pit with my ten-foot pole. And I was reminded of the inherent coolness of vaulting from an unlikely source. He wasn’t a pole vault lifer but a gymnast: Clark Johnson (no relation to Jan), a member of the 1975 U.S. gymnastics team that competed at the Pan American Games. He started coaching the vault when his daughter picked up the sport; his son Matt, who turns fifteen later this year, attended camp with him this time out. Clark looked at me one evening after I said something about how scary this all was, and he smiled. “Why would you do something that wasn’t scary?” he asked. Oh. Duh. I got back in line for another crack at the rope vault.


I came away from Skyjumpers with a few things I hadn’t had before. A new sense of something inside – call it bravery or just plain cojones – I’m not sure which. Something of a vault personal record (don’t laugh – six feet), though I can’t seem to keep the pole from hitting the bungee cord hanging from the standards even when I’ve cleared height. And membership in quite possibly the coolest fraternity known to track and field.


Now, of course, there’s only one problem. I keep on thinking about my swing – the way my trailing leg should glide gracefully up the length of the pole while my right leg pushes up from the jump. I’m hungry for the core strength necessary to push down on the pole to get more height, and for the sense of air position necessary to turn in the air the way real pole vaulters do. I want to clear real heights, and after four days of vaulting, I think I understand – if only intellectually – how to do that.


“Vaulting is a lifestyle!” said coach Todd Sprague as we sat trackside at the Wednesday afternoon all-comers vault meet at the town’s high school. Once a vaulter, always a vaulter, he seemed to be saying. And, yes, I understood what he was talking about.


So I’m already doing the math: does the local USATF masters’ team have vaulting? Can I sweet-talk my way into workouts a couple days a week with the university track team in my town? Please, pretty please? What gives me hope is that vaulters understand. Once you know what it feels like to go high, you just want to do it over and over again.


So maybe someday I’ll find a coach who thinks it’s cool that I can vault six feet, landing butt-first in the pit, on a ten-foot pole. Maybe you’ll even see me someday at a masters’ meet. Whatever happens, I know I’ll be dreaming about going vertical for a long time to come, thanks to Jan Johnson and the coaching crew at Skyjumpers.