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Backgrounds in other sports catapult trio of top pole vaulters to success

Event takes speed, strength, agility and 'a little crazy'

By , Columbian staff writer
14 Photos
Columbia River's Levi Williams completes his height during the 2A Boys Pole Vault at the WIAA state track meet at Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma last May.
Columbia River's Levi Williams completes his height during the 2A Boys Pole Vault at the WIAA state track meet at Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma last May. (Photos by Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

It takes a special type of athlete to pole vault.

One who is special not only athletically, but also mentally. And one who has sky-high aspirations for a one-of-a-kind rush.

“You definitely have to be a little crazy,” Washougal junior Katie Stevens said.

In her second year competing in track and field last spring, Stevens placed fifth at the Class 2A state meet as one of four 2A Greater St. Helens League boys and girls vaulters to place in the top five.

But there’s more in common for a trio of returning juniors than their state podium placings.

Stevens at Washougal (gymnastics), Woodland’s Judeah Sanders (wrestling) and reigning 2A boys state champion Levi Williams of Columbia River (rock climbing) have backgrounds in other technical sports that help them succeed in perhaps track and field’s most technical event.

Pole vault isn’t for everyone; a lot is required of athletes’ bodies and minds.

Plus, a no-fear factor. For this trio, it’s fearless fun.

Unique athletes

Pole vault is categorized as one of track and field’s four jumping events. But perhaps no event is more technical than one that requires a run and jump at full speed with a pole, throwing your feet skyward, be intentionally upside down, turn, push the pole away and fall onto your back.

Art Sandison, Columbia River’s boys head track and field coach and certified pole vault coach, began coaching in Vancouver Public Schools in 1972. Speed, strength, flexibility and a fearless factor is what Sandison said makes a good pole vaulter.

“You have to be able to go upside down, in the air, and not worry about something breaking,” the coach said.

Columbia River is home to three pole vault state champions who won five titles. School record holders Todd Freitag (1983-84) and Jennifer DeBellis (2011-12), also a state champion gymnast, won two titles apiece. Williams cleared 13-6 to win state in 2019. He and Sanders at Woodland went 1-2 on the 2A boys side.

Athletes with backgrounds in sports such as gymnastics, wrestling and even rock climbing can make an easy transition in track and field, Sandison said, because of their technical similarities.

So do sprinters.

“The faster they are, the better,” the coach said.

New kind of vault

Before she knew it, Katie Stevens was a natural at pole vault.

Track and field never interested Stevens until Washougal head coach Dave Hajek convinced her she’d make a good pole vaulter because of her gymnastics background.

Now, the state medalist is hooked.

“I like how it’s not four different events; it’s its own thing,” Stevens said. “I like going high in the air. My favorite part is landing — you let go of the pole and you just get to fall.”

This spring marks 20 years since the WIAA added girls pole vault to its state championship meets. At that time, in 2000, only 25 states sanctioned pole vault for girls.

Transitioning from gymnastics to pole vaulting is common. Stevens said she can easily spot gymnasts who pole vault based on muscle tone, body control and swing.

In fact, the same body control and awareness, and upper body strength that go into executing a gymnastics routine is similar to clearing the pole vault bar.

She compares part of it to gymnastics’ uneven bars.

“When you do a free hip on bars, it’s the same motion as pole vault — that helps a lot,” she said.

Years of competitive gymnastics prepared Stevens for pole vault’s physical demands. She no longer does club gymnastics, but competes in high school gymnastics as a two-time state qualifier. In track last spring, Stevens improved by more than 2 feet in two months. Her personal-best mark of 10-6 is one inch off the girls pole vault school record.

A once-time scared vaulter, Stevens now seeks more thrills.

“First time I bent (the pole), it was the scariest thing ever. … Now, it’s fun. I want to bend it more. I want to go higher and fall more.”

Takedowns to takeoffs

During the winter, Judeah Sanders pins opponents. Come spring, he soars above them.

“It’s more relaxing than wrestling,” he said.

Last spring, Sanders became Woodland’s fifth vaulter ever to clear 14 feet. He’s seven inches off 1978 state champion Greg Hansen’s long-standing school record of 14-7.

But he’s also part of a big wrestling family. His father, Jason, is school’s wrestling coach and joins older brother, Josiah, on the wrestling team. Judeah Sanders has wrestled for as long as he can remember. But in track and field, he’s a bit of a rare breed locally.

Sanders began pole vaulting as a Woodland Middle School seventh grader. That’s because Woodland Public Schools is one of few local districts to offer pole vault at its middle school, and has done so for decades. Stevenson’s Wind River Middle School is another one with a long-standing tradition of middle school pole vault.

Athletic director Paul Huddleston said facilities are the main reason why Woodland continues to offer it annually in its middle school track program. In 2015, when the new Woodland High opened, the old high school was reconfigured as the new middle school building.

“We can run two different programs and have pole vault in both,” Huddleston said. “It’s a good thing for kids, and pole vault definitely helps our high school numbers.”

And it’s helped Sanders, too. Body contortion to maneuver over a crossbar traces back to a wrestling career that includes a sixth-place finish at 113 pounds at February’s Mat Classic. Some of that mat technique is how Sanders got an early stardom — and success — at the pole vault pit.

“Any kid who wrestles on a varsity team is an athlete, but you have to be technical in both sports in order to win,” Sanders said. “You know how to use your body. … It’s really easy for me to start turning (in pole vault). A lot of (vaulters) don’t turn, but for me, it’s a little more natural because I wrestle.”

Lover of heights

Heights doesn’t bother Levi Williams.

Not high jumping in middle school, not as a state champion pole vaulter, and especially not as a competitive indoor rock climber.

He’s cleared 14 feet, 6 inches in two-plus years of pole vaulting, but also climbs rock walls upwards of 100 feet.

“I love heights,” the Columbia River junior said.

Williams parents’ enthusiasm for rock climbing rubbed off on their son at age 11. What draws him into the sport are the stiff challenges, problem solving and technical side of climbing.

That’s rubbed off in track and field, too.

“A lot of it has to do with just having a good mastery of body movement and understanding that,” Williams said. “Climbing is all about technique. And a lot of people climbing for the first time like to use their arms and pull themselves up the wall. When you’re climbing at any sort of advanced level, it’s all about learning how your whole body is working together to make each part easier.”

Same goes for pole vault, he said.

“Your full body is doing something at almost any point in time when you’re vaulting.”

Last spring, Williams became River’s third pole vault state champion when he cleared 13-6.

It came not long after placing in the top 25 for his age division at a national indoor rock-climbing invitational in Kennesaw, Georgia. He still climbs regularly and is in the midst of another competitive indoor season.

Williams never vaulted before high school. He high jumped at Jason Lee Middle School.

“It was kind of a natural upgrade,” he said.

All three agree there’s a lot that goes into pole vault, and the technical backgrounds of Stevens, Sanders and Williams make it a little more natural.

Said Stevens: “You wouldn’t think it’s that intricate, but it is.”

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