Track and field was the original Olympic event in ancient Greece, the first to have a NCAA national championship competition and even the one that inspired the establishment of Blue Ribbon Sports — now known as Nike.
With all its history, track and field remains a one-of-a-kind staple in the sphere of Division I athletics. Diverse in nature, the sport presents itself as a platform where athletes can challenge the limits of endurance, speed, strength, agility and flexibility, with many events serving as a testament to the intersection of these disciplines. But even within the multi-faceted dynamic of track and field lies an event — the pole vault, in which athletes use a pole to launch themselves over a fiberglass bar — in a league of its own.
“There are so many aspects to pole vaulting that make it unique to other events in track and field,” Austin Laut ’19 said. “What I believe to be one of the greatest differences is that pole vaulting incorporates an element of danger. While all events in this sport present physical challenges, pole vaulting pushes a vaulter’s limits in this unique way.”
While Yale’s pole vault program is small, with only two male athletes — Laut and Kyle Brown ’21 — and one female vaulter, Erin Gerardo ’21, the trio became close early in the season, sharing a love for the unorthodox event and a desire to see each other succeed. For Laut, Brown and Gerardo, training together every day has allowed them to develop an understanding of the nuances in each other’s mental and physical approach to the sport, making it easier to know how to advise and support each other.
As the only upper-level student in the group, Laut has relied on his background and experience in collegiate vaulting to lead his rookie cohorts through their first season of Division I vaulting. As a first year, Laut had the opportunity to train with and learn from one of Yale’s top athletes of the past decade, Brandon Sullivan ’16, who still holds the school record in the pole vault with a jump of 5.30 meters. Sullivan’s legacy is indicative of the consistent success that Yale’s pole vaulting program has enjoyed over the years, despite the program’s small size.
“The pole vault as an event really got its start at Yale,” Yale track and field head coach David Shoehalter said. “AC Gilbert was a world record holder in the event in its infancy. In my time here at Yale it has always been one of our strongest events.”
Laut has made an immediate impact in his rookie season, setting a new first-year record in the vault and securing an invitation to the NCAA prelims. The California native’s steadfast commitment and passion for the sport throughout his career have catapulted him not only to his current status as one of the Ivy League’s top vaulters for the past three years, but also has brought him into the same role model position that Sullivan once held.
Having dependable teammates and leadership has been pivotal for Gerardo — Yale’s first female pole vaulter in three years — as she aims to stamp her name in the record books one day. Gerardo is chasing Yale’s current record holder, Molly Lederman ’06, who captured six titles in eight opportunities at Indoor and Outdoor Heps in her tenure as a Bulldog.
“Every pole vaulter has something a little bit different about the jump that they struggle with,” Gerardo said. “It is hard because you try and do drills to fix it, but then it doesn’t always translate in your jump when you go from the longer runs. Every person is different in the physical challenges they struggle with in pole vault, but that being said, it is a very mental sport.”
However, despite its evident challenges, Gerardo believes her event is often misunderstood by those on the sidelines. Contrary to the popular belief, Gerardo argues that anyone can pick up and succeed in the pole vault if they give it a chance. It is dedication and a willingness to not only practice, but to study the nature and physics of the sport that separates those who struggle from those who move on to the next level.
While Gerardo also acknowledged that many people struggle to understand how athletes who compete in a sport like pole vault — in which each competitor finishes a meet with a failed jump — could find fulfillment, she sees it differently.
“Most people have the idea that pole vault is super hard and that they could never do it,” Gerardo said. “But it really does just take practice and understanding of how things work. Pole vault is unique because there’s always something that you can improve upon. Even if you jump a high height, there’s always something that you could have done better … [A jump] is never perfect. So it’s very easy to stay motivated.”
Gerardo’s mental approach has certainly paid dividends this season, as she secured a second-place finish at the HYP meet, as well as a victory at the Valentine Invitational last week. Gerardo will look to achieve her best jumps of the season at the much-anticipated Ivy Heptagonal Championships in two weeks.
Brown has also had his fair share of success in his rookie campaign, placing fifth at both the Yale-Columbia-Dartmouth and HYP meets, before tying his personal best at the Valentine Invitational with a jump of 4.65 meters.
The small, but mighty trio hopes to see the pole vault program grow in the coming years, but understand that recruiting emphasis is often focused on athletes who may be able to contribute in multiple events. As Laut sees it, pole vaulting is a craft that takes years of commitment to perfect, often limiting the numbers of vaulters who compete in other running or field events.
“Pole vaulting is a learned skill,” Laut said. “Every vaulter, no matter their skill level, can always work on technical improvement. At this point in my career, I know that my execution of the pole vault is adequate yet not perfect. Therefore, when I execute a jump more properly than I have before, it will likely feel ‘wrong’ according to my muscle memory. For this reason, I have found strength in embracing the motto that a vaulter must be comfortable being uncomfortable.”
As the winter season winds down, Gerardo, Laut and Brown are looking to make the most of their opportunities, and to help each other reach new heights in the spring.
Yale’s track and field team will hit the road for the last time before Ivy Heps this Saturday, competing in the Armory Invitational in New York City.
Ellen Margaret Andrews | firstname.lastname@example.org